Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

I was listening to BBC radio this morning, which I rarely do, because I find it generally dull. A scientist named Mark Lythgoe was being interviewed, director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, and an enthusiastic mountain climber. The interviewer asked — inevitably — about the connection between mountain-climbing and science. The answer was almost archaically macho, in what it said both about science and about mountain climbing. It wasn’t anything about planning or co-operation, or the beauty or peace of nature, not evening about pushing yourself to your limits. No, it was about deflowering virgin territory.

There is a very special moment when you stand on a part of this earth that no one else has ever stood on, and look out on a view that no one else has seen… That’s the same as when someone calls you up from the lab with an image that no one else has seen before… The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

I don’t know of any better argument against the narrow British approach to education — where a scientist will never read a book after age 16 — than that through exposure to the humanities a certain percentage of scientists would recognise deflowering virgin nature as an embarrassing 19th century cliché. Some might acquire enough of a familiarity with how to think about human matters — about society and gender and nature — with a sophistication to match the overweening self-confidence that their scientific expertise tends to impart.

He also presented what was supposed to be an example of the brilliant eclecticism of his institute (and himself), a collaboration with a biologist to study homing pigeons. He says that there was a theory that pigeons have magnetite in their beaks or brains that orient them with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field. So they developed a brand new imaging technology that could make refined images of the distribution of magnetite in the beaks and brains, and found — there is no magnetite. Brilliant! Except, isn’t it a huge waste of time and effort to develop refined imaging technologies, without first figuring out (by, I don’t know, grinding up the beaks and doing some chemical tests)? Maybe I’m missing something — maybe that wasn’t possible for some reason that he was too busy talking about his drive for success to explain — or maybe I just don’t sufficiently appreciate big science and IMPACT.

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