In his play, Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht tells the story of Galileo’s battle with the Church over the true structure of the heavens.
During Galileo’s trial, the Inquisitor states: “A terrible unrest has come into the world. It is this unrest in their own minds that these men would impose on the motionless earth. They cry: the figures compel us. But whence come these figures? They come from doubt. These men doubt everything. Are we to establish human society on doubt and no longer on faith?”
Unlike Galileo’s Inquisitor, I believe that doubt is at the core of all strong and vibrant societies. Doubt is at the very core of science, and it is what gives science its power. Doubt is the reason that science values evidence and debate over ideology and dogma. Doubt is what forces science to constantly reshape itself to consider new evidence, new data, new methodologies and new ways of thinking. The doubt that Galileo’s inquisitor abhors is at the very core of scientific progress, but it is also at the core of all strong, vibrant societies and is at the core of humanity’s pursuit of a world that is healthy, sustainable, and that offers the opportunity for everyone to achieve their full potential and well-being.
Tonight, I would like to offer a way of understanding the essence and impact of scientific thinking. Science is often presented as simply a method for collecting and analyzing data, or producing new technologies. In fact, science is a way of understanding our world and the cosmos in which we live. Indeed, I would argue that science is simply the best way humanity has come up with for understanding our world. It is a way of thinking that — with its disregard for authority, its insistence on doubt and evidence — underpins every modern democratic society
Let’s start with a story — it’s a story about a revolution in which people lost their heads, old beliefs were overturned, people became refugees, sides were taken, women were pushed aside, young people fought old people, and our view of life and ourselves profoundly changed. And, like all good stories, it was really all about sex.
The story begins in the early 1950s. Until that time, biochemists were concerned with how living cells carry out the reactions needed to metabolize food, capture energy and stay alive. Intermediary metabolism, as it’s called, was viewed as the central problem in the life sciences.
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