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Humour, Humility and Humanism in Science

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. - Albert Einstein

Humour, humility and humanism are three values that a scientist tries to cultivate in his personal and social life despite the detached attitude he pursues his professional work with. All three values, humour particularly, reflect an attitude and outlook of the scientist.

One may classify humour by what it brings - laughter, smile. Such a classification includes (1) laughing at others, (2) laughing with others, which is a good sign of happy association; and (3) laughing politely and caringly at oneself, being elevated somehow. Laughing at oneself relates to humility in the scientist.

Such values are expressed in the work and the life style of a scientist.

(Rooted in Kothare 1997, 223-24) Humanism forms part of humour, humility too, says Kothare, and goes on to quote Walter Lippmann, "Humanism signifies the intention of men to concern themselves with . . . a good life on this planet by the use of human faculties." (Ib. 224)

Through imaginative activity: science and art

All great achievements in science start from intuitive knowledge, namely, in axioms, from which deductions are then made. Intuition is the necessary condition for the discovery of such axioms. - Albert Einstein

To determine the status of truth in science it is necessary to define the term 'truth' first. 'Truths' happen to have different meanings in a different context. Three kinds of truths - historical, artistic, and scientific. In all these three fields of cognitive approaches the imagination works - When it works on documentation, we get a historical truth; when the imagination works on experience, we get perhaps some artistic truth; and when the imagination works on experiment and observation, a scientific postulate may be achieved. A "scientific truth" of this sort is provisional, and not final. (Abridged from Kothare 1997, 218)

Science has succeeded on two fronts: liberating the mind from superstitions and liberating the muscles by technology. (Ib. 221)

The possible value of anecdotes in science

An anecdote may be defined as the story of a single incident or event, and in itself interesting or striking, probably. There are many anecdotes of scientists. The anecdotes of a specific discipline do not rely on the disciplines so much as the characters of a persons into them. Further, some anecdotes may be used to elucidate a point in value education. (See Kothare 1997, 229)

Eating is important

Newton invited a friend to dinner but then forgot the engagement. When the friend arrived, he found the scientist deep in meditation, so he sat down quietly and waited. In due course dinner was brought up - for one. Newton continued to be abstracted. The friend drew up a chair and, without disturbing his host, consumed the dinner. After he had finished, Newton came out of his reverie, looked with some bewilderment at the empty dishes, and said, "If it weren't for the proof before my eyes, I could have sworn that I have not yet dined." (Fadiman 1985, 427)

Drinker coping

The US Quaker Edward Drinker Cope (1840–97) was a US paleontologist who built up a massive collection of fossils from the western United States. He refused to take a gun with him on his fossil-hunting forays, despite the fact that these led him into territories where hostile Indians lived.

On one occasion he was surrounded by a vert unfriendly band. Cope distracted them by removing and putting back his false teeth. Enthralled by this, they made him do it over and over again and eventually released him unharmed. (Ib. 144)

Sleep quirks

James Clark Maxwell's electromagnetic wave theory established him as one of the greatest scientists in history. His theories on electromagnetism became the foundation for the inventions of television, radio, X-rays, and the colour photograph. He had strange sleeping habits. He would sleep from 5-00 to 9-30 PM, study from 10-00 PM to 2-00 AM, run through the corridors of the campus from 2-00 to 2-30 AM by way of exercise. He would sleep from then to 7-00 AM.

As soon as he had arrived at Cambridge University, he was told that there would be a compulsory 6 AM church service. He told them, "Aye, I suppose I could stay up that late." (See Murty 2006, 33)


A computer scientist, mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer were travelling through Denmark when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train. "Aha," says the engineer, "I see that Danish sheep are black."

"Hmm," says the physicist, "You mean that some Danish sheep are black."

"No," says the mathematician, "All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Denmark, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black!"

"Oh, no!" shouts the computer scientist, "A special case!"

Physics was thought to be completed long ago

Baron Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) came to be known as the father of nuclear physics. His work established that the atom has a nuclear structure. Once he was approached by a student who wanted to do research work in nuclear physics, and suggested to him: "Choose another field since work in this field has been completed." (Ib. 219)

Richard Feynman's Ways of Relaxation

Richard Feynman recounts,

"At Esalen [in California] there are some large baths fed by hot springs on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences was to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky slope below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appeared and settled into the bath with me.

One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beatiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I going to get started talking to this beautiful nude woman?"

I was trying to figure out what to say, when the guy said to her, "I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?"

"Sure," she said.

They got out of the bath and she lay down on a massage table nearby. I thought to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!"

He started to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it," he said. "I feel a kind of dent – is that the pituitary?"

I blurted out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!"

They looked at me, horrified and said, "It's reflexology!"

I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating." [Slightly modified]

Traversing Design

One sunny day a farmer called up an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician and asked them to fence off the largest possible area with the least amount of fence.

The engineer made the fence in a circle and proclaimed that he had the most efficient design.

The physicist made a long, straight line and declared "We can assume the length is infinite -" and pointed out that fencing off half of the Earth was certainly a more efficient way to do it.

The mathematician laughed and built a tiny fence around himself and said, "I declare I am on the outside."

Some Quotes

Valid criticism does you a favour. - Carl Sagan (1934–1996)

A little knowledge is dangerous. So is a lot. - Albert Einstein

Does the harmony the human intelligence thinks it discovers in nature exist outside of this intelligence? No, beyond doubt, a reality completely independent of the mind which conceives it, sees or feels it, is an impossibility. - Henri Poincaré

Science anecdotes, scientific discipline, scientist tales, on science, and scientist quotations, Literature  

Fadiman, Clifton, main ed. 1985. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Feynman, Richard P., as told to Ralph Leighton. 1989. "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Bantam Books.

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. 1986. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feldman!" New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Henderson, Harry. 2011. Richard Feynman: Quarks, Bombs, and Bongos. New York: Chelsea House.

Murty, K. Krishna. 2006. Spice in Science: The Best of Science Funnies. Delhi: Pustak Mahal.

Kothare, A. N., et al. 1997. Of Science and Scientists: An Anthology of Anecdotes. Rev. ed. New Delhi: National Book Trust.

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