I have tried, as these essays developed over the years, to expand my humanistic "take" upon science from a simple practical device (my original intention, insofar as I had any initial plan at all) into a genuine emulsifier that might fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive, something that might transcend our parochial disciplinary divisions for the benefit of both domains (science, because honorable personal expression by competent writers can't ever hurt; and composition, because the thrill of nature's factuality should not be excluded from the realm of our literary efforts). At the very least, such an undertaking can augment the dimensionality of popular scientific articles--for we lose nothing of science's factual beauty and meaning, while we add the complexity of how we come to know (or fail to learn) to conventional accounts of what we think we know.
As this series developed, I experimented with many styles for adding this humanistic component about how we learned (or erred) to standard tales about what, in our best judgment, exists "out there" in the natural world--often only to demonstrate the indivisibility of these two accounts, and the necessary embeddedness of "objective" knowledge within worldviews shaped by social norms and psychological hopes. But so often, as both Dorothy and T. S. Eliot recognized in their different ways, traditional paths may work best and lead home (because they have truly withstood the test of time and have therefore been honed to our deep needs and best modes of learning, not because we fall under their sway for reasons of laziness or suppression).
Despite conscious efforts at avoidance, I find myself constantly drawn to biography--for absolutely nothing can match the richness and fascination of a person's life, in its wondrous mixture of pure gossip, miniaturized and personalized social history, psychological dynamics, and the development of central ideas that motivate careers and eventually move mountains. And try as I may to ground biography in various central themes, nothing can really substitute for the sweep and storytelling power of chronology. (I regard the Picasso Museum in Paris and the Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery in London as my two favorite art museums because each displays the work of a great creator in the strict chronological order of his life. I can then devise whatever alternative arrangement strikes my own fancy and sense of utility--but the arrow of time cannot be replaced or set aside; even our claims for invariance must seek constant features of style or subject through time's passage.)
So I have struggled, harder and more explicitly than for anything else in my life as a writer, to develop a distinctive and personal form of essay to treat great scientific issues in the context of biography--and to do so not by the factual chronology of a life's sorrows and accomplishments (a noble task requiring the amplitude of a full book), but rather by the intellectual synergy between a person and the controlling idea of his life. In this manner, when the conceit works, I can capture the essence of a scientist's greatest labor, including the major impediments and insights met and gathered along the way, while also laying bare (in the spare epitome demanded by strictures of the essay as a literary form of limited length) the heart of a key intellectual concept in the most interesting microcosm of a person's formulation and defense.
Excerpted from The Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould Copyright© 2000 by Stephen Jay Gould. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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