Priyamvada Natarajan on the paradox of science: it is propelled and limited by our human psychology

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Attempts to discredit science for political gain are always unsettling. With incredible foresight, Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, Guggenheim Fellow and honored professor of astronomy and physics at Yale, has committed to draw back the veil on her complex profession. She realizes just how critical it is for the public to understand both the scientific process and basic scientific literacy. Now, as our nation’s highest office attempts to discredit urgent scientific matters like climate change, such literacy becomes an essential act of democracy.

But Professor Priyamvada doesn’t just stop at illuminating the process of science. She underscores in our conversation the fundamental paradox of science: that it has always been both propelled and limited by our human capabilities. As Priya writes in her new book MAPPING THE HEAVENS, human psychology has shaped science on every level—from the questions we ask, to the risks we take, to the theories we dare—and dare not—challenge.

And yes, dark matter and black holes came up. But interestingly, we talked more about human mind and those very limitations we all deal with.

I take great solace in a story that Priya shared in part of our conversation not captured here. It’s a story of Einstein in 1931 at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. There, he famously spoke out in support of the radical notion of an expanding universe. Until that point, he held to the opposing belief of a stable and fixed cosmos. His grudging acceptance of it literally upended his worldview, and he didn’t like it.

In 2013 a team discovered, in the Einstein archives of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, papers dated two years after his public comments in support for an expanding universe. His work showed Einstein still seeking to find a way back to his preferred world view of a static, stable universe. As Professor Priya writes, “it shows that personal beliefs can be hard to dislodge, causing persistent resistance to ideas even for those who find evidence for them.”

What does it say of our human condition that Einstein, our most luminous, brilliant, radical, open-minded genius, had trouble altering his world view to this degree? Trained to be open-minded, trained to change his fundamental beliefs upon new evidence, even Einstein struggled with uncomfortable shifts.  That he was so desperate to recover fixity is, to me, deeply hopeful.

The pace that our world is changing, globalizing, diversifying, is intense. Remembering this tension allows me to access greater reserves of compassion for my fellow compatriots who don’t share my preference for the speed of our progress.

Using science to strengthen a political agenda is not new. But thankfully, science marches on. It progresses despite attempts to manipulate it.

Priya, in her quest to unpack the highly complex scientific process, perhaps understands that we can look to science to understand not only the world around, but to deepen our understanding of the human condition itself.



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