Eat, Pray . . . Scientist?

I learned a surprising thing from an unusual source the other day.

The unusual source was Elizabeth Gilbert, in her novel The Signature of All Things, about a fictional 19th century woman who studied moss. Gilbert is best known for her blockbuster romantic breakup and resurrection memoir Eat, Pray, Love (but for her most extraordinary writing try the lesser-known but phenomenal The Last American Man

The surprising thing I learned from her novel was that the word scientist has not existed for long. It was coined in 1834, and its origins reflected one of the most significant trends in human curiosity: a fracturing of knowledge into what can be proven and what cannot.

The inventor of the word was William Whewell, a 19th century English thinker notable for his breadth rather than any specialized accomplishment.

He was successful as a philosopher, mathematician, and Anglican priest, and most known scientifically for his research on ocean tides. He also published in the fields of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy and economics,  as well as composing poetry, translating Goethe and writing sermons and other theological articles and books.

Whewell wrote two prominent books on the history of science, invented the terms physicist, ion, diode, anode and cathode, and also is attributed with the first use of the word scientist, although it did not come into common use until the end of the 19th and early into the 20th centuries.

Whewell was being critical in coining the new term scientist, condemning the emerging disciplines of science as representing “an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment . . . the mathematician turns away from the chemist, the chemist from the naturalist; the mathematician, left to himself, divides himself into a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician, who soon part company . . . and thus science loses all traces of unity.”

Whewell used the term scientist to comment on how society in his day was changing the nature of inquiry. Prior to Whewell, those who inquired were referred to as natural philosophers, whose seeking of knowledge was not restricted to any one sphere.

The new term reflected an emerging division in human thought, in which scientists conducted research to better understand nature, while philosophers were those who pondered intangibles that couldn’t be proven by data.

Science was moving towards strict hypothesis testing, narrowing its activity to encompass only that which could be tested, recorded, observed and measured, constricting the breadth of inquiry.

We’ve gained and lost something by becoming scientists rather than natural philosophers. The gain is in rigor, the scientific way of knowing that requires proof, in which ideas can be tested and rejected or accepted.

But we’ve also lost that broader capacity to embrace that which cannot be proven through experiment. The terminological division between scientist and natural philosopher, and the narrowing of science to each practitioner’s narrow discipline, diminishes the scope of wonder we can bring to the mysteries of the universe around us.

Whewell’s naming of what was an incipient phenomenon in his time only recognized what has become a signature element of modern life: a diminished capacity to accept that which we cannot know.

Call it religion, spirituality, nature loving or just plain awe: life is richest when the unknown seamlessly mingles with fact, when science and unsubstantiated reverence are held comfortably together.

If you’d like to read more about Whewell and the etymology of scientist, see:

Sydney Ross B.Sc. Ph.D. (1962) Scientist: The story of a word, Annals of Science,

18:2, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/00033796200202722

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