I happened to look over to see what Mark was doing, and I found that he was doodling in a notebook. The page was filled with maths, and his explanation was that he was trying to understand Gödel’s maths better. Gödel’s theorem is about the limitations of maths. Don’t ask me to explain that because I’m only relaying the response Mark gave me when I asked what he was doing. It struck me that Mark would never be celebrated for those doodles.
There is a fascination for the grand, the spectacular, and the distant. It can be epitomised by the opening words of the original Star Trek television series. The words encapsulate the drive. “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
In Western thought the lone expedition going “where no man has gone before” is celebrated in everything from the tales of the 19th century adventurers like Livingston and Stanley, in the journey of the three small Portuguese ships that would “discover” the Americas, in the moon landings. Our culture overflows with stories about this.
That leads us to construct and run programs like the space shuttle, which quite eminent scientists say wasn’t worth the cost. Cheaper solutions could have been found, and the noteworthy accomplishments were more psychological than scientific. It was more about pride and technological leadership ultimately than scientific progress.
However, we desire to stand on the frontier and look out to the beyond, and we desire to be one of the chosen few that cross the border to the unknown and discover new things. We celebrate the hardships of that journey from the unknown to the knowing. This is why there was genuine sadness when the space shuttle was retired because the visible component of the space adventure was retired.
No such reverence is given to the people who, like in Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”, strive to “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
What romance can you find in an Alan Turing that sits in an office all day and does calculations in his head? Ultimately Turing became famous for things outside of his mathematics and his research. He became famous for being a victim of state oppression, and he became famous (though belatedly) for fighting against the Nazis with his mind and his abilities.
Otherwise, the ones who spend their time peering into the microscope in a lab, or sit going over complex mathematics in their bedrooms, or who pry out the molecules of the amino acids that make our bodies work, are not so celebrated. Often they are quite put down as “geeks” and “nerds”. Look at the cultural depiction of a scientist, and you will more likely see a Doc Brown than a person that has gone three days without sleep in order to understand the nature of matter.
In the end the spectacular “Frontier going square-jawed hero”-types depend on the quiet sorts locked into their rooms and their minds. Apollo 11 was impossible without Albert Einstein. Columbus journey to America was impossible without the map makers hunched over their parchments imagining what was out there, or the seaman that meticulously tracked the trade winds and the currents.