The Social Aspect of ‘Science’

There is a very inspiring quote about ‘Science’ by Henri Poincaré, one of France’s greatest mathematicians and theoretical physicists, and a philosopher of science. He says, “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living. I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.”

 This article is an attempt to address few pressing issues that frequently come to our mind while doing science.  Why is science so silent about the turmoil and sufferings of our day to day lives? It is not expected that we can arrive at some concrete answers to the issues and questions that are going to be discussed. But an inquiry is important since it makes us think and then there is always a possibility of appropriate answers coming up. So here we go.

 We have to accept that science has limitations since it is just silent about the laws that govern us as an individual or as a member of the society. The external world seems to be the ultimate object of study in science.  I believe, there have to be laws that govern human lives which have a strong scientific basis. Spirituality attempts to deal with such issues. Personally, I admit that I have gained a lot of form spirituality and I do not think anyone can deny that being spiritual does help us.

 The progress of human civilization has been possible because of the curious and questioning nature of human beings.  And this investigating attitude constitutes the foundational basis of the process of science. Science has helped us discover elegant theories for explaining various natural phenomena.  But science needs to have a human face and I think that apart from understanding the laws that great scientists have discovered, we also need to look into their lives. This will help us to get into their thought process for dealing with day to day life situations with a scientific attitude. Of course, we should not expect to get any perfect example to follow. However, by knowing their views on life, science and social issues, I feel, we can gain a lot. Keeping in mind that science has got its limitations, let us all ponder how science can help us to address social issues. In modern times, institutionalized scientific endeavor hugely relies on the patronage of society. The ultimate goal of science is human welfare and a better understanding of natural phenomena. To remain devoted to this objective and for the onward progress of science, the thoughts and views of giants like Einstein, Feynman, Chandrasekhar, etc., will surely help us.

 Let us now look into another crucial issue. Among all the benefits that science has offered us, a very important aspect has been that it has helped us to get rid of religious superstitions. However, having said so, we need to remain on guard so that we do not fall into the trap of “scientific superstitions”. Science has a defined boundary within which it functions. But social and moral issues, which are also of utmost importance for the human society are probably not under the purview of science. While science is an important integral part of human society, it is not all in all. While the scientific attitude in a person is a highly valuable asset, science should also not be expected to provide answers to questions which are beyond its scope. The words of Swami Vivekananda on modern superstition from a lecture delivered in New York on 26 January 1896 is very appropriate here –

    “When a great ancient sage, a seer, or a prophet of old, who came face to face with the truth, says something, these modern men stand up and say, “Oh, he was a fool!” But just use another name, “Huxley says it, or Tyndall”; then it must be true, and they take it for granted. In place of ancient superstitions they have erected modern superstitions; in place of the old Popes of religion they have installed modern Popes of science.”

 In conclusion, in addition to scientific temperament, moral and spiritual values in public are equally important to be developed in order to overcome the materialistic mindset which is causing huge damage to society.


    I would like to thank Sandeep Sharma (Ph.D. Scholar, Department of Physics, IIT Guwahati) for discussions which helped to improve this article.


The author is working on accretion process around black holes at Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, Guwahati, India.