Sometimes I like to try to remember where I first heard an idea that I think about a lot. From the title of this post, you may guess that the idea I am thinking of has something to do with “too much” of something. I first came across the idea I am thinking of, as far as I remember, in Michael Crichton’s “Terminal Man.” It is, roughly, that a field (in the book, the analogy is to an airplane), has become so complex that one person could never hope to master all the relevant skills and concepts. A brief glance today through the latest Carnival of Evolution, an ongoing series of evolution-related links hosted by popular science bloggers, at the site Pharyngula, convinced me that evolutionary biology is way too big to master. Ecology is way too big to master. The only way to do the science is to choose a topic within it that interests you and pursue mastery of that. I’m not saying this is bad, or unique to science. Novelists can’t be expected to read or even be familiar with all the novels, nor painters to be aware of all paintings. We just trust there is enough overlap, and scrutiny of arguments about the relationships between topics, to ensure consistency. It’s really interesting to me that we voyage through this intellectual sea, making navigational decisions, without the hope of full comprehension of the territory.
note: I dashed this post off yesterday and I have been concerned about being misinterpreted, so I want to clarify this, and maybe complicate it too. Just like a good writer would probably be familiar with the leading lights of the major genera of literature and probably a lot of the tropes and conventions of each, scientists are probably familiar in outline with the major theories and findings of each branch of their field. But it’s probably rare to be able to do cutting edge science in more than one branch. My original point that science, like other creative endeavors, is an idiosyncratic process, stands.
note 2: As I was browsing in the Pacifica Library, my eyes fell on a newer book by David Weinberger called Too Big To Know (Basic Books 2011), and lo and behold, what is Chapter 7’s title? “Too Much Science.”