In the wake of the Higgs Boson discovery, some folks are going out of their way to remind us of how science allegedly “only breaks things down” and “cannot see the whole.” For example, Sadhguru recently gave a rambling speech that both applauded science for asking the big questions and accused science of only being able to understand things by destroying their intrinsic beauty. At one point, he held up a lotus blossom and went on at length about how he thought that scientists only wanted to break the flower into its parts, to understand its chemistry and its substructure. He insisted that a scientist will not or cannot perceive the beauty of the flower itself. His assertions couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, the beauty of the universe is what drives scientists to want to understand it. But that understanding goes far beyond merely “knowing its parts,” and hardly ends with a purely reductionist viewpoint. For while the scientist does indeed often begin by taking things apart and studying the minutiae, it is those same studies that ultimately lead the scientist to have a more holistic understanding of the subject.
Let us consider the flower. One may recall that a flower generally has both male and female parts, that there are sperm and egg cells, petals, sepals (the green leaves that enclose the bud before opening), and so on. Each part of the plant has cells, with a nucleus, cytoplasm, and various other structures inside. We can break it down further into proteins and other molecules, then into atoms, protons, and so forth. Our friend Sadhguru would tell us that for all of the knowledge we gain in so doing, we destroy our ability to see the whole.
Au contraire! To know the plant’s physiology and life cycle is to know its role in the environment; how it interacts with pollinators and worms in the soil, it place in the water and carbon cycles, and its relation to all things around it. We can use its genetic relationships to other plants and physical similarity to fossils to trace its evolutionary past. How much greater, then, is the flower’s beauty when we can also see its ancestors marching through the pages of prehistory, from when plants first invaded the land to the very first flower, and then the elegant dance between pollinator and flower that shaped both insect and plant species today? How much more holistic and even spiritual a connection can we feel when we see that the air we breathe and the water we drink are part of the same cycles of which the flower is an integral part?
Yogis and similar philosophers do have some things right. We know from physics, for example, that all particles that have ever touched one another have fates that are ever entwined. With the entire universe having apparently started with the Big Bang, where everything existed in one place and time, this means that everything that exists is connected for the lifetime of the universe. Many religions, including Yoga, have also maintained this interconnectedness, and have (perhaps with some justification) laughed at how long it took the rest of us to realize it. But it is one thing to see that all things are connected. It is another to see how they are connected. And this, far from the exception, is the main reason that science exists.
So why do some people feel the need to misunderstand and misrepresent science as reductionist? Is it that they only see the dissections and miss the comparative anatomy? Perhaps they know that we collect data about the atmosphere and soil of Mars, but don’t look at how use it to gain a greater understanding of Earth. But scientists have, for many years, maintained that to better understand one thing is to also understand another. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University is a prime example of this philosophy.
The Higgs Particle that sparked this latest spate of anti-scientific ramblings provides mass to the other bosons – carriers of the forces in the universe such as electromagnetism and the weak force – thereby allowing things like stars and galaxies to exist. Its discovery is a perfect example of how a reductionist experiment led scientists to more holistically understand the universe around them, which was the goal of the experiment all along.
Perhaps the best evidence that scientists are truly capable of “seeing the whole universe in a grain of sand” is the fact that a physicist’s fondest dream is to have one equation, able to fit on a t-shirt, that can explain the entire universe. While this goal might be a long way off, we can take comfort from the fact that science has already done much to show us just how interconnected we all really are.