An excerpt from On the Path to Health, Wellbeing, and Fulfilment.
Scientific research provides us with answers, and in return gives us other questions. And, when its reach is recognized, it inevitably instills a sense of awe and wonder.
What science has given us, among other things, is the opportunity to look past our own experiential existence and to become aware that we do not exist outside of nature but rather are inseparable from it. We are part of, surrounded and sustained by numerous networks, each part of which helps to support and stabilize the whole. And the material out of which the human body is made literally reflects the content of the Universe and follows its history. Atoms that were recently generated by cosmic rays that crashed into the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as those that originated billions of years ago in colossal explosions, are the very substance of not only our body but also of all living things around us, thus literally and authentically connecting life as we know it to the mystifying Universe. It is a humbling thought.
There are many other fascinating facts that have been discovered through the process of science. For example, if we could line up the DNA from all the cells in our body so that it became one long string, we could wrap it around the Earth two million times and let it make about 333 return trips to our closest star, the Sun, which is hanging in the sky at a whopping distance of 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth! For another example that may surprise you: With an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars in our Galaxy and approximately three trillion trees on Earth, the trees on our small planet outnumber stars in the Milky Way by a thousand to one.
As a third case in point: The technique of carbon dating enables us to know that cells in the human body are replaced, on average, about once every seven to ten years, which means that our body is rebuilt time and again over its entire life span. What we think of as our age has very little to do with the actual age of individual cell types. In other words, we each are a remarkable system of maintenance and regeneration that allows us to keep going throughout life. What logically follows is that there is no permanent “self,” but rather that the body is like a pattern that, although ever-changing, more or less persists over time.
You may read this with amazement and (hopefully) think that it is fascinating to learn about, but perhaps it does not appear to be directly relevant to you. Certainly, science can be interesting and entertaining: There are various online outlets that showcase science for anyone who wants to be wowed by new discoveries or science-related imagery, such as, for example, the astronomy picture of the day. The popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website has been around since 1995 and features a daily greeting card from the Universe. It is available in 20 languages, has large followings on Twitter, Facebook, and the like, and boasts more than a million visitors daily.
Scientific research impacts our lives, however, and much more profoundly than we generally appreciate. Considering the wide-ranging benefits, science is not just for scientists. Research discoveries are often translated to tools and applications down the road, usually without reference to the original science behind them. Without science, we would not have electricity, antibiotics, clean water, cell phones, nutrition labels on food products, eyeglasses, cars, cancer therapy, microwaves, vaccines, or pacemakers. And these are just a few examples! You get the idea … Science is vital to daily life.
All science-driven advances are brought to “a theater near you” by scientists. But what makes a scientist? Dr. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), himself a household name among both scientists and the general public, asked himself about the iconic Dr. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), “Where did his ingenious ideas come from?” He mused: “A blend of qualities, perhaps: intuition, originality, brilliance. Einstein had the ability to look beyond the surface to reveal the underlying structure. He was undaunted by common sense, the idea that things must be the way they seemed. He had the courage to pursue ideas that seemed absurd to others. And this set him free to be ingenious, a genius of his time and every other.”
Whether we are scientists or not, we all shape our world through our thoughts. Scientific analysis gives us tools, the means to understand the world we inhabit, and a way of interpreting whatever we encounter during our lifetime. Some scientists make science more accessible by increasing the public understanding of both science and the scientific method. Such understanding could reduce implicit bias and change how decisions are made.
Dr. David Grimes is just one of the scientists who actively make such efforts. When he advocates for the general public, he explains scientific data in ordinary terms and debunks pseudo-scientific claims. As such, he enables non-scientists to make decisions based on facts instead of on fiction, and when this happens, both individual people and society as a whole benefit. Dr. Michael Greger is another such example. He is a lifestyle medicine physician who puts (often contradictory and confusing) nutrition information to the test. He and his team provide a science-based, non-commercial public service by analyzing the latest nutrition research and presenting nutrition and health research in a way that is easy to understand, and, above all, factually correct.
Looking at life’s questions through a scientific lens does not mean looking at all things in a sterile, dispassionate way or giving up gut feeling or intuition. Rather, using this lens enables us to engage our intuition in a way that is not random or haphazard. We consider things with logic and reason, just as Aristotle taught. We also now, however, have a major advantage compared to him: We can base our decisions on a lot more evidence.
Iris Schrijver is a lifestyle medicine physician and author of On the Path to Health, Wellbeing, and Fulfilment.
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