Evolutionary biologist and author Mark Changizi: WHY I LOVE SCIENCE by Casey Rentz
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do. Changizi has also authored 3 popular science books and hosted the Discovery Channel show Head Games.
1. What do you love about science and why?
Most people don’t appreciate the beauty and aesthetics in science. Consider mathematics. There are infinitely many theorems “out there” that a mathematician can devote him or herself to solving, but only a tiny fraction of them are interesting, surprising, elegant, gorgeous, awe-inspiring. These latter judgments aren’t themselves part of mathematics. Rather, it requires the mathematician to have an aesthetic opinion -- it is through these choices of which theorems to try to prove that the mathematician becomes artist, just as the artist must select only certain stimuli from an infinity of stimuli to throw down on paper or in a score.
And this applies to science just as well. There are infinitely many science “problems” I could be working on, but one has to remind oneself that not all of them are equally interesting, important, cool, kick-ass, stunning, lovely, etc. Most problems are disasters in this aesthetic sense, and so one keeps digging for the shiny gems, the ones worth spending a couple years or more trying to crack.
2. What got you interested in science?
Since I was a wee one I’ve dedicated my life to the aim of “answering the questions to the universe.” What exactly I meant by that changed over time, but roughly the goal was to answer questions that tapped into one’s life-the-universe-and-everything, spiritualicious, instincts. Carl Sagan was an inspiration to me in those days, emphasizing the “beauty” side of the sciences.
3. What could we be doing to encourage science literacy and a positive image of science in our societies?
“Science is useful” is, in my view, one of the least effective ways to get the science message out. Now, science is useful, but there’s no need to emphasize that. That’s boring. The message to kids and adults alike needs to be a more romantic one: that this endeavor -- science -- is not just another area of human activity that feeds back into our cultural and technological growth. Rather, it is an end in itself, like the arts, and like religion for religious folk.
4. What are 3 favorites on your bookshelf/watch-list right now?
o Steven Pinker’s Better Angels: I’ve been embroiled for the last few years with work on how we have come to be modern humans with writing, language and music. My story in my book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, is unique, and argues that cultural evolution has harnessed us by shaping these new capabilities to exploit evolutionarily ancient brain areas that never evolved for writing, language or music. Pinker’s brilliant book is kind of along these ‘harnessing’ lines, but the question is how cultural evolution turned the violent human animal into a relatively peaceful one.
o Matt Ridley”s The Origins of Virtue: All of Ridley’s books I’ve read are great, and he manages to put forth and shape a grand view or synthesis. I’m especially interested in this at the moment because of my ongoing work over the last couple years on the origins of emotions.
o Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book: Not exactly science, but in light of my work in Harnessed on the origins of music, and being an amateur piano player, this book is eye-opening. And I can’t even say I liked jazz before starting -- I'm a classical music buff -- but learning jazz seems disproportionately helpful in “getting” music.
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What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school... It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see my physics students don't understand it... That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.
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