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The Language of Nature

Steve Talbott

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To judge from some of the ancient creation narratives, the world arose as a visible manifestation of speech. "In the beginning was the Word," as it says in John 1:1. First there was formlessness and chaos, and then the divine voice flashed forth like lightning in the darkness. "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." The world began to assume visible, comprehensible form.

Whatever we may now think of the old visions of creation, we can remain sure of one thing: without the speaking of the Word -- without language -- we would have no science today with its striking power to illuminate the world. This observation may seem trite; no one will deny that we must use words in order to achieve and record our scientific understanding, or to pass it on to future generations. But once we stop to reflect upon the fact that science is always a science of speech, a remarkable thing begins to happen. We find ourselves transported to a richly expressive realm of scientific meaning, as far removed from cramped, conventional notions of science as the first day of creation was from the primeval chaos.

The truths capable of revolutionizing our understanding can sometimes be so close to us that we fail to notice them. So it is with science and language. It is not only that we humans happen to need words in order to talk scientifically about a world that in its own right has nothing to do with language. Rather, it is that our need for words testifies to the word-like nature of the world we are talking about.

We speak a word -- say "atom," or "energy," or "mass" -- and by this word we mean something. Of course, we readily acknowledge that the word itself has a meaning of some sort, but we should not forget that this meaning (to the degree we use the word truthfully) also exists in the world. After all, the whole point of our language, our speaking, is to characterize something other than the speech itself. We speak about something. We seek to elucidate an aspect of the world. To the extent the meaning of our scientific descriptions is not at the same time the meaning of the world, the descriptions fail as science. As scientists we are always trying to speak faithfully the language of nature.

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Feb-07



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