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Science Voyeur

By Annalee Newitz

I LIKE TO WATCH science. When I channel surf, I always pause on the documentaries about amazing medical breakthroughs, space exploration or nanorobotics. I subscribe to Scientific American and I read New Scientist online. Nothing gets me more prickly excited than that peculiar blend of geeky and sensationalistic that goes into a sci-rag headline: The First Human Clone! Space-Age Foam! Quantum Cryptography! Why Humans Are More Like Apes Than We Ever Knew Before!

I've never been a scientist, unless you count cutting up a fetal pig in high school biology and creating an electronic circuit with some crap my friends picked up at Radio Shack. Once, I tried my hand at social science. I wrote an academic article about fans of Japanese animation, and I spent weeks interviewing people extensively about what drove them to consume mass quantities of Ranma 1/2 and Dragonball Z. But social science doesn't deliver the same satisfaction as so-called hard science. With social science, you never get a single answer, a repeatable experiment or a blot in a petri dish to which you can point in triumph and cry, "There it is! Proof that Theory X is true!"

For the nonscientist, it is tempting to become a science fan precisely because the discipline always comes through with one of the most seductive concepts in the world: truth. Unlike moral truth, which is based on intangibles like faith and feelings, scientific truth is based on raw data.

Even better for the intellectual voyeur, science is often pleasingly, viscerally visible. Science brings us full-color images of the insides of our bodies, each layer peeled back to reveal the juicy strata of fat, muscle, organs, arteries. Similarly, it brings us diagrams depicting the complicated guts of machines, the microprocessors, the gears, the networks, the fiber optics, whatever. There's even a column in The New York Times called Circuits whose entire reason for existence, as far as I can tell, is to offer readers pornographically detailed images of new technology. I still shiver when I remember one particular column that managed to convey, in pictures, the functionality of a secure socket layer in a computer network. Seeing it there on the page, totally diagrammed, was breathtaking.

One of the hottest biotech products right now is visualization software--programs that help scientists create images to depict the profoundly abstract behavior of genes, to model the activities of a cell, or simply to display something intangible or invisible in a way that makes sense to the human eye.

And there's the rub: not all science is as visible and tangible as we might like. Yet scientific minds crave sight. Seeing, after all, is believing. If we can't see something concrete in our experiments and projects, we might as well be in the squishy realm of moral truths and social science. Therefore in areas of profound scientific uncertainty, like genomics or theoretical astrophysics, scientists invent tools that convert unclear data into pictures whose coherence hints at hard, undeniable truth.

After all, science as we know it was invented by a group of people who valued visual observation over all other methods of inquiry. All the early "scientific breakthroughs" of the Western world involved visual observation: Galileo watched the stars; Newton observed the way objects responded to gravity and light; and Darwin catalogued the physical differences between finches in the Galapagos Islands. It's hard to give up a scientific quest for the perfect visual observation when our capacity for simply watching carefully has taken us so far.

So the voyeuristic culture of science has spawned an epiphenomenon, a culture of science voyeurs. People watch the science headlines anxiously, hopefully, scanning for the piece of information or, better, the graphic that will finally explain everything. You know, a unified field theory, but in pictures! More importantly, we want to watch scientists explain it all to us.

I'm as much a science voyeur as the rest, reading and writing about science rather than crunching genomic data or designing the perfect polymer. Yet I worry about the urge to watch. I wonder if we're replacing uncertain, unseeable truths with pictures and diagrams just because that's more comfortable. We'd rather stare at scientists on TV than cope with the fact that, in some ways, we are still completely in the dark.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once had a chemistry set.

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From the January 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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