This is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s beautiful book, Lab Girl, on the joy of discovery, its mysterious and magical wonder of both the smallness and the magnitude of a single scientific finding. Any PhD student, current or otherwise, can appreciate this experience.
When a lab experiment just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work–and, similarly there are some experiments that you just can’t screw up even if you try. The readout from the x-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction each time I replicated the measurement.
The long, low, broad swoop of ink was totally unlike the stiff, jerky spikes that my advisor and I thought we might see, and it clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. I stood and stared at the readout, knowing that there was no way I had–or anybody could have–possibly misinterpreted the result. It was opal and this was something I knew, something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was–in addition to being small and insufficient–special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.
…I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother–or because I felt like nobody’s daughter–or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.
I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.
…I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn.
…Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me.
This article is Part 2 of the Asian and Western Minds essay. Read Part 1 here. Together, they are the fifth edition of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.
In Part 1, we discussed the ancient philosophies that rooted the differences between the Western and Eastern worldview (see definitions of Western and Eastern in Part 1 of this article). Here, we continue with the specific ways in which they differ. Below are the key findings from a series of social psychology experiments done by Professor Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan, which are outlined in the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.
Objects vs. Relationships
When given a scene to observe and asked to describe it, Easterners tend to be more holistic, paying attention to more details in the background than Westerners. Westerners, on the other hand, focus on the prominent objects in the scene. For example, when a picture of an underwater scene with plants and fish was shown to test participants, Easterners were more likely to say, “It looked like a pond,” whereas the Westerners were more likely to say, “There was a big fish, maybe a trout, moving off to the left.”
“Like ancient Greek philosophers, modern Westerners see a world of objects—discrete and unconnected things. Like ancient Chinese philosophers, modern Asians are inclined to see a world of substances—continuous masses of matter. The Westerner sees an abstract statue where the Asian sees a piece of marble; the Westerner sees a wall where the Asian sees concrete. There is much other evidence—of a historical, anecdotal, and systematic scientific nature—indicating that Westerners have an analytic view focusing on salient objects and their attributes, whereas Easterners have a holistic view focusing on continuities in substances and relationships in the environment.”
Because Easterners pay more attention to the environment and Westerners attend more to objects, Easterners are more likely to detect relationship among events than Westerners. Cause and effects are explained differently—the Easterners would attribute events and behaviors more to environmental causes, and Westerners more to the actors.
Westerners tend to believe that they can control situations more than Easterners. Because Easterners see the world as complex and interconnected, their sense of personal agency is less compared to Westerners.
“If life is simple and you only have to keep your eye on the ball in order to achieve something, life is controllable. If life is complex and subject to changes of fortune without notice, it may not matter where the ball is; life is simply not easily controlled. Surveys show that Asians feel themselves to be in less control than their Western counterparts. And rather than attempting to control situations, they are likely to try to adjust to them.”
A large consequence of the Western view is the magnificent scientific progress in the Western world.
“Easterners are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world… On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that simple models are the most useful ones—at least in science—because they’re easier to disprove and consequently to improve upon. Most of Aristotle’s physical propositions have turned out to be demonstrably false. But Aristotle had testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not: It was Westerners who established what the correct physical principles are.”
“Westerners’ success in science and their tendency to make certain mistakes in causal analysis derive from the same source. Freedom to pursue individual goals prompts people to model the situation so as to achieve those goals, which in turn encourages modeling events by working backward from effects to possible causes. When there is systematic testing of the model, as in science, the model can be corrected.”
Indeed, I believe, this is where Western thinking have deep advantages, and why science—or modern science as we know it—was largely a Greek endeavor.
Stability and Change
Westerners believe more in stability, assuming that the world doesn’t change much and that progress is linear, where Easterners see change all the time, and that “movement in a particular direction…may be a sign that events are about to reverse direction.”
Organizing the World
Westerners organize the world into categories while Easterners emphasize relationships. When Westerners group things, they do it based on whether they can be described by the same attributes, certain inherent properties of the objects. For Easterners, things are classed together because they influence and relate to each other.
For example, given a picture of a chicken and grass, categories A and B, respectively, participants were told to choose the appropriate category for a cow. Westerners were more likely to choose chicken because cows and chicken belonged to the same taxonomic category, while Easterners preferred to group the cow with grass on the basis of their relationship; “cows eat grass.”
Role of Logic
Logic no doubt plays a prominent role in Western societies. It is used to understand events and also useful for argumentation. But if Westerners are concerned with reason, Easterners are more concerned with reasonableness, which means that they may “set logic aside in favor of desirability of conclusions.”
When confronted with apparent contradictions, Westerners are more inclined to insist on the correctness of one belief vs. another, whereas Easterners would try to find the Middle Way, transcend them and find the truth in both.
The Eastern principles in resolving contradictions are as follows:
The Principle of Change – the world is not static but dynamic and changeable. “Because reality is in constant flux, the concepts that reflect reality are fluid and subjective rather than being fixed and objective.”
The Principle of Contradiction – “because the world is constantly changing, oppositions, paradoxes, and anomalies are continuously being created” Opposites complete each other; they cannot exist without the other (Yin and Yang). Thus, apparent contradictions are in fact active harmony.
The Principle of Holism – “nothing exists in an isolated and independent way, but is connected to a multitude of different things. To really know a thing, we have to know all its relations.”
These principles compel Easterners to find the middle ground between extreme propositions. In the Western thought, there is a counterpart to the above principles in the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. However, this form is seen as more aggressive because the purpose is to bolster one side and obliterate the contradiction rather than transcending the arguments.
For the Westerners, the principles of logic are committed to these laws:
The Law of Identity – a thing is itself and not some other thing. This thing is also consistent regardless of the context.
The Law of Noncontradiction – a proposition can’t be both true and false. A and not-A cannot be true at the same time.
For the Easterners,
“the rejection of conclusions because they seem formally contradictory can be mistaken, because concepts are merely reflections of things and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.”
“Each of these orientations—the Western and the Eastern—is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.”
The manifestations of these paradigms are reflected in the different ways Western and Eastern societies approach education, medicine, business–essentially all aspects of life–and can create misunderstandings in cross-cultural contexts. Results such as Nisbett’s are valuable for both Western and Eastern minds to understand each other.
Of course, the world is not divided as nicely as the East-and-West dichotomy. There are spectrums of worldviews around the world that we need to be more aware of, and I am now intrigued in mapping the world’s key thoughts to better understand humanity’s diversity and similarity.
Returning to Nisbett, it was hard for me not to abstain from performing self-diagnosis while reading a book like this, especially because my place of birth and upbringing is literally on the other side of the world where I currently live and work. I am both Eastern and Western, if calculated by the time I’ve spent in each world, near 50-50. Come back and visit the blog for an upcoming post on my personal cross-cultural experience!
The graduate student continued, “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.”
This conversation would set Nisbett off to a quest of unpacking the differences in cognitive processes between “Westerners” and “Easterners,” and to measure them scientifically. The Geography of Thought summarizes the key findings from these studies.
First, some definitions. The term Westerner in the book is designated to people of European culture. European Americans are everyone but those of Asian descent. Although Americans of all backgrounds are submerged in Western ways of thinking, they in fact observe that Asian Americans display more Eastern behaviors more than Western.
The term Easterner is meant to represent communities influenced heavily by the Chinese culture, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. Nisbett admits that certainly there are differences amongst these cultures, but the discussion requires some working terminologies and indeed, there are many similarities in the social cultures of these societies.
Differences between the Asian and Western ways of thinking are rooted in their respective ancient heritage. Western thoughts claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece and the East Asians inherit theirs from the ancient Chinese. The philosophical differences between the two are stark.
“The Greeks…had a remarkable sense of personal agency—the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose.” Tied to this was a deep sense of individual identity and curiosity about the world. Additionally, there was a pervasive tradition of debate, public combats of rhetoric and logic. This display of oral prowess was how many questions and arguments were settled.
The Chinese counterpart to the Greek agency was the concept of harmony. A Chinese’s identity was derived from his community and relationships, i.e., so-and-so’s son. There was no concept of isolation, of an encapsulated unit, for an object or a person. Life’s preoccupation, then, was to minimize friction with others in the family or community. The agency was a collective one instead of personal.
“Chinese society made the individual feel very much a part of a large, complex, and generally benign social organism where clear mutual obligations served as a guide to ethical conduct… Individual rights in China were one’s ‘share’ of the rights of the community as a whole, not a license to do as one pleased.”
In terms of understanding the world, the Greeks were “deeply concerned with the question of which properties made an object what it was.” They would regard the object in isolation for analysis, which tended to have linear and either-or orientation. In contrast, the Chinese concept of the world was that it was constantly changing and full of contradictions. Things were seen as a whole rather than in part, and that events were related to each other.
In Part 2 of this essay, I summarize the interesting key findings and observations from Nisbett’s experiments described in his book. Read Part 2 here.
Two new books are released today that celebrate women and science, two subjects that are great on their own, but super fascinating when combined. I’ve been really looking forward to these books! They follow in line with a rapid surge of science writings that have been adding to my library. See if you could share my excitement below.
Lab Girl intrigues me from the get-go. I always love stories of people in academia, those pursuing their passion and interests at full throttle, especially in the sciences. Women in academia is another fascinating layer. From my time in graduate school, I’ve come to see that the relationship between an academic and her subject of study is like a love story–a deep one. Jahren is a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii who studies the world of plants and, it seems, is completely in love with it. Sounds like a very promising read.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
Rise of the Rocket Girls strikes me, given my recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center and all nerdy things I’ve been consuming. Space travel alone–what humans achieve through ingenuity, science, engineering, and perseverance–is impressive enough. But few of these stories are told in the female perspective, hence the thrill of seeing this book. It’s so refreshing to learn about these women who were just as geeked about going out to space as the men, who were brilliant, and just as dedicated to the ones on the spotlight. History lovers would enjoy this book too.
The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space.
In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women–known as “human computers”–who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading.
March 14 is a glorious convergence of nerdiness. It was the birth date of Albert Einstein—the greatest mind ever graced the Earth—and the date that resembles the mathematical constant pi, hence Pi Day. With the recent detection of gravitational waves, astronaut Scott Kelly’s safe return to earth after a year (or to be precise, 340 days) in space, and our recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, our household has been especially, giddily geeked out this year.
This is an 8-episode series of about 15 min each documenting the preparation, launch, and duration of Kelly’s mission at the International Space Station (ISS). It’s such a bold and difficult, understatedly, mission that humans undertake in the name of science. Incredible.
We spent 2 hours on Saturday night browsing the aisles of our local site of Half Price Books. If you haven’t been to one, check if one exists in your area. Some stores are better stocked than others, but the one near us is awesome. Since I’ve been wanting to study Physics again, this is a great place to find used books at low prices. The clearance section is also super; I got these books for $2 a piece.