Stuart Firestein at SFI. (Photo: Kate Joyce/Santa Fe Institute)

The neuroscientist Stuart Firestein can’t point to a single moment when his quest to understand science's long history and uncertain future began, but the fall of 2008 is as good a place to start as any. At the time, Firestein, a Columbia University neuroscientist with a Brooklynite’s love of colorful language, was facing a crisis of scientific confidence. He was on stage in an auditorium, teaching “Intro to the Brain” to 200 glazed-eye undergraduates. “Essentially asking them to memorize a 1,414 page, seven-pound textbook,” recalls Firestein, laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea. “We don’t practice science deterministically, but we sure as hell teach it that way.” That disconnect, Firestein realized, goes a long way toward explaining why in America climate change is doubted and vaccine hesitancy rising. The public has lost faith in science. “We’re facing a crisis,” Firestein says. People distrust the very thing modern society is built upon. 

Firestein is an esteemed neuroscientist who specializes in the olfactory system: why and how our brains and noses sense smell. But it’s his obsession with the history, evolution, and future of science that brought him to SFI as its newest fractal faculty member. He has already authored two popular books, “Ignorance” and “Failure,” that cast science as an unending quest to illuminate ignorance and failure as an essential component in that process. He’s now begun a third book he plans to call “Optimism.” In it, Firestein will make the case that modern society’s optimism, oversimplified as the sense that our future will be brighter than our present, is a direct product of the scientific process. 

“Science helps us act on the belief that ‘It could be otherwise,’” he says, invoking that tidy phrase to sum up his book’s thesis. But he also wants “Optimism” to sound an alarm. Science is impermanent. Unless scientists get better at communicating with the public, it could one day stop marching humanity toward a better version of itself. 

When considering how science arrived at this precarious moment, Firestein takes the long view. He starts in the 1600s with the likes of Copernicus, Vesalius, Galileo, Kepler, and the first scientific revolution. Before science, each generation lived essentially the same life as the generation before. Change was so slow as to be imperceptible. After this cognitive revolution, change became palpable and the idea of change accepted as normal. But powerful as this engine of progress was, Firestein notes that it developed into a kind of creeping determinism, a dogmatic certainty about the way the world is governed. Science’s optimism suffered. Determinism eliminates possibility. It closes the world. Science was in danger of losing its optimism. 

This changed when Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” appeared in 1859.“That was the most revolutionary idea since Copernicus,” Firestein says. “Darwin showed us that life is nondeterministic—it’s random at its base yet also predictable.” In Firestein’s view, Darwin’s ideas changed the very essence of the questions that science sought to answer. Instead of extracting immutable laws from nature, trying to fit our understanding into a clockwork universe, science had to embrace uncertainty and randomness as fundamental forces. It had to embrace the very idea that parts of the universe are unknowable. Firestein thinks of this seismic and ongoing shift as the second scientific revolution. Among its discoveries he counts Ludwig Boltzmann’s statistical approach to the second law of thermodynamics, Quantum mechanics, and nuclear energy (and yes, the bomb). Plate tectonics. iPhones. Climate models and mRNA vaccines. 

But for all the whiplash progress that the second scientific revolution has delivered, it is critically and maybe even suicidally flawed. “The early scientists of the late Renaissance and Enlightenment — Galileo, Hooke, Voltaire — wrote in common vernaculars or had their works translated into vernacular languages. Voltaire, for example, translated Newton into French making his revolutionary work available to a wide public,” Firestein says. Egalitarianism was chief among science’s appeals. Post-Darwin, science became more niche and its vernaculars so hyper-specific that a Ph.D. in one field can no longer comprehend a Ph.D. in another. One result of this trend is that scientists talk publicly about their work deterministically. Why? It’s easier. But it’s dangerous. “We have left the public far behind,” Firestein says. “People now think that unsettled science is unsound science when exactly the opposite is true.” 

After finishing his “Intro to the Brain” course back in 2008, Firestein launched a sort of rebellion against determinism. He started a new course where he invited top scientists to speak about the questions that animated their work. The idea was weirdly profound: a class about what nobody knew. Firestein realized it was the first time he was teaching science as a process rather than an outcome that could be labeled right or wrong. Twelve years later, he’s still teaching the course but the stakes now feel higher. Never has America, and much of the world, been more hostile to science. And never has it been so important for science, an institution that helped make the world modern, to bring its optimism back to that world.

So what can be done? That’s the question Firestein is coming to SFI to answer. While here, he wants to understand how optimism figures in the working process of scientists working on complexity and uncertainty. And he is interested in hearing their ideas about how their work can be better communicated to the public. “Our forebears did it. We owe it to future scientists and ourselves to do it too,” he says. Put another way, Firestein wants science to be talked about in a common vernacular. Because, in this scary moment, he believes that it could be otherwise. 

In the Summer 2021 issue of Parallax, we introduced Melanie Mitchell and Sean Carroll as the first two “fractal” members of SFI's faculty. Now, we welcome Stuart Firestein as our third.