boys playing on the seashore


Although scientists have been committing their memoirs to paper for centuries, there seems to be a difference in tone between memoirs written in the twentieth century and those that came before. Earlier memoirs describe a world where science was still largely an amateur activity—literally, one pursued out of love—rather than a profession. In their memoirs, Joseph Priestley, Charles Darwin, and others demonstrate a sentiment about science rather than any distinct scientific personality. That sentiment was infused with an abiding wonder and fascination with the natural world—not wholly devoid of ambition, of course, but also bounded by a humility that came from their respect for the vast amount that was, and would remain, unknowable. The ambition to be the known discoverer of new truths about nature was concealed, in large measure, in the stylistic modesty of the student, a modesty in tune with the culture of the age. Present, too, was an idealism that perhaps could only be nurtured in an age of amateur science, still filled with a healthy appreciation for the power of chance. Not long before his death in 1727, Isaac Newton touched on this sentiment when he wrote, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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