Al Gore Does His Best Ralph Waldo Emerson

Gillian Osborne in Nautilus:

GoreThere was no single job title for those who practiced science prior to 1834. Naturalists, philosophers, and savans tramped around collecting specimens, recorded astral activity, or combusted chemicals in labs, but not as “scientists.” When William Whewell proposed this term, he hoped it would consolidate science, which he worried otherwise lacked “all traces of unity.” Whewell saw scientists as analogous to artists. Just “as a Musician, Painter, or Poet,” are united in pursuit of a common goal—the beautiful—Whewell believed a botanist, physicist, or chemist should be united in their common pursuit of understanding nature.

Built into his concept of what it means to be a scientist was a relation between what the poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a contemporary of Whewell, called “Each and All”: an attention to the particular that keeps the big picture in sight. For Emerson, the “All” was Nature and the “Each” could be a shell, or bird, a humblebee, or a Rhododendron. The point of science, according to Whewell and Emerson, was to investigate the relation between these two scales. Today, we have other terminology for “Each and All”: the reflection within the local, for example, of global phenomenon. Consciousness emerging from the activity of individual neurons. Spring flowers in Concord whose earlier blooming reflect changes in planetary climate patterns. In the video below, Harvard professor Elisa New sits down with former Vice President Al Gore to discuss Emerson’s poem, “Each and All,” in conjunction with 19th-century science, 20th-century space exploration, and contemporary climate change. The conversation, along with others featured on Nautilus, are part of New’s Poetry in America project. New’s conversation with Gore is part of a new Poetry in America initiative focused on the “Poetry of Earth, Sea, and Sky.”

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