Freethinker’s Forum: Consider science the religion of wonder |

Freethinker’s Forum: Consider science the religion of wonder

Damian Sowers

An explosion rumbled the laboratory. A smell of burnt hair occluded the air. Matt Fete, a third-year chemistry graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, yelled out in pain.

I was the second person to reach his fume hood. When I got there, I could see that all the beakers inside Matt’s workspace were completely shattered; the interior of his fume hood was now coated with a fine white chemical dust. Disturbingly, he was hopping around in pain, mimicking a bizarre avian mating ritual, with a 2-inch shard of borosilicate glass sticking out of his wrist. Blood was everywhere. And to top things off, the hair on his right arm was singed down to the skin from the initial flame of the explosion. We wouldn’t realize it until much later, but Matt had accidentally discovered a new compound that had more energy per gram than TNT.

The scientific community is riddled with stories like this. Tales of sacrifice, pain and discovery are so ubiquitous, it almost makes one wonder why people even practice science to begin with. These great men and women slave over beakers and hotplates until 3 or 4 in the morning, exposing themselves to toxic chemicals that increase their risk of cancer about a thousandfold, and none of it is done for exorbitant financial gain. (Most academic scientists lead very Spartan lives.) Sounds a little fanatical, eh?

That’s because it is. The average lifespan of an experimental organic chemist is 55 years, so you pretty much have to be a fanatic to willingly shorten your life like this. You have to be obsessed with discovery, truth and knowledge, and then you have to make these things your religion in order to justify all the scars.

But oh, man, is it worth it. When you synthesize a new compound, a chemical that exists nowhere in the universe but the inside of your flask, you get a high that would drive a church-going, Jesus-lovin’, televangelist straight to heaven. And that’s the moment when you realize that all the sacrifices are worthwhile, and that that there is no room for God in a heart that already contains big bang cosmology, discrete particle physics, Darwinian evolution and general relativity. For these things are infinitely more beautiful, because, like humans, they are flawed.

Sure, scientists are fanatics. Some are even a little strange. But they are willing to make numerous sacrifices so that you might have better cancer-treatment options in your hospitals, more advanced technology in your homes and more stimulation in the bedroom. In return, all they ask for is public compliance – to not obstruct promising avenues of science like stem-cell research and to not slander their theories with religious retaliation.

Personally, I wish more people would stand up and thank the men like Matt Fete, who are willing to take shrapnel in the wrist to advance human knowledge one centimeter further. Men like him are the priests of the universe and torchbearers for the religion of science.

– Damian Sowers can be reached at

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