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Fortitude in Science

~ by Dr. Kathryn Morton ~ 

I recently broached the subject of fortitude with my high school science students.  Initially we reflected on figures like Nelson Mandela, Naboth and his vineyard, and Atticus Finch.  Then we turned to famous physicists and biologists to compare.  What did they all have in common which would enable us to group them into one category?  They all faced persecution in one form or another in the face of their convictions, yet they all pressed forward.  It was fortitude that tied them together.

Consider Galileo and his quest for understanding the movements of the heavenly bodies.  Galileo studied diligently the observations of astronomers who had come before him such as Copernicus and Brahe.  To those he added his own observations and improved the telescope, which gave even more insight.  He weighed all the findings and concluded they came against the natural philosophy of Aristotle and the theories of Ptolemy.  He simply could not reconcile them, and he was convinced more than ever, that the sun was the center of the solar system.  As a professor, he was compelled to impart these discoveries to his students who would be the next generation advancing scientific exploration.  Unfortunately, his discoveries did not align with the church teachings of the day, and knowing he was facing great persecution in a terrible time of church authority, he moved forward with publishing his work.  Fortitude.

Similarly in the history of biology, there were endless disputes about spontaneous generation and biogenic theory.  As experiments became more sophisticated and new technologies were developed, observations were improved, and lurking variables were reduced.  The evidence became clear: the natural process shows life arises from preexisting life—mold arises from mold spores, tadpoles arise from microscopic eggs, bacterial colonies arise from a single bacterium and so on.  Theories prevailing for hundreds of years were being challenged and resistance to new ideas was strong.  Scientists were persecuted, yet they showed fortitude.

Another student of mine astutely pointed out that when a new truth is pointed out, the human response progresses through three stages.  The first is a scoffing denial, the second is bitter resentment and anger, and finally the truth is accepted as self-evident.  It is like the weakness of our humanity is facing a sort of death, and the stages of grief follow.  If there is a place for fortitude in science, it is against the weakness of humanity and the prevailing paradigm of belief.

Scientists set out on quests to answer complex questions about the natural world.  Each quest begins with research and study of the existing theories and scientific facts, and then a hypothesis is created.  If x is true, then when I do y, the result will be z.  Months are spent developing complex tests with detailed methods designed to eliminate unforeseen variables.  The results are analyzed, checked and rechecked.  Are the statistical analyses appropriate?  If the results of the test support the current theory, the researcher is seen as a genius and heralded as a rock-star.  If the results of the test do not support the hypothesis and challenge a current theory, a great deal more research is needed to modify the current theory or create a new theory.  In the meantime, she risks being laughed off the scientific stage, her findings buried, her grants withdrawn, and intense mocking and denial.  It takes deep courage to engage in scientific exploration and a good scientist must be rooted in something much greater than oneself and one’s image.

Thankfully today scientists don’t typically fear physical death as Galileo did for an unpopular finding, but they certainly fear scorn, ridicule, and the demise of reputation.  Fortitude is having courage in the face of pain or adversity.  Even something small, like a student robotics team, must have fortitude.  After working tirelessly for months solving a problem and perfecting a solution, they show up on the big day ready to reveal their design.  They risk being outplayed by all the other teams, buried in competition, and looked over by the judges.  Nevertheless, they continue, and try again, reveling not in the praise of men and the glory of an award, but in the journey that leads them there.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”  -Harper Lee


Dr. Kathryn Morton has a BA in biology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a DVM from the University of Illinois. Upon graduation from veterinary school, she moved to Pennsylvania to work as a clinical research veterinarian on a large dairy farm. From there she transitioned to a busy, small animal practice doing medicine and surgery. When the call of homeschooling touched her heart, she left private practice to focus on her husband and 6 children. She has been teaching math and science courses to the homeschooled students in her local community for 13 years and she heads a robotics club at her town’s public library. She is a lifetime learner and enjoys teaching students about the beauty of the creation and helping them grasp complex topics. [email protected]


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