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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

The Best Test

John Rennie

Physicist Michael Faraday's journal from 1849 provided the epigram currently perched on the welcome page of my personal site, and I suspect it may already be familiar to most readers of popular science:

"Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency."

The first clause has developed an epigrammatic life of its own; science writers often roll it out when they want to convey appreciative awe for some brilliant intricacy or unexpected beauty of the natural world. That was certainly the intention of the late, great polymathic team of Philip and Phylis Morrison when they introduced me to Faraday's quote during the 1990s while planning the reinvention of their long-running book reviews as a monthly essay column, "Wonders," for Scientific American. (Originally, they wanted the title of the column to be "Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True," until I gently pointed out to them that such a lengthy phrase might not even fit across the top of the page in the new design.)

Far be it from me to knock anyone's sense of natural wonder, or the power of science to uncover glories that inspire it. Yet I notice that most casual uses of the quotation leave out "...and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency." And in so doing, I think, they are unfortunately omitting the most important part of Faraday's reflection.

Faraday is, after all, not just cheering for us to marvel at nature. He is cautioning us to test our most marvelous hypotheses through rigorous experiment to see if they hold true and consistent with the rest of physical reality. The universe's inventiveness can far surpass anything we might imagine, but we therefore should not let either our own incredulity or rapture at the amazing possibilities lead us astray.

The first half of Faraday's quote makes it poetry. The second half makes it science. The union of the two yields the richest human experience from engaging the universe with all our faculties. As such, I couldn't think of a more fitting sentiment to take as a slogan.

And with this opening solemnity out of the way, away we go....