robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

Observers Observing

The request for a favorite deep, elegant, and beautiful explanation left me a bit cold. "Deep," "elegant," and "beautiful" are aesthetic qualities that I associate more with experience and process than explanation, especially that of the observer observing. Observation is the link between all empirical sciences, and the reason why physicists were among the founders of experimental psychology. The difference between psychology and physics is one of emphasis; both involve the process of observers observing. Physics stresses the observed, psychology the observer. As horrifying as this may be to hyper-empiricists who neglect the observer, physics is necessarily the study of the behavior of physicists, biology the study of biologists, and so on. Decades ago, I discussed this issue with John Wheeler who found it obvious, noting that a major limit on cosmology is the cosmologist. When students in my course on Sensation and Perception hear me say that we are engaging the study of everything, I'm absolutely serious. In many ways, the study of sensation and perception is the most basic and universal of sciences.

My passion for observation is aesthetic as well as scientific. My most memorable observations are of the night sky. For others, they may be the discovery of a T-rex fossil, or the sound of bird song on a perfect spring day. To see better and deeper, I build telescopes, large and small. I like my photons fresh, not collected by CCD or analyzed by computer. I want to encounter the cosmos head-on, letting it wash over my retina.  My profession of neuroscience provides its own observational adventures, including the unique opportunity to close the circle by investigating the neurological mechanism through which the observer observes and comes to knows the cosmos.