I have three emotional principles in all my work. One is wonder, another is sympathy, and the third is critique. These are virtues of different disciplines that are generally not combined. Wonder we think of as a traditional scientific discipline or motive. It’s great to wonder at the grandeur and glory of the universe, the childlike wonder, the Stephen Jay Gould wonder, the Einsteinian wonder.
But there’s also the traditional historical virtue of sympathy, which is to realize that the world we live in really is kind of a moment in time when we have the entire history of the universe behind us that we can explore as well. And when it comes to human interpretation, it’s important to see the past the way the people saw it. So I’ve written two books on Nazi medicine, and the goal there was not just to condemn them, but to see how in the world they came up with those ideas and those movements and how they justified them to themselves. So we see them as full humans and not just scarecrows, so we can actually understand the depth of the depravity or whatever. But at least we see it honestly, and that’s a traditional historical virtue.
The third principle is critique, which is to realize that we’re humans first. If we’re cosmologists or historians, we’re at least humans first and then cosmologists and historians. We need to critique and show that there’s a lot of garbage out there, and we don’t want to be apologists for some horrific status quo where people are dying by the millions. And so we don’t just want to see things through other people’s eyes and we don’t want to just wonder at the glory of nature. We want to realize that there’s horrific suffering in the world and that we, as humans and as scholars, have a duty to do something about it.