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Ellen Karin Mæhlum

Wikipedia: Observation is either an activity where a live being acquires knowledge of its surroundings through the senses, or the registration of data using scientific instruments.


When the live being is us and the surroundings is the nature we live in, this definition creates an image of us as an external observer who acquires objective information in the form of sense impressions or measurement data.

This is a naïve presentation of what happens when humans encounter nature. Deeper insight is found with Goethe, who in a letter to German politician Friedrich von Müller (1819) wrote "Man erblickt nur, was man schon weiß und versteht" (one only sees what one already knows and comprehends). In this lies an understanding of the complexity of our surroundings. Nature comprises so many properties and so much information in the form of colours, shapes, smells, sounds and not least movement across all scales in space and time, that the sense impression that we acquire is necessarily strongly filtered. Goethe understood that in this filtering process, one first admits what one recognizes. Things that are similar to things one has seen before or have heard of. What one feels one understands and what gives meaning.

Scientists often face nature with specific intentions. They are looking for something specific and often want to satisfy the intellect. They don't randomly measure everything observable. Some scientists already have a theory they want to confirm or disprove through observations, and many will have a very fine filter which decides which sense impressions that are admitted for further processing in the scientist's brain. Others have more open filters and also admit impressions that they don't understand, but which are stored in memory or on a computer to be looked at at a later point and perhaps be more meaningful when one understands more.

All observation through the senses includes an element of subjective experience. Scientists are keen to minimize the experience component because this is personal and difficult to make generally accessible. In research, it is important that observations can be reproduced. Artists, on the other hand, will to a far greater degree be open for a personal experience. An artist and a scientist together in nature will therefore see and experience it differently.

Nevertheless, both wish to acquire something meaningful from their encounter with nature. Both the scientist and artist will claim that they desire a great degree of immersion in the part of nature they are trying to understand or experience. Immersion presumes that one first has a meaningful experience of what one observes. Many perhaps believe that the best scientists are those who are most objective and least influenced by personal experiences. In reality it is often among the most innovative and creative that one sees the smallest gap between subject and object. Experience and immersion are often completely decisive for the level of insight. Physicist David Bohm once said "learning is an act of participation". New understanding requires mental participation in the world one is studying. Often, this participation does not take on a predetermined recipe or pattern, but is an unpredictable process that combines all possible sources of information in a somewhat random manner.

All creative processes, including those arising from observations in nature, are unpredictable to a certain degree. One observes something, experiences something, immerses oneself differently in what one has observed. Through mental and practical processing of the material one has gathered in this manner, one is left with a scientific or artistic product that hopefully concerns other people because it introduces something new that no one has previously known of or seen. 

This curiosity-driven and somewhat random process does not always produce products with economic value, but it often contributes to bringing us small steps closer to nature. Closer in terms of increased knowledge on nature, and in terms of increased realization that we ourselves are a part of it. The latter plays a decisive role for how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to contribute to sustainable exploitation of nature's raw materials and sources of energy, and to know what it actually takes for this to happen. 

Bjørn Jamtveit, Professor at the Institute of Geosciences, UiO: University of Oslo

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