Learning… a calling… endowing us with light to see farther than other men. – Barrow
We humans have always asked questions: where do we come from? How does the world work? From prehistoric astronomers to present day physicists, trying to understand our Universe is man’s most universal and enduring endeavor. There are very few other things that can excite, motivate and awe people as much as science does. And by “people”, I mean the open minded, smart and curious ones. Of course the FIFA World Cup certainly draws more attention than the Higgs Boson, but nonetheless the significance of the latter is much greater for anyone who can retain the gift of curiosity, which we are all born with, into adulthood.
We want to know everything. To understand every single phenomenon in the universe. To discover every single species. And it’s such a gigantic work that many scientists see it as a “calling”. Perhaps the vastness of the unknown and the certainty that each little discovery, each scientific paper gets us closer to the end of the journey motivates scholars, just like tales of gold, treasures and eternal life motivated Europeans to explore the Americas.
There is a deep beauty in the act of trying to understand the Universe. Michael Shermer put it in an atheistic way which I love: “What can be more soul shaking than peering through a 100-inch telescope at a distant galaxy, holding a 100-million-year-old fossil or a 500-600-year-old stone tool in one’s hand, standing before the immense chasm of space and time that is the Grand Canyon, or listening to a scientist who gazed upon the face of the universe’s creation and did not blink? That is deep and sacred science.” And indeed, I wonder why you would need an afterlife when the world we live in is so fascinating and filled with awe-inspiring creatures and phenomenons.
A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook (1) a status in which he compared the comprehension of a phenomenon to an orgasm. It’s a good analogy to describe the profound bound we share with our curiosity, which seems to reward us with pleasure and excitement when we satisfy it. And just as with sex, the reactions one experiences while making a discovery can be pretty overwhelming. For example, a primatologist recalled in an interview seeing an astronomer cry during a conference while he was showing pictures of distant stars. Or watch Andrei Linde’s reaction when he learned that strong evidences of his theory of cosmic inflation had been found:
I read with great interest a few months ago Steven Pinker’s piece in The New Republic called Science is not your enemy. He defended research for research’s sake, and also made a very good point by comparing science with art: “Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.” If you think about science as an art, many similarities come to mind: artists and scientists share the view that their craft isn’t a “job” but a passion, a calling; their works question our beliefs, sometimes bring us to tears, and are arguably humankind’s greatest heritage.
Furthermore, scientists, just like artists, see their trade as an essential part of their lives, as Henry Poincaré beautifully stated: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
And unsurprisingly, our brains treat science and art in pretty much the same way. A recent article proved that “mathematical beauty” activates the same brain regions as great art or music, which explains why many mathematicians find some equations exquisitely beautiful, often to the bewilderment of their friends and family. The study focused on mathematics, but I guess it could also apply to other sciences as well. Beauty, whether it comes from art or science, seems to be similarly processed by the brain.
Though science is very similar to art, as we saw, one notable difference exists which, in my opinion, makes science even more interesting and universal. As Price argued (1963), contributions in the arts are exclusively personal and unique: for example, if Picasso had never existed, his masterpieces would have been “replaced” by totally different works. But in the sciences, if Darwin had never existed, his contributions would have been replaced by basically the same ones: for the theory of evolution, as an objective truth, could have been formulated by “any” brilliant person who had all the facts in hand (and in fact, one of Darwin’s colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, came up with the idea of natural selection, too). The fact that objective truth exists and can be discovered and understood by the human brain is an astonishing thing.
Science is what makes us human, too. It is what makes us intelligent creatures, distinguishing us from the other animals. We can find equivalents for every single human behavior in the animal kingdom, except for science. Great apes, cetaceans, are capable of altruistic behaviors (2), a feature we long thought to be unique to the human species; making and using tools is hardly something we are the only species on Earth to do (though our tools are much more complex, of course), and even some form of art or artistic expression exists in animals.
But until we encounter another intelligent civilization (SETI, anyone?), we are the only ones who pursue the quest for knowledge. We are the only ones who want to understand everything about our Universe. This is what makes us human.
By its universal nature, science is above politics, nationalities, races, genders, etc. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum stated: “First, then, the introduction of great inventions appears one of the most distinguished of human actions; and the ancients so considered it. For they assigned divine honours to the authors of inventions, but only heroic honours to those who displayed civil merit, (such as the founders of cities and empires, legislators, the deliverers of their country from everlasting misfortunes, the quellers of tyrants, and the like.) And if any one rightly compare them, he will find the judgment of antiquity to be correct. For the benefits derived from inventions may extend to mankind in general, but civil benefits to particular spots alone; the latter, moreover, last but for a time, the former forever. Civil reformation seldom is carried on without violence and confusion, whilst inventions are a blessing and a benefit, without injuring or afflicting any.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe how nobler science is compared to patriotism, nationalism, religions, modern-day politics (unfortunately filled with scandals of corruption and conflicts of interest even in the most democratic Western countries) and other ephemeral trends. On politics, Einstein once said to his assistant: “Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever.”
In the same aphorism quoted earlier, Bacon ranked the value of men as follows, giving yet another blow at politics: “It will, perhaps, be as well to distinguish three species and degrees of ambition. First, that of men who are anxious to enlarge their own power in their country, which is a vulgar and degenerate kind; next, that of men who strive to enlarge the power and empire of their country over mankind, which is more dignified, but not less covetous; but if one were to endeavour to renew and enlarge the power and empire of mankind in general over the universe, such ambition (if it may so be termed) is both more sound and more noble than the other two.”
Science doesn’t have frontiers, it makes us act as a species – or at least it has the power to do so -. Unfortunately politics get in the way, and prevent us for having, say, a World Space Agency that could achieve much, much more than what national space agencies are capable of today. Unifying our efforts will make scientific research way faster. Bacon realized it, even if he lived in a non-globalized, pre-Industrial Revolution world, when he wrote (again in the Novum Organum): “We think some ground of hope is afforded by our own example, which is not mentioned for the sake of boasting, but as a useful remark. Let those who distrust their own powers observe myself, one who have amongst my contemporaries been the most engaged in public business, who am not very strong in health, (which causes a great loss of time,) and am the first explorer of this course, following the guidance of none, nor even communicating my thoughts to a single individual; yet having once firmly entered in the right way, and submitting the powers of my mind to things, I have somewhat advanced (as I make bold to think) the matter I now treat of. Then let others consider what may be hoped, from men who enjoy abundant leisure, from united labours, and the succession of ages, after these suggestions on our part, especially in a course which is not confined, like theories, to individuals, but admits of the best distribution and union of labour and effect, particularly in collecting experiments. For men will then only begin to know their own power, when each performs a separate part, instead of undertaking in crowds the same work.”
Moreover, working together as one, as we currently do on a small scale with projects such as the Large Hadron Collider or NASA’s Curiosity rover, would greatly help us build a world government (in a far fetched future of course, since ethnic and religious conflicts as well as nationalism and other Dark Ages preoccupations will remain a part of our world until everyone gets a true secular, humanist education). Something like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, a global democratic government based on principles of universal liberty, rights, equality, and knowledge and resources sharing in peaceful cooperation and space exploration. Science is definitely a great tool to engineer peace between peoples, as Vannevar Bush wrote in his amazing paper As We May Think: “Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”
And let’s not forget that science has very practical applications which make us live longer and better lives. In terms of evolution, science helps us prosper as a species and survive in our sometimes hostile environment. Our dreams of space travel, of colonizing other worlds, so that our species can thrive as long as possible, and (why not?) of meeting other intelligent species elsewhere in the Universe, will be made possible by science.
So it’s important to remind people who criticize “useless” research of this fact. Science yields practical results, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we are humans, and as humans, we want to understand our world. We want to know everything. We do science driven by our innate curiosity.
There are so many things yet to be discovered, we know so little about our Universe… And this is extremely exciting. As Bacon said: “In the mean time, let no one be alarmed at the multitude of particulars, but rather inclined to hope on that very account.”
We are going to continue our quest to know everything, which will yield amazing improvements in our everyday lives, but which will also, much more importantly, satisfy our curiosity and fulfill the characteristic need of an intelligent species for the art of science.
(1) Lilian Delaveau (in French): “La compréhension d’un phénomène a presque quelque chose de l’orgasme. D’abord, on effleure l’idée du bout du doigt. On commence à saisir. La pensée se tord et se modifie, change pour s’adapter à une nouvelle vision, un nouveau paradigme. Et la compréhension monte en intensité: si rien ne l’arrête, elle prend totalement contrôle de l’esprit et le frappe de stupeur. Ces moments sont rares.”
(2) See works from Frans de Waal for more on this subject