Celebrating Science

August 18, 2011

For the first time in humanity’s existence, we possess solid information about the deepest questions that have puzzled our species. 

How did everything come to be?  What is our place in this universe?  Why does the earth have its features?  How did the earth’s forms of life arise?  Why is humanity similar, yet so different?  What shall determine our destiny?  Science now supplies firm knowledge about most of the crucial turning points in our deep history, the momentous events shaping who we are and what we may become.

Although science deserves all the credit for abundance of knowledge, much of humanity is not ready to respect it.  Preferring older myths enveloped in religious practices designed more to enslave than enlighten, billions of people resist science.  They are unprepared to appreciate a radically new kind of story about the world.  No gods, no demons, no monsters – and worst of all, no special place for humanity – can have a role in science’s account of everything.  All the same, the story science has to tell about the world is incomparably more surprising and interesting than any mythical tale about some clash of the titans or some theological system about a calculating creator.

Does science disenchant the world, leaving it cold and meaningless?  Science does wake people from pleasant dreams, but the real world of science engages our entire wakened mind, making life only more meaningful.  If science was just a collection of endless stale facts, pinned to textbooks like dead butterflies in a collector’s case, people could excusably be repelled by such a lifeless display.

Fortunately, science itself is a living, dynamic, and exciting thing.  Besides science’s story of the universe’s evolution and our humble place in it, science has another story to tell, a narrative about itself.  Let science tell its own story, a story of bold exploration, risky venture, brave confrontation, and glorious victory.  Science should not be humble.  Humanity may have no special place in the universe, but humanity is truly special for scientifically knowing that place.  How did the universe evolve to the point where a miniscule part of it could gain some comprehension of the rest?

We should take every opportunity to make a celebration of science — of science’s knowledge of the world, and of science’s own journeys to gain that knowledge.  More people should appreciate not only what science has to say, but also what science had to go through to be able to say it.  Our cognitive processes have both rational and emotional aspects.  It’s in basic human psychology: we learn best from narratives, from stories that we feel involved with personally.  Presented as both as a grand narrative about the world, and as a magnificent narrative of human adventure, science can entrance, entice, and ennoble us.  Great science writing is not hard to come by.  When I’m asked, I like to recommend books such as Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present by Cynthia Stokes Brown, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, and The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy.

The accusation that science strips us of all significance just can’t stick.  Only the pleasant dreams of myth and legend now linger to humiliate human intelligence.  But there’s hope for humanity’s better nature, eager for mental empowerment and involvement in something much bigger than one’s self.  Humanity’s curiosity can be enlisted in the journey of science, for that journey truly is humanity’s journey.