Friday, April 17, 2009

On Science and Mystery

These quotations are taken from the science author and physicist, Brian Greene. Greene's most well-known works include, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

For the most part, we teach science as if it were a technical trade: Learn these facts about cells. Memorize these equations describing motion. Balance these reactions that underlie oxidation. And then demonstrate competence by passing an exam.

With this lopsided focus on the end points of research, the scientific explorations themselves receive the most minimal attention.

But science is a journey. Science is about immersing ourselves in piercing uncertainly while struggling with the deepest of mysteries.

Einstein captured it best when he wrote, "the years of anxious searching in the dark for a truth that one feels but cannot express." That's what science is about.

To be a scientist is to commit to a life of confusion punctuated by rare moments of clarity.

Established truths are comforting, but it is the mysteries that make the soul ache and render a life of exploration worth living.

For me, the past decades of anxious searching have illuminated spectacular new landmarks: extra dimensions of space curled into tiny labyrinthine geometries, a cornucopia of universes bubbling up beyond the most distant cosmic horizon, the fabric of space and time being stitched from the threads of vibrating strings.

Regardless of the outcome, the journey has been exhilarating, and through it I feel an emotional connection to the cosmos that I don't think I could have acquired any other way.

My intuition tells me that this particular odyssey will arrive at a promised land, perhaps confirming today's theoretical insights, perhaps in a future form that will have evolved signficantly.

But if not, in the unlikely event that the work on which our generation has labored doesn't make it into textbooks, I can live with that.

It's what happens along the way that enriches us. The wrestling with mystery, not the ascension to resolution, defines who we are.

My Thoughts:

This short article, taken from Wired Magazine's May 2009 edition, gives me a lot surprised joy and it captures, strangely, how I feel about life itself. Greene's elegant sentences shape for me what life is really about. A language of science can describe the moon and the stars and the galaxies, but essentially it is a language that spiritually reflects our condition as human beings. The moon and the stars and the galaxies are the outward signs and symbols of our own inner mysteries.

I love Greene's approach and attitude to science. He almost has a disdain for textbooks and the "end points of research." I agree. It is a backward method we teach in school and this point of view has profound implications for education.

Greene comes close to capturing how I feel in a moment of heightened reality, when I attempt to capture the surrounding complexity of my emotions in a poem. My experience in these moments is palpable and through a poem, I seem to grasp, if not the meaning of the moment, then I grasp the mystery of my being. And so, Greene writes science books and conducts physics experiments, and me, well, I'm a poet, life is my exploration and my ongoing experiment. But I think the two of us meet somewhere--whether it is in language, in our attempts to express the thing itself--or perhaps we meet in the universal human condition, the experience of not-knowing.


Mark Kerstetter said...

One expects a poet to say something like, 'I love the mysteries of the cosmos", but when a scientist says it it's profound and beautiful.

I like to think back to the ancient caves when people carved multiple circles onto them. We call this "art", but what were they doing? Looking at the moon, noticing changes, counting? Once upon a time science and art were one, and we'd all do well (artists and scientists alike) to appreciate the different ways of enjoying the mysteries.

Lethe said...

You're absolutely right, Mark, and that was my purpose in highlighting this beautiful writing by a scientist. I feel, as an artist, everything is connected. Thanks for your comments.