The Frontal Cortex

Klinkenborg on the Cosmos

Over at Times $elect, Verlyn Klinkenborg (the E.B. White of our time) has written an eloquent meditation on our changing scientific knowledge of the night sky. After reviewing some of the universe’s stranger facts – the age of light, the absence of time, the way galaxies “violently intersift” – he concludes with a lovely soliloquy on the strangeness of science. Hamlet said it best: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Science is a cultural enterprise, of course, like everything else humans do, and it sometimes suffers from characteristically human flaws. But the recentness — or, to put it another way, the evolution — of what we know about the universe around us doesn’t reveal the indeterminacy of science. It reveals the extraordinary intellectual and imaginative yields that a self-critical, self-evaluating, self-testing, experimental search for understanding can generate over time.

We know the universe to be a very different — and in every way more amazing — place than we did even a generation ago. We have no idea how much more surprising it will turn out to be in the years — not to mention the eons — ahead, should we manage to survive as a species that is able to do science. If what you want from life is a constant, fixed, unchanging truth, then the spate of fresh news from science can only seem bewildering. But the unchanging truths that people cling to in this inconstant world tend to rest on unexamined and untestable assumptions. At their best they are permanent ethical truths, which cannot be contradicted by the open-ended possibilities of scientific exploration. At their worst, they are mere dogma and deserve to be contradicted.

To me, the open-endedness of science isn’t its failing. It is its very beauty. Each answer is merely the prelude to the next question, and you never know when you’ll come upon an answer that forces you to rethink almost everything. This is as true in biology — itself overwhelmed by recent knowledge — as it is in cosmology. Yet many people can’t help hoping for a final set of answers. “So how old is it really — and how big is it really?” they ask about the universe, with an emphasis on “really.” The fact that the answer depends on when you happen to ask it — 1931, 1955, 2003, today — seems to many people to imply that science has no answers worth giving.

But this is simply the bias inherent in living in the “now.” Stated as a sentence, that bias goes like this: “We’re here now, so we expect some answers.” Think about those analogies meant to convey the immensity of time. They always end in the present. Mankind emerges in the Garment District or at 11 seconds to midnight, and then what? The clock stops at the current time, as if the game is over. But there is no time limit on the questions science asks, and there is very little likelihood of a final set of answers. Humanity emerges, looks up at the stars, and soon there is a probe in space telling us that most of what exists is stuff we can’t identify. Who would want it any other way?