The Mystery in Science vs We Know Everything (nearly)
There is something I’ve observed from my (admittedly limited) experience of people in science. There are people who are often leaders in their fields, who make progress and extend understanding, who tend to be mostly occupied with what we don’t understand. Thats what drives them, and they are happy to admit that they find themselves humbled by the mysteries their subject still holds for them.
This is in great contrast to what the ‘man or woman on the street’ thinks about scientists, which tends to be that they know so much about everything that what they don’t know is hardly worth knowing. There is also a large group within science, the type that want everything everywhere to be organised and tied down, who have a similar view that science has almost discovered everything thats important, and whats left is mainly refining accuracy and tidying some loose ends.
This latter view has been shared by men throughout the ages. To quote an example often ascribed to Lord Kelvin in 1900 ;
There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
In fact this may have been misattributed to him, but there were people who thought this at the time. Of course, over the next couple of decades there were two great revolutions in science – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – both of which turned many assumptions completely upside down. The same could be said of the discoveries of Newton, Copernicus and Darwin, of several of the Greek philosophers, and many others before and after.
Its understandable that this assumption has slipped into peoples worldview yet again. We have sent people to the moon. We have built computers that sit in our pockets, and can do things that would once have seemed like utter and undeniable magic. We have eradicated diseases from the planet, and tamed the power of nature in countless ways. We understand the process through which creatures developed from small cells into complex organisms than walk, and talk, and ponder on the meaning of their existence.
Yet in many ways we have less reason to think like this than we ever have. We have good reason to believe -from the Cosmic Background Radiation observations by WMAP – that what we see and detect around us is less than 5% of what is actually there. The rest of it appears to be a mixture of things we have called “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy”, both named because we just don’t know what they are.
We know something about light and radio waves and microwaves etc, but a simple experiment done with light – Young’s Slit Experiment – is still deeply mysterious. We have developed a mathematical model – the quantum formalism – which is brilliantly accurate and drives much of the modern world from phones to GPS. But we simply don’t understand what its describing in any meaningful way. In fact Young’s Slit Experiment has been refined now to show that a single photon can pass through both slits (in that it interferes with itself at some level), and yet if you measure it, you will only ever ‘see’ it at one slit. This is just the thin end of the wedge with Quantum Physics – its gets stranger the deeper you go.
Follow that photon into the extensively tested and proven theory of Relativity, and from the perspective of a photon time does not exist. To us and our instruments however it moves – always at a fixed speed away from you no mater how fast you approach it! Trying to imagine what the world must seem like from the perspective of a photon (or any weightless particle) is a mind boggling mystery if ever there was one, especially if you consider that relativity also states that space has collapsed to a single ‘point’ for all them. There have even been a suggestion by a leading physicist that there is only a single electron, a single photon, moving backwards and forwards in time to create the universe. From a materialist perspective this is crazy, but its not quite as crazy from the best theories we have to describe nature. Things are certainly not as they seem.
The holographic principle suggests that the information in the universe is described by its surface area, as if the whole universe is some kind of projection ‘from the outside’. Wherever you look in so many areas there are massive great mysteries hinting little clues towards understanding out great ignorance.
I won’t venture outside of physics right now, but in areas such as consciousness and free will, things are just as weird and poorly understood. What I’m not suggesting here is that we have not come a long way, nor that science should in some way be distrusted. Its a very necessary process when trying to understand the aspects of the world we can conduct experiments on. It avoids the ingrained human habit of looking for patterns whether they are there or not.
I do think its very important, however, that we celebrate mystery. Not to the extent that our brains fall out whilst we try to work out which group of aliens built the pyramids, but as an important part of why we are alive. Like most people I was put off science at school. It was simply a task to transfer text books into our brain, to learn about instruments and how to use them. Far better surely to at least in part teach it to people (including children) as an adventure, one we’re just at the start of. How much more interesting, how much more likely each one of us would be to actually want to learn something new.