Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Star Stuff

I happened to catch a clip from a wonderful talk given by Dr. Niel deGrasse Tyson the other day ( if you're interested). This man has a wonderful way with words, and his enthusiasm for disseminating science is something that I deeply admire. Few people carry themselves or their message with such a sense of purpose, even in the realm of science education. It could almost be described as fervent or fanatical; yet this would completely discount the the innocent and playful manner with which he presents himself. His character might be best described as Carl Sagan after too many cups of coffee, crossed with Ralphie from A Christmas Story at the moment he unwraps his red ryder BB gun. He is entertaining, insightful, and astonishingly adept at delivering a lay version of daunting scientific topics without diminishing by one iota their potential to inspire and awe.

One of many memorable quotes that caught my attention was Dr. Tyson's use of the phrase "celebration of science," when discussing his involvement in advising science fiction writers. He states that he is happy to engage in discussions with writers because it promotes a "buoyant force" which keeps science alive in the public mind. While he is merely justifying his interest in giving out pro-bono advice, his choice of words reflects an attitude that I feel is often missing from the droves of individuals in scientific fields. He is not just contributing to science, butactively cultivating an appreciation for it. Throughout the talk he addresses the concept multiple times - including a pointed criticism of the steady mitigation of NASA, which he considers the birthplace of science "dreams" that inspire scientific progress

I share his attitude and concerns; perhaps we are losing heart in our quest for understanding. We have had the tools of science since the Enlightenment, and it seems that the interest in basic science may indeed be waning in favor of pragmatic and economic applications of scientific discoveries that we already have. I think that at times we need a true reality check - and not just to "snap out" of our somewhat bastardized modern view of science, but to "plug in" to the world around us, and reconnect with our most fundamental experiences as humans. Only then do we ever ask the truly inspired questions of the world around us, and only then are we motivated to use the tools of modern science purely for knowledge. And this is not to say that practical science is somehow wrong; only that our focus on the practical may be diluting the potential for asking (and perhaps answering) big questions.

Consider for a second something that Dr. Tyson mentions later in his talk; a simple way of understanding our place in the universe (borrowed heavily from Carl Sagan, I suspect). When studying the universe and it's constituent parts, we find that it is composed primarily of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. All are constantly being recycled - ejected from stars in supernovae, and condensed into new star systems. Some star systems bear planets, and some planets harbor old stars' hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. On at least one such planet, these elements interact chemically to define lifeforms capable of learning and understanding the world around them. These atoms, born of stars, are collectively self-aware,sentient. Sentience is a trait we ascribe to multiple animals on Earth, including humans. If we accept this, then we are, as Carl Sagan so poetically put it, "a way for the universe to know itself."

With this in mind, science can be thought of as applied sentience; a rational approach knowing the universe, and by corollary, ourselves. Celebrating science is not merely creating new technologies, publishing papers or relishing scientific history; but rather recognizing, practicing and deeply appreciating our ability to know.

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