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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Thoughts - The Wonders and Woes of Science

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I've often been asked by a variety of people why I have chosen to study science, namely Astrophysics, of all things.  It is a difficult question to answer truthfully, as the idea is not simple to explain in casual conversation.  However, in an attempt to figure this out for myself on a flight yesterday, I came up with an analogy which explains all the facets of science and what it means to study it to a tee.

Imagine a Jigsaw puzzle.  This puzzle is unlike any other that has ever existed, if only in the sense that it is being built to discover what the picture on the box is.  Mankind has been building this puzzle since its inception onto the Earth, and it is difficult to say with any sort of certainty anything of its progress except that we have more of the picture now than we did then.  The puzzle, from what we have gathered so far, is massive, with what parts we have of the frame measuring thousands of miles in each direction and pieces as small as coins.  And we don't even know where all the pieces are.

The puzzle, of course, is knowledge.  The pieces are those little papers and studies that are published every year by scientists.  They're all the little discoveries.  Scientists are  people who devote their lives to seeking out the pieces and trying to fit them in to what parts of the puzzle we already have.    And the pictures we have already formed are magnificent.  We have small segments of the large picture that show us how rain works, and how life carries out its functions.  We have other pictures showing us how things we can't even see affect other things, and we're even inching closer to a clear picture on how the universe began.  But we're still far from the big picture.

How about the study of sciences?  Throughout grade school, children are informed about the great puzzle of science and they are even shown a few pieces here and there.  However, every once in a while a particularly good teacher will show a few seemingly unrelated pieces to students and show them how they fit together, sowing the seeds for future scientists.  In college, those of us who have decided that searching for pieces of the puzzle is a worthwhile endeavor are divided into groups.  After all, the puzzle is far too large already for any single person to see it all and help on all sides.  There are pieces hidden within the Earth that Geologists and Geophysicists look for, and pieces hidden in tiny particle interactions that Chemists look for.  Pieces in life forms that Biologists tend to and pieces in space that Astronomers look for and pieces in the many facets of the fabric of reality that Physicists and Mathematicians search for.  And once you choose where you want to look, you take years to first see all the pieces that have already been found.  Once you're done and you've seen all that has been done in an area, you may contribute to it yourself.

And, of course, given the gravity of a task that assembling all of knowledge is, there is no room for error.  Whenever someone finds a piece, every scientist flocks around to make sure that it fits into the puzzle just like they say it does.  And if it doesn't, it's removed or replaced.  Sometimes this happens quickly, as with the recent claim of arsenic-based life, and sometimes it can take quite a while longer, as with the piece that Newton put in place that looked fine for centuries until Einstein put a better piece in its place.  Some pieces are placed in the puzzle right when they are found, like Darwin's little piece which fit snugly into a biological segment and giving many other pieces a home, while others are found but seem to have no clear place or only a couple of attachments, like the recently discovered facts that electrons are the closest things to mathematically perfect spheres in existence. 

And this is where the joy of looking for the puzzle pieces resides.  It's putting together the blueprints for the universe and seeing how everything is interconnected.  It's learning something totally new and paving the way for so many other puzzle pieces to be placed.  Finding a new piece that ties things neatly together or a piece that shows something previously thought impossible is actually possible is the joy of science.  Helping complete the puzzle of knowledge is the most satisfying endeavor one can undertake.  However, it is also in many ways the saddest.

Scientists do not fear death in the way that other people do.  They do not fear dying per se, they simply regret not being able to live forever.  Because the woe of the scientist, the true, merciless, unforgiving truth, is knowing that no matter how long you live, and no matter how many pieces of the puzzle you place, you will never see the picture on the box.  And that is a terrible thing indeed.

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