Grandeur

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
—Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

The nebula NGC 6357, containing some of the most massive stars known. These stars produce such energetic light as to erode a cavity into the cocoon of gas they inhabit, leaving the cathedral in the image. [Credit: NASA, ESA and J. M. Apellániz (IAA, Spain)]

I feel sometimes as though I spend far too much time thinking and writing in response to antiscience and pseudoscience in its various forms. When elected officials and school boards attempt to undermine science, or consciously equate scientific knowledge with evil, I tend to take that kind of thing personally. My mission (inasmuch as I have one) is to share the science I love with other people. Part of that is helping people understand how science works, at least ideally, so as to combat the idea that it’s a matter of personal opinion or belief.

Much of the strength of science paradoxically lies in its provisional and collective nature: we rely on evidence from a variety of sources to inform our theories, which we can revise if necessary in the face of new data. That’s why we trust not the authority of individual scientists (who are human and often wrong), but the collective enterprise of research and revision. A century ago, scientists could and did have a significant debate over the age of Earth, but today a wealth of data has led us to a remarkably precise value. Will we revise that number? Possibly. Will we change it drastically? It’s highly unlikely, simply because we rely on several different methods to come at the same answer.

I have no interest in debating science vs. religion in the abstract. I don’t think that’s a useful or productive way to spend time. Suffice to say that plenty of scientists have religious faith, and many religious people of many faiths have no problem either with the scientifically determined age of the Universe or evolution. I prefer to frame things as science vs. antiscience, those who accept science as a valid means to understand our beautiful cosmos, and those who take a buffet approach: accepting convenient ideas (those that allow them to use their cell phones, antibiotics), while rejecting those that they don’t like (evolution, cosmology, geology). Your faith or lack thereof is not something really that’s up for debate anyway: I won’t sway you, you won’t sway me, and you won’t even find out what I believe or don’t believe by reading this blog.

On the other hand, I do find beauty in this view of life and the Universe: that it obeys physical laws comprehensible to human beings. I find wonder in understanding the cosmos better, in studying it through physics and astronomy. Anyone can learn at least a little about these wonderful stars, planets, atoms, nuclei, forces, symmetries, galaxies, and (not least) living things that are the components of our Universe. Those of us who love science don’t hide it as mysterious knowledge, keeping it only for elite initiates, but share our love to anyone who will listen. The joy is in learning, the wonder is in knowing, the beauty emerges and our lives are transformed.

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