24 November 2009

We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

From Symphony of Science - all of a sudden, Auto Tune is incredible (props to my cousin for the original link).

I have a few comments on this video. First, I love the chorus: "We are connected to... the rest of the universe, atomically." It makes science personal - this is our connection to stars and galaxies! The carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen that constitute human beings are the same elements that make up the largest structures in the universe. When your coach tells you to eat steak for the iron in it, it's the same iron that triggers a supernova.

And it isn't just the existence connection that's exciting; it's that the connection is miraculously on the smallest level! That's a big reason why I'm excited to be working on a particle accelerator - even physics on the smallest scale seeks to explain our place on the largest. The scientists in the video reflect this: Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are astronomers, while Richard Feynman pioneered quantum electrodynamics - physics on the subatomic level. These are three of the greatest communicators of science in the modern era, and it's no coincidence that they come from opposite ends of scale.

Secondly, I love the way they speak about the universe. They treat it with an almost mystical reverence - "We are made of starstuff - We are a way for the cosmos to know itself" - it makes science exciting, a fundamental part of human endeavor and passion. "Nature's imagination... he is never going to let us relax." Nature as a living, breathing antagonist makes the quest for understanding seem so much more epic, more seductive, than nature (lowercase n) as a simple set of rules to solve.

Unfortunately, I have seen the way we talk about science in the public forum trend more and more toward dry, impersonal descriptions of algorithmic processes that lack any sense of wonder. "How do you do science? You test a hypothesis, and if it's wrong, you just check your assumptions." That is nearly a direct quotation from a thread in a forum I read once - how boring does that sound! Who would ever want to spend their life on something so formulaic, so lacking in creativity? I suppose on some level it's true, but statements like this really disguise the mystery and difficulty of forcing the universe to cough up its most closely-guarded secrets.

As an aside, it is my opinion that this decayed, insipidly stale portrayal of natural processes is in large part the result of the intelligent design debate. Intelligent design advocates are so intent on reinterpreting language, not facts, to support their theories that scientists have become afraid of anthropomorphizing Nature for fear of giving their opponents ammunition. "Evolution tries..." "The universe wants..." - these phrases are slowly being purged from our scientific vocabulary. Personally, I think science will survive all the better if we remember to keep it interesting and attractive to new people, and simply let pseudoscience wear itself out.

I know that the molecules in my body are traceable
To phenomena in the cosmos
That makes me want to grab people in the street
And say, have you heard this?