We're all explorers seeking an understanding of the universe. Spacecraft are returning troves of information from across the Solar System. Last week New Horizons resumed a 16-month-long transmission back to Earth to deliver science and image data it acquired during its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system at the threshold of the final frontier. Students and teachers are preparing for another school season of learning and teaching the skills necessary for exploring the world…and we’re launching a new blog.
What a pleasant coincidence.
Our innate curiosity motivates our exploration of the world. Science is the means of acquiring knowledge hidden within nature through empirical – experimental or observational – investigation of nature. Painting by Adolf Schaller. Copyright OmniCosm Studios.
While other robotic spacecraft are busily engaged in studying a fascinating variety of worlds across our Solar System, scientists back home on Earth have been peering deeply into the farthest reaches and earliest moments of the universe and into the tiniest and most energetic building blocks of matter. Other scientists are reaching back into the depths of the past. Some are reading the rocks of Earth to piece together the history of life on our planet. Paleontologists are ecstatic over the announcement of extraordinary new specimens of the human lineage recently unearthed which will add to our understanding of what our ancient ancestors were like.
I would like to talk a little bit about our blog here and about its basic theme: understanding nature through exploration and the curiosity that fosters it.
This blog will be aimed primarily at an audience I am most comfortable comporting with: kids between the ages of 5 and 115 (more or less) who have not lost their native curiosity and ability to wonder. All the rest who have grown up or are in a hurry to arrive at that dubious condition (a tragic malady that typically strikes after the age of 13) are invited as well and to share in the fun…as long as they behave themselves and refrain from making vulgar noises.
Unless culture or custom interferes, it seems, humans retain their child-like curiosity throughout life. The basic urge to explore the world – the effort to understand it – is intrinsic to the human condition. It’s as vitally important today as it was to our ancestors. We engage in it not merely as an entertaining diversion or for the sake of our amusement. The responsibility attached to acquiring knowledge is critical in order to survive and prosper with something approaching comfort and dignity. It’s a pretty serious business but that doesn’t mean we can’t harvest immense enjoyment and satisfaction out of it. It is fortunate we can and do revel in the challenge of solving mysteries, and more fortunate still that we are good at it.
Learning about the world outside of our heads teaches us something about us, what’s going on inside our heads, providing an insight into what and who we are and how we got into this peculiar situation, often disconcerting and frightening as it is, yet filled with awesome and haunting beauty. In gratifying our wonder we endow ourselves with some real measure of grace in the realization that we are not merely a part of or distinct from our natural environment, but that the greater environmental tapestry within which we find ourselves – at every scale from the subatomic to the vast clusters of galaxies that are cast across the immensity of an expanding universe – is, in a very real sense, precisely who we are. As Carl Sagan said, “We are starstuff…We are a way for the universe to know itself”.
That is a conclusion born of scientific exploration and careful examination of the natural world.
Topics to come may include most anything I find interesting about the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, once-hidden wonders which science has already revealed, perplexing mysteries we have hardly begun to fathom, and the endless fountain of questions in search of answers – any of the amazing things that inhabit and operate in the same real world we do, but that have been in constant operation for billions of years independently of and without the slightest assistance from our limited imaginations.
The joys of scientific exploration, however technically complex and sophisticated, are identical to those that come with the feelings of elation and achievement that shape each of us in childhood during such relatively monumental events as successfully accomplishing our first walking steps without toppling over; or the first haunting moment when some feature of the world delights our attention, in encountering a butterfly attending to a flower or a nest full of hungry hatchlings, or when the stars in the night sky first fixes the gaze of a child, setting the stage for a life-long companionship with wonder; or when it is exhibited in the intense blaze of light that beams forth from the eyes of a youngster on comprehending an abstract concept for the very first time in an enormous clap of ‘AHA!!!’ thunder.
It’s all the result of science in action. It is no less scientific activity for lack of formality or professional scholarship. Logical reasoning attentively applied to evidence to achieve understanding isn’t the exclusive property of professional researchers. Everybody is compelled to engage that method of teasing a meaningful understanding out of the world from the moment they face it at birth.
Early on, it is rudimentary proto-scientific activity, to be sure, but the examples cited above are precisely the reactions that are experienced by professional scientists when carefully engaged in the formal and systematic application of the scientific method, whether it is working on some delicate laboratory experiment or conducting sensitive observations with a giant telescope mounted on a mountaintop or orbiting high above our atmosphere, or while occupied in the tedious reduction or processing of a mountain of data: the familiar clap of “AHA!!!” thunder resounds whenever they encounter something new and important – this time, not over a personal discovery all kids experience as their very own, but in encountering something nobody else in the history of the world has ever seen before.
Such a scientist finds herself at the vanguard of humanity. Neil Armstrong alluded to it at the apex of another grand mission of exploration 46 years ago, but there is more behind his words than popular lore attributes, a significance beyond the comparison between his own “small step” and the “giant leap of mankind”: the effort and energy expended by many individuals are also collectively amplified and concentrated into that giant leap, representing the sum of countless little steps by thousands of technicians and engineers working in concert toward a common goal. And it constitutes advancement on the countless steps, leaps and bounds of progress (and considerable sacrifice) that have transpired in the unbroken evolutionary chain of journeys undertaken by our most remote ancestors in collaboration with their companion organisms in the biosphere reaching back to the advent of life on Earth.
It was a culmination of a program of potential which Earth had been incubating in the form of life over the course of 4.5 billion years. It reached out and touched its ancient satellite companion for the first time in over 4 billion years. We were just the means at hand in accomplishing it.
I must add that this in no way ought to suggest that the Earth embarked on any conscious intention of performing such an audacious and unlikely trick: it didn’t need to be aware to foster the evolution of life and the emergence of humans on the contingency of natural selection by the cumulative preservation of traits beneficial to survival. The emergence of biological order and complexity is spontaneously arrived at under the jurisdiction of physical laws, not by supernatural abracadabra edict. The awareness and intention of walking on the Moon belongs to us…or anything like us which might have evolved in our stead that could have performed the same feat.
Even the most primitive microbial organisms may be said to conduct a kind of primordial ‘scientific program’: they interact with their environment, encountering various chemical substances in context with specific physical conditions like the temperature or the presence of light. The chemical and physical interaction constitutes a processing of data, and it conveys useful information to the microbe about its immediate surroundings. Adaptive competence brought about by exposure to a given suite of environmental conditions through cumulative natural selection over many generations is another information processing program running in the background alongside the immediate one.
The resulting biochemical machinery becomes increasingly adept, able to cope with changing conditions in some effective or crucial way that enhances their chances of survival or that allows them to exploit vital material or energy resources and nutrients for metabolic or reproductive purposes. In effect, an individual microbe becomes incrementally more ‘knowledgeable’ about the world it lives in, conferring an improved survival advantage over its relatively ‘ignorant’ previous states. Both the microbe’s biochemical machinery and its genetic endowment are information-processing programs capable of reconfiguring itself or future versions of itself in adaptation to the changing environment. It may be rudimentary, but it is nevertheless a ‘scientific program’. The want of ‘conscious awareness’ (whatever that is) doesn’t preclude the fact that a kind of biochemical knowledge is achieved and stored and tapped to conduct the business of living.
But the basic processes involved are not unique to life. Matter we typically regard as inanimate and ‘unalive’ likewise play by the very same laws of physics that matter in the form of living organisms must. There aren’t any other laws. A chunk of granite consisting of various mineral grains composed of specific atoms and molecules in solid crystalline form constitutes a simple information-processing program that reacts with its environment in a characteristic way dictated by the laws of physics. It doesn’t do much but sit around for long spans of time, but it must respond to a changing environment of forces bent on knocking it apart and otherwise altering it, ultimately reducing it to an ever simpler configuration or state as dictated by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, what physicists call entropy.
Nothing in nature is exempt from participating in a common universe-wide process governed by an orderly and comprehensible set of physical laws. The system is total: dynamic change is compulsory for all of it, from the upheaval of galaxy collisions down to the most humble of particle interactions, it all contributes to an output state. By this view, invoking consciousness seems a superfluous and unnecessary distinction born of conceits who notice they can notice (meta-wise). The chunk of granite is oblivious to such distinctions; in all its ‘graniteness’, it ‘knows’ exactly what to do and, unlike its ‘conscious’ counterparts equipped with powerful brains, it never, ever makes mistakes.
When it comes to existing in the world, the rock is compelled to defer to the physical laws of nature. Humans must invariably defer to nature as well: we have no choice in the matter. But while scientists employ a powerful program of empirical investigation to extract information from nature in order to instruct their conceptual models of reality, many people rely on other sources…as if they exist independently of nature yet, unaccountably, contain superior information about nature. It’s a topic I will probably have to face sooner or later, but I do not relish the prospect of that joust.
But I won't shrink from it either.
We’re all born scientists, with brains primed and eager to figure out how things work from information we absorb through our senses. Every child loves the challenge of learning. We play with nature to build agile imaginations, training our capacity to construct conceptual models that are compatible with reality and testing them against the actuality. It’s entertaining and great fun…and we can be pretty good at it when we don’t distract ourselves from the object of the game.
Sometimes our infatuation with our capacity to dream up stories within our heads blocks our view of the world we need to pay attention to outside of our heads if we expect to negotiate it successfully.
It’s true that the acquisition of knowledge of nature is not always easy. Difficulties abound. Solving problems is hard work. It can be a messy and even brutal business. Circumstances beyond our control can at times thwart the mightiest effort. But we are compelled to keep trying: the consequences of ignorance are invariably worse.
As already mentioned many of us can maintain their innate child-like curiosity and remain life-long scientists who constantly play around with their conceptual models, expanding their scope, updating them with new information and, whenever necessary, rejecting inadequate models in favor of improvements. Kids are always favorably amused at the provisional nature in playing a good game, how circumstance inevitably throws surprises into the process and changes its course and complexion. They delight in testing the capacity of their conceptual models to form strategies to stay in the game. In the testing they are constantly busy at correcting or refining them, or even replacing large portions of them with better ones that new discoveries inevitably suggest. That’s part of what makes it so much fun and endlessly fascinating: the terrain constantly changes underfoot. One never knows what one may discover. Serendipity is the difference between what we expect and what’s actually there: sometimes it delivers unexpected benefits. Nature can and does surprise us precisely because we don’t always know what to expect. Fortunately, omniscience is not feature of the human mind; and if there were such an entity, the delights of surprise would be denied to it.
But whatever the nature of the struggle, the challenge is in the negotiation of the shifting terrain, to stay on one’s feet and keep absorbing information on the move. At times one seems to arrive entrapped within a box canyon with no way forward but arduous retreat in order to circumvent the obstacle. It can be hugely frustrating. (“I hate when that happens!”). But time is not always lacking and can accommodate correction. Change is an inextricable aspect of nature, and our ability to adapt on contingency is what we are supposed to be good at, one of the aspects that define the human species. That’s the other important aspect of intelligence: a reservoir of wisdom born of experience which is always available to tap. We have the capacity for prediction. Knowledge of history – the pattern of past events – can inform of us of what to expect in our future…what’s up the road, so to speak. We ignore it to our peril. In a not-so-crude analogy, we perform an example of this situation every time we drive a car. Drivers who distract themselves, who don’t keep their attention on the road and what’s happening outside the car and where we’ve been along the way, risk heading for a future full of wreckage.
On this planet, part the starstuff engaged in the process of knowing itself comes in the form of humans. Humans [sigh] - those often intimidating critters with the big brains which have such enormous information processing potential. We automatically equate large brains with ‘intelligence’, which is generally assumed to be our defining characteristic: “Humans are an intelligent species”. Why? “Well, because we’ve got these big noggins!”
But it’s much more complicated and subtle than that. A brain is only a complex kind of hardware that’s initially equipped with built in routines one might identify with basic regulatory or instinctual functions. The installation of increasingly sophisticated routines amounting collectively to a kind of software commences immediately upon an infant’s exposure to sensory information, and the process rapidly escalates to a vigorous exploration of the natural world. Parental guidance and social interaction increasingly enters the picture. Formal educational services are ideally supposed to ensure that such information and training is sufficiently effective to unlock the maximum capacity of the brain’s potential, those higher logic functions necessary for abstract reasoning as well as moral and customary behaviors attuned to the particular society it lives in.
Indeed, we are intelligent, often impressively so. We’re generally pretty good at being clever. But big complex brains come at a steep price: we’re also depressingly good at being stupid. Many forces can corrupt the software, or plant thoroughly monstrous ones. We are masterful at fooling ourselves. We’re even appallingly adept at cheating our way through life. (Compared to us, that chunk of granite I mentioned may not be very bright…but at least it can be trusted). It’s up to the ingenuity bequeathed to us by our curiosity to mitigate and circumvent the forces that promote the many corruptions that can afflict our mind’s ability to cope with surviving in the one and only world we can ever consult and are compelled to live in: natural reality. It is already all-encompassing. We cannot arrive at knowledge or the wisdom that comes with experience by looking for it outside of nature.
An engraving by an unknown artist graced a book published in 1888 by the French Astronomer Camille Flammarion, “L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire ("The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology"). It metaphorically depicts the medieval expectation that the operations that govern nature lay hidden in a mystical supernatural domain beyond the firmament, that the secrets are located someplace outside of nature. Today scientists generally recognize that science can only access the sensible natural world as the only available and viable source of knowledge. From Wikipedia Commons.
A popular confusion persists from medieval times to the present day. It identifies ‘all that is known’ with ‘all that is (potentially) knowable’ in nature. In reflex this relegates the unknown to a supernatural realm lying apart from or outside of nature. This misidentification of the conceptual artifacts in our minds with the actuality is a common error. It is related to what the artist René Magritte was pointing out when he entitled a painting of his depicting a pipe, "This is not a Pipe". When the towering intellectual cogniscenti of the art world asked him how that could not be a pipe, he simply answered: "Of course it is not a pipe. Try filling it with tobacco".
In other words, we must be careful to remember that the representation of reality in our heads isn't the actuality that we perceive outside of our heads. And any of the impressions we gather during the course of a lifetime will never constitute anything more than an inadequate picture of the actuality..Our only recourse is to keep refining our conceptual models, our mental pictures...our beliefs We should not cherish any of our particular beliefs as much as we ought to cherish our ability to improve them.
Modern science recognizes that the realm of the unknown – that frontier into which our reservoir of knowledge penetrates like a modest but growing bubble in a vast ocean – is nevertheless part of nature. It is just the part - by far the major part - that hasn't been discovered yet. The advent of that modern scientific perspective may, in large part, be attributed to the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1747), who described his own personal journey:
"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
Yet Newton himself was so awed by the order in nature that he – who “does not feign hypothesis” – himself could not shake off the strong tradition of a mystical cause and personification behind it to account for it. Newton was beset with mysticism to an extent that is difficult for many today to understand. But we must reflect that anyone with his appetite to understand and gigantic capacity to distill pattern out of jumble, finding himself in an arena at a time when precise experimental and observational data were insufficient to his means (Kepler being an exception) might well attempt to satisfy the appetite for input elsewhere, from a penetrating yet ultimately useless examination of religious texts.
In Newton's mighty struggle to define God within the context of logical reasoning as espoused by rational discourse in a language not always amenable to easy translation from abstract mathematical or visual conceptions, one is struck that his descriptions might as well have applied directly to the inanimate order within nature. It is as if he was unaware that his description of a 'being' was ultimately unecessary to the kernal of what he attempted to describe.
Personification aside, it isn’t terribly surprising that he concludes that the investigation of things under the jurisdiction of the ‘order’ which he loved “does certainly belong to natural philosophy”. ('Natural philosophy' is what science in Newton’s time was called. It is to be noted that the modern study of nature in the form of science has dispensed with the philosophical requirement as unnecessary to the task of empirical investigation: science needn’t be hobbled by questions involving intentions or answers to ‘why?’, nor to questions of morals and ethics. Its quite sufficient that it concerns itself with the ponderables of the 'what' and the 'how', with the measureables of the 'where' and the 'when'. Answers and inferences can be worked out from them.).
As Newton viewed it, order is a quality that exists within nature. If nature is considered as the realm of existence in all its totality, past and potential, infinite and eternal, as Newton prescribed, it becomes rather nonsensical to suppose that order should somehow be bestowed upon it from the outside. After all, the only 'place' or 'device' outside of nature defined as the totality of existence would be a condition of nonexistence. That would not make any sense in THIS realm of sensibly manifest existence...as long as logic (a feature of existence) points to the sensible (a feature of existence) as an aspect of order (a feature of existence) that must obviously defer to a nature, according to the definition suggested...as a realm of existence..
(I hope I haven't annoyed too many readers with that excursion into the obvious larded with repetition. If anyone has a problem with it, think of it as poetry, ok?)
No scientists dispute that order is an attribute of and within nature. They encounter and deal with it constantly. So do we all. To insist it needs a location in a supernatural realm outside of, or separate from it would not only be redundant but incredibly inelegant. It would constitute a degradation of existence: nature doesn’t need a side order of fries to justify it as a complete meal.
As learning beings surfing together on the shockwave of time we sense as the ongoing, perpetual present, we are all embarked on a great journey of discovery that has slowly gathered steam from the earliest moments of the universe, when matter and energy first began to congeal and assemble into galaxies, stars, planets, and, eventually on at least one small world adrift on the vast ever-expanding sea of space-time, life and people. We are but another phenomenon in that universe, a product ordered not by phantoms inhabiting our fantasies, but by the real order described by laws of nature.
Curiosity isn’t the exclusive property of humans either. It’s evident in many animals we share this planet with. And it’s a quality that we probably share with similarly intelligent beings anywhere it might blossom in the cosmos. It is probably a necessary feature of exploratory behavior. If humans are a way for the universe to know itself, it’s only a local bloom in a potentially vast and fertile cosmic garden sprinkled amongst the galaxies, much of it busy at knowing itself. We’re only a small cabbage in that patch.
It probably contains a great many cabbages, so let’s relax and quit bragging about how special one of them may be.
I’ll have more to say on this topic from time to time, but it’s an awfully big garden, so let’s get going.
…off we go, into that wild bloom yonder!
Copyright Adolf Schaller and Donna Tracy.
A Supernova explodes in the Milky Way galaxy 4.6 billion years ago, furnishing the interstellar medium with more of the heavy elements that formed our planetary system and life on Earth. Painting by Adolf Schaller. Copyright Adolf Schaller and Donna Tracy.