My father was a chemical engineer. In the last year of his life he was reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” He used to talk my ear off about black holes and the speed of light. I was more interested in listening to the Misfits, growing my hair out, and skating the local mini ramps. But his enthusiasm was contagious.
I remember him telling me that a person traveling on a space ship at the speed of light would age more slowly than a person on Earth. I remember him telling me that nothing — not even light — could escape from a black hole. He was fascinated, electrified by these ideas. And he wanted to electrify me with them as well.
Some of what he said must have registered with me, though, because a few years ago I found myself in a quandary about those same two subjects: black holes and light speed. Memories of him came flooding back to me, and I suddenly wished I had paid more attention when he spoke. Then it occurred to me that I could simply read a book and find out for myself.
The book I read shocked me much as Hawking’s book must have shocked my father two decades ago. It was amazing: here was a book so rich in information, so eloquent in explanation and so unpretentious in its delivery that I couldn’t believe it was that easy. Could the secrets of the universe really be available to someone with no background in science or mathematics, and for the price of a paperback?
What a discovery! (The book, by the way, was “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan). A window opened and the fresh air of inquiry filled the room. You could find out nearly anything you wanted to know just by opening a book. I’d just discovered what goes by the moniker of “popular science” writing.
The funny thing was that I was no stranger to books. I’d worked in bookstores for years but routinely snubbed the science section. I’d always considered it one notch above psychology (yawn). Today it’s the first place I go when I enter a bookshop, and I comb the shelves with alacrity for exciting new writers.
My love of science writing is manifestly a love of science writers. They’re the ones who translate the complexities and intricacies of science to a general public (how I reviled the general public in those days, too!) and make it the stuff of page-turners. I may never have an advanced understanding of chemistry or physics, but there are dozens of writers capable of explaining the structure of DNA and quantum tunneling who make me feel as if I do. This is no easy task.
When I read about carbon dating (Earth is about 4.5 billion years old), universes popping into existence from nothing, probabilities and the evolution of species I long to share my increasing knowledge with my father. Knowledge increases wonder, and there’s no danger of running out of either in the world of scientific discovery. It seems every day we hear about some new milestone: an “Earth-like” exoplanet revolving around a nearby star, fossil fish with feet, and a particle that moves faster than light (alas, a false alarm).
Science has a reputation as being boring, difficult and elitist. Who doesn’t conjure up an image of nerds in white coats and Coke-bottle glasses, puttering about and torturing mice in a sterile lab? But the reality is rather different. Just consider the word “revolution.” It comes from Copernicus, the man whose revolutionary idea was that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was tried — and condemned — by Inquisition enforcers for his adherence to Copernican cosmology. Only later did the word enter political jargon and become more or less synonymous with “upheaval.”
Science has always been at the forefront of social progress. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Founding Fathers were all scientifically literate men, if not scientists themselves. Nor should it be surprising that totalitarian regimes are fundamentally anti-scientific. The beauty of science is that free inquiry is required for it to work. It is fundamentally a liberal enterprise whose archenemy is dogma.
This is because it seeks truth: not truth as we wish it to be, but truth as things are. And this is why science and religion are (despite many attempts to reconcile them) largely incompatible. Religion is a set of fossilized ideas. What was “true” two millennia ago is just as “true” today. It resists change. Science, on the other hand, thrives on it. It is not a heresy to challenge the most established ideas in science; it’s de rigeur. It’s how progress is achieved.
I began this piece by talking about my father. Now that I’m a father I think about him often. He wasn’t a perfect man. He could be extremely difficult at times, had a bad temper and often meted out punishment that outweighed the offenses. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for me to be objective about him. But in the last years of his life he was able to ignite in me a passion for knowledge that I hope to pass on to our daughter. And that’s what I call progress.