Driving across the vast red fertile Cambridgeshire countryside in the Spring dusk, under monstrously intimidating purple skies, the mentality of the medieval peasant becomes crystal clear. Tethered to his plough from sunrise to sunset like a fly on that landscape, what else could he believe other than that he was merely a plaything of some omnipotent ever-watchful being, whose only hope of security and sustenance was through a powerful intermediary, such as the church?
But knowing what we now know, something else reveals itself like magic, namely the fact that in that chamber, the Earth feels as if it is going around the Sun. That the western horizon really is hurtling upwards at over 1,000 miles per hour, in defiance of the word ‘sunset’. Cosmic vertigo is merely a matter of perspective, as in an opitical illusion, which the medieval peasant was denied.
Many people are puzzled by science, and with good reason. Firstly, our education system does it no justice, leading many to have coniptions about CERN, and the Evil Black Hole about to eat us all at the taxpayers expense. In their minds CERN and Mordor are much the same thing, but also, we have reached a stage where the discoveries being made are so outside our experience that words are useless to explain them. Which sounds like a bet.
The exotic world of Quantum Physics can be made to sound like pure Voodoo, and the Laws of Thermodynamics like the biblical Apocalypse, and sometimes are by people in suits who knock on my door on Sunday mornings trying to break up my family and make me hate my friends. But in reality, even the most bizarre outreaches of theoretical science are just another way of looking at the world, but with some evidence for the claims made. A scientific theory is not just a mental doodle on the back of an envelope. Opponents of science like to claim that their explanations are as valid as any scientific theory, which is to deliberately misunderstand what a scientific theory is (and science itself).
The United States National Academy of Sciences defines scientific theories as follows:
‘The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory) …One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.’
In other words, just inventing an explanation for why we’re here, however colourful, is not science. You have to show it works. For most of human existence it was perfectly obvious that the Sun went round the Earth – it still is obvious, and very difficult for most to disprove. The Sun ‘rises’ every day, after all. When the opposite was proven, We were suddenly no longer the centre of the Cosmos, as had been ‘obvious’ since time immemorial. Not least, this undermined the basis of most religions at a stroke, but also it showed us that we could not always trust our immediate first impressions, and that other forces were at work which required study and calculation to unearth, not blind faith and obedience to the dogma of our ancestors, who we then knew were fallible. In other words it told us that we knew hardly anything, and couldn’t trust the past with the truth. All science does is express the resulting curiosity, and continue making us re-assess ourselves, which is progressive. All the comforts and cures follow naturally from that project. Without it we would all still be happy in our mud huts.
The point of science is not primarily to make life more comfortable, or even to accumulate piles of knowledge, but to locate Us in the Cosmos as honestly as possible. The main effect of the major scientific discoveries is their effect on how we see ourselves in relation to everything else, from the tiniest sub-particle or vibration to the entire Universe itself, and how it all works around and within us.
Most scientists accept that we will never know everything, though we may find out how most of it works. But some also feel that we are simply not evolved to understand the deepest secrets of the Universe. Why should we be? What are we to the universe that it should weep for our ignorance? If, in the end, science only ends up proving that ‘theory’ it will have done its job after a fashion. But unless we look,we will never know, and the bi-products of looking are the advances we all take for granted in technological societies, plus a truly spiritual experience for those interested.