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Why Science!!

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

This blog is dedicated to Science. But as the first post, I would like to put forward my thoughts on why it is important, for each one of us, to understand Science.

1. Science (almost) answers the big questions:

A news item in The Hindu front page today reports of Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails, who were released after close to 25 years. And a picture in one of the inner pages showed one of those men crossing the India Pakistan check post. Looking at his picture, I wondered what must be going on in his mind. That reminded me of the final scenes of The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman walks away from Jail wondering what to do with his life. I frequently think about how I will be at 60. What will I feel. How will I look back at my life? How will I face death. Many things I see lead me to think about my own death. It is easy, and probably sensible too, to live each day as if we are never going to die. And that is what almost all of us do almost all of the time. The problem with me, I think, is that the fact of our own imminent death keeps cropping up in my mind a lot more frequently than in others. Though it is not a very happy thought, I just cannot seem to get rid of it from my mind. But such thoughts also keep me thinking on the big questions of life. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Thankfully, we have Science to answer those questions. If you want to move away from this page at this point thinking “What nonsense!”, I request you to allow me to explain.

Who in this world, would not want to know why he/she is here? I cannot to think of a more important question. Have you ever wondered how this Earth was before any of us were here? Before any living organisms at all? How was it even before the Earth came into existence? Is it not a mind-boggling thought that the place that we think, has been there for ever, was not there at some point in the past (roughly 4,540,000,000 years (4.5 billion) ago), and will not be there at some point in the future (at least life will become impossible when the Sun, which will die at about some 5,000,000,000 – 5 billion years from now, will bake our planet after engulfing Mercury and Venus). But, of course, we will not be there for that to happen. We will die in another 40-50 years. Since we will not be there, do such things really matter to us??

That brings me to the question of our own existence. Imagine you are a bacterium. No, I mean it. Really imagine. Try hard. Continue only if you can. But the thing is we cannot. They are not conscious. So we cannot imagine how it is to be a bacterium. A bacterium does not know it exists, the earth exists, the universe exists and so does not have to face all the troubling questions that such consciousness brings along with it. But then we are all descendants of such non-conscious organisms which are descendants of non living chemicals. The consciousness we have is itself an accident. Accident, in the sense that, there is no universal rule that conscious organisms need to evolve. And if not for us intelligent humans, there would be nothing in the universe to observe the universe. We humans, who evolved using the raw materials (like carbon) that came into existence due to stars, are now observing the universe itself. Our whole body is made of raw materials that were given out by stars. As Carl Sagan said “We are all made of star stuff” and “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”.

In such a context, it is perplexing to think of ourselves. Science has shown us there is a perfectly natural explanation for our existence. Right from the formation of chemicals to our evolution as conscious living beings. If all our existence owes itself to the entirely natural process of the birth of stars and biological evolution, are we no more purposeful that the stones that we see around us? By purpose, I am referring neither to the biological purpose of reproducing and passing on genes, since that purpose is itself a blind product of the fact that only those are interested in reproducing actually reproduce, nor to the purpose that we humans ourselves assign to our lives. The very question of what is our purpose, does not make sense. It is like asking what is the purpose of a grain of sand on a beach. Of course its arrival there can be explained. The consequences of its being there can also be determined. But neither of it is its purpose. That it does something or causes something, does that mean that, that “something” is its purpose. it has no specific work or function that it is meant to do. It is there as a result of a naturally occurring process. Our life too is similar. There is no specific purpose. But that fact that there is no purpose to our lives is also a part of why our lives are so amazing. If our existence does not have a purpose then why are we born? What is it that we have to do? Here we are, absolutely unintentionally (there is nobody to intend) conscious, but being able to ponder over those very questions, and trying to work out the very process the brought us here.

To realise the complete ramifications of this incredible truth, try this thought. Suppose you put in a few elements like Carbon, Hydrogen and a few others into a jar. After a few days, suppose they start combining together to reproduce. A couple of weeks later, they start becoming organisms that can move around. At the end of the 4th week they start thinking about all that has happened in the last 4 weeks. Does not that thought sound ridiculous and absurd? From nothing to consciousness? But that is what has happened to us. Only on a completely different timescale. But that does not reduce the wonder of it a bit.

And it is such deep mysteries that Science can uncover for us. And that to me is the foremost reason to learn science.

2. Our life is too good an opportunity to be squandered away without understanding Science:

Our existence is an extremely fortunate thing. 99.9% of species that have ever lived have become extinct. Moreover, natural selection works by eliminating non-beneficial mutations. Thus every offspring, that had a slight disadvantage due to some mutation was eliminated. Thus if we are alive today, it is because every one of our ancestors since life originated (that was about 3.5 billion years ago) successfully reproduced. Numerous cousins of our ancestors have perished. We are lucky to be alive. And even more fortunate to be conscious. It is staggering to think that we are all made of mindless atoms. Let me quote Bill Bryson here from his book “A Shot History of Nearly everything” (since I cannot even dream of writing like him at any stage). “For all the devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, they don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive, but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single rigid impulse: to keep you you.” That is how amazing our life is.

As we live today, we are not only fortunate because we exist. We are also extremely fortunate to exist at this time. At a time after scientists have worked out a lot of things for us. After they have cleared up a lot of mysteries. Today we know, at least the big picture, of how we came about to be here, at least till the big bang. We have gone out into space. Been to the Moon a few times. Placed a telescope above the atmosphere to observe the outer space. We have understood evolution, discovered DNA, and are on our way to create synthetic life. With so much happening, I can’t for a second imagine, what I would have done had I been born a few centuries earlier. I would have also possibly thought that the stars in the sky are holes in a black dome engulfing our earth, that the sun revolved around the earth, an eclipse is a bad omen and other such things.

Different stages of the Annular Solar Eclipse on 15th Jan 2010. Photos taken at Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, India.

In Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, he explains quantum entanglement (the strange fact that two quantum particles that are very far away from each other seem to communicate instantaneously (faster than the speed of light) even though exceeding the speed of light is impossible as per the laws of physics). Here he explains how scientists did experiments to test the entanglement. The whole chapter is fascinating. And the fact that it could be understood with some basic school level probability knowledge is what made it such a memorable one. And the happiness that the understanding gave me cannot be expressed sufficiently. But such was the joy, that I wanted to tell it to everybody I met. I would have missed it had the Scientists not worked on it before me.

Thus being here at this time is somewhat like winning the lottery. Moreover, who knows what will happen in future. When will we colonise another planet? How will the new civilisation be? When will we start creating life? What will be the new scenarios as the result of being able to create synthetic life? Will we find solutions that can allow us to indefinitely survive as a species? For that matter, will we find solutions to make ourselves immortal? Imagine how it would be when the Sun dies out. How would we have evolved by then? Will the Universe go on for ever? Or like the Big Bang, is there some way that the Universe will end? All tremendously fascinating questions. Would anybody say they would not want to know the answers to them? But unfortunately none of us will be around to know the answers. What would I not do to live forever to see all these things!! However uncomfortable, my death is a certainty. I don’t see an elixir of youth being invented in my lifetime (though I think it will be eventually invented). It is an irreconcilable fact that I cannot, however hard I try, see what is going to happen say a billion (or for that matter even a 1000) years from now. But that only makes me eager to know all that we have discovered so far about life, our universe and everything else.

Imagine this from the perspective of a human being who existed a few centuries ago. If we could bring him back alive and tell him that we have gone to the moon, sent a spacecraft to Mars, and have other spacecrafts going past the end of the Solar System. Imagine what his feelings would be. But we being here today, when Science has made so much progress, should not miss the opportunity we have. We must understand how much progress we have made. Because, do whatever, you will not get a chance again. Never again. NEVER.

“Isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”. That quote from Richard Dawkins, sums up what I am trying to say.

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