Far from discouraging any of us, the opening chapter of Stuart Clark’s book, The Unknown Universe, to which I’ve linked, ought to encourage us that there are still thousands upon thousands of details to be discovered and explored about the cosmos in which we live.
All of us labor under a misapprehension of the nature and power of truth. Truth, whether it is scientific truth or personal truth, is always an approximation, and always provisional. It exists as a concept by which human beings can organize their lives and by which they can learn, but it does not exist and never has existed–even in the realm of science–as an absolute, inviolable standard. The parameters which science is fit to measure can be approximated to a satisfying degree; they can be–and have been–confirmed to such an extent that it would be perverse to deny the truth of the laws of physics or of our biological development; but only a supreme blockhead would try to maintain that there’s nothing left to know, nothing left to learn. Truth exists to be refined, especially within the fields of science. And as scientists endeavor to refine the truth that concerns them, it is important to understand that they are exercising in that activity a kind of faith, powerful and persistent, that the answers they seek are there; the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves.
We need not think of scientists, then, as madmen and women dashing about in white lab coats in a lightning-crowned laboratory atop a mountain somewhere. Some of them do work atop mountains to be sure, but even they join the rest of their colleagues and us in the daily effort to pay bills, buy groceries, raise their kids, file taxes, wash clothes, and take in a movie every once in a while. They have values; they worry in their hearts about the same things their fellow citizens do. They hope, just as we all do, for a future that is simply the best we could have imagined. The difference between them and us, if there is such a difference, is that their talents and their curiosity bring them a lot closer to the ultimate origin of all that can be known than most of us will ever get. With due acknowledgement of that high privilege, then, what a pleasure it is to realize that so many of those scientists are willing and able to share what they know and how they found out what they know. They are even willing to talk about, and take responsibility for, their failures. Such behavior is commendable in the highest, and we do not find it to the same degree in every other field.
We live in tremendous days for science; the best days, really, we’ve ever seen. We will see even more wondrous things fifty and a hundred years from now, as we colonize Mars, explore the life on Europa and Titan, and gauge the age and depth of the universe even more accurately with the Webb telescope. We will prevent and cure diseases that currently kill us because of our advancing knowledge of genetics. New machines will do for us on Earth and in the heavens what human beings cannot or should not do.
But will we find the answer to it all? Will we solve the “mystery”? The question is vague, and that means the answer is “No.” We’re not likely to discover a Unified Field Theory for the Universe in fifty years. We will be making mistakes along the way in learning about the human genome and how to use what we know. We are unlikely to be able to harness the immense power available in the stars until at least another century has passed, and perhaps not even in two centuries. But the unlikelihood of all these events forms the very reason scientists (and the rest of us) need to keep going to work each day, and the reason we need to perpetuate our survival. Humans love to solve mysteries, but we realize we’re not going to solve all of them. The wisest among us are prepared both to live and to die with that bittersweet truth in our minds. But while we live, we are going to explore; we are going to learn; we are going to argue; we are going to know.