The rising star of science

Too many people are still afraid of science because they don’t know how much it has to give. Tell them.

We don’t talk about it, but I confess. I have my zonk moments. Every once in a while I look at these equations, equations I deal with every day, and it strikes me that they have the power to show us how the universe works, how it was born, how structures formed, what holds matter together and what makes it move. These equations, the funny looking scribbles on my notepad, they are our connection to the universe.

When I have one of my zonk moments, I get a coffee, watch the clouds and remind myself that next to being awesome these equations also pay my rent, so I better write a very polite reply to this referee who wasn’t quite as awed by my notepad.

We don’t talk about it, but I am sure scientists of other disciplines have similar experiences. The embryologist reflecting on the origin of life, the neurologist contemplating the mystery of consciousness, the student working on protein folding. They are all in touch with the fundamental laws that make our universe work. They all hold a piece of truth in their hands, in their brains, and in their hearts.

We don’t talk about it, but science isn’t just a profession. It’s a way to make sense of the world. It’s a way to find unity with nature. Most scientists are atheists, not so much because belief and superstition has no place in science, but because, as Laplace put it so aptly, God is a useless hypothesis. Why spend the Sunday in church when you can spend it in the lab?

I’ve grown up an atheist, I was never baptized. I didn’t know much of God until I went to school and had to attend religion class, against my mother’s will. All our friends, neighbors, and relatives were Christians. As teenager I regularly attended mass with my friends based on reasoning I much later learned is known as “Pascal’s Wager”: God either exists or doesn’t, but if he exists you’re better off believing in him, so go and pray. If Pascal were alive today he might have summed it up as better safe than sorry.

I quite liked it in church. I liked the singing, the cookies, and the foosball table in the basement. But I’m still an atheist and still not baptized. How could Pascal not have seen that in the end you will be sorry having wasted the time of your life on make-believe? There was nothing the bible could give me that I couldn’t get much better out of the science fiction aisle. Religion just seemed useless to me. But I recognize its use for many other people.

A real star: Regulus Leo. Image credits: Russell Croman.

Today the star of science is rising and it’s shining brightly. The success of Ethan’s great collection here is one proof for this rise. Science communication has really taken off during the last decade. We now have our public heroes. Physics is suddenly cool. We have Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We have the Big Bang Theory. We have the Symphony of Science and A Capella Science. Fabiola Gianotti, who will be director of CERN starting January 1st, was a runner’s up to the 2012 Time Person of the Year! Movies like Interstellar and the Theory of Everything are box office hits. The facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” is hugely popular. And if that isn’t enough fuck-yeah, there’s always FluidDynamics.

Particle Physicist Fabiola Gianotti was a runners up to the 2012 Time person of the year.

Yes, science has its preachers now, but they are preaching to the choir. The world is still dominated by religion rather than science, it is still full with people who think that the laws of nature are somehow optional, that you can either believe or not believe in scientific evidence. And this religious dominance stalls the progress we need to improve the lives of the sick and poor.

How come that in a time when the light of science shines so brightly, many people still prefer sitting in the dark?

I think they are afraid. They are afraid that science will take more from them than it will give. In the public mind, science is white coats in a LED-lit lab with machines humming in the back, keyboards clicking. It’s facts and numbers, sterile and soulless. Religion is singing and praying together in a wooden church, it’s candlelight, community, tradition, and comfort. I think they’re afraid for a reason.

The stereotypical image of science: Sterile, distant, impersonal. Image source:

We don’t talk about it, but science isn’t always easy on you. It tells you things you’d rather not hear. It tells you that life in the universe can only exist for a limited amount of time. 10 billion years is a lot, but it will end one day. Science tells you that praying doesn’t cure cancer, that there is no immortal soul that lives when your body rots away. Science tells you there is nobody to watch over you, and that there are no rights and wrongs other than the ones that we create. Scientists deliver the truth and then leave you alone to deal with it.

Scientists of course have their community, but it’s not a community open to the public. To the public, the big idols who preach science on TV are distant and the local scientists strangers. Science isn’t supportive like religion, it is deeply impersonal, maybe even more so today than in the last centuries when research was more pastime of the rich than profession. If you are struggling to make sense of life, you don’t go and talk to a professor of neurology. If you’re suffering from unrequited love you don’t look for advice in a journal of evolutionary psychology. If you’re having a phase of bad luck, you don’t seek solace by attending a lecture on statistics. Science isn’t helpful for most people because they don’t know what science has to give. And nobody is there to tell them.

If you are a scientist, it is an interesting exercise to use the word “spirituality” in a conversation with your colleagues. You will notice them gradually inching away from you. Did I just see you flinch when the word came up? We don’t talk about it.

We don’t talk about it, but each of us in science has learned to accept the truth and to gain strength from understanding the ways of nature rather than being afraid. We have learned that we are part of the universe, we belong into this world and it couldn’t be any different. We have seen the beauty of fundamental symmetry and the beauty only created by breaking the symmetry. We are all made of starstuff, but only some of us know what this means. One cannot find peace of mind until one stops forcing oneself to believe in what has no support in reality. One cannot see how it all belongs together until one stops being afraid of science.

But scientists’ biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Our unfaltering faith that truth will prevail, eventually, because it is inescapable, is also the reason why so few of us care about those who are afraid of science. We don’t talk about how science is our connection to the universe, about the unity of fundamental law, about the harmony of nature that we find in our work. We don’t talk about our spirituality and their spirituality. We don’t talk about how important science is for our sense-making, how important it is for us personally.

We don’t talk about it, but we should. “Fear not, for behold,” the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Please tell them.

If you’re reading my blog you know that I passionately hate the “Symphony of Science” because it’s hard to dehumanize music more than by autotuning snippets of talking heads. I can’t sing either, but after a year of practice I have learned to use a multiband-compressor and de-esser. I also bought a pretty cool dress in the Halloween sale, so please enjoy my end of the year message. ☺ Happy Holidays to all readers of Starts with a Bang!

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