If you read nearly any kind of literature in the past few centuries, you may notice an interesting pattern. In many of them, the concept of science is looked down upon, as if science is something to be disdained. Instead of being heralded as one of the most important endeavours in human history, a common thread people attach themselves to is that of the mystery-killer.
Science kills the mystique of the world, so they say.
This has always greatly angered me. Like Richard Feynman, I detested this idea. I’ve found it to be simply untrue (even to the point of being the direct opposite of what I feel science to be). This thought has literary stems that have pierced through many cultures, and that is why science has been looked down upon.
Let’s be honest: it’s more entertaining to believe a person in a cave-converted-home is in charge of the Earth’s weather than it is to understand the intricate processes of Earth’s weather patterns.
However, just because one is more entertaining than the other, doesn’t mean it ruins the other. Furthermore, it’s not nearly as useful to know believe the former mindset than to know the latter.
The issue, of course, is that understanding science and using it to explain phenomena doesn’t aid the imagery of a writer or an artist. Where once the sky represented the heavens and chance for a utopia, now it is simply a volume of air, with nothing particularly special behind it (compared to a place like a utopia). This is why people complain about science “ruining” the mystery of how a specific phenomena works. Where once a rich image existed with promises of things verging on the supernatural, there now lies an image that can be fully explained and understood. For some people, this is the definition of an anticlimax.
As a consequence of stripping away the imagery, people accuse science of removing a veil that shouldn’t removed. A common complaint I have heard echoed by several people is that science replaces the mystery and awe of something with cold equations that explain how it works.
However, this is not true at all. First of all, the most crucial thing to understand is that science does not seek to “wow” or impress people. Science is also not a story (no matter our ability to construct one in retrospect). Instead, science is about observing and explaining what is really there. Think about that for a second. It’s not adding or removing anything. If you had some sort of fantasy about how the world worked that was comfortable for you, science is only pointing out the obvious flaws in that perspective.
It’s incredibly frustrating to hear people dismiss science as the “killer of anything mysterious and indescribable in the universe”. I’ve heard from various people that science fails to explain the complex intricacies of what it means to be human. And to a large degree, this is still true. We don’t have models for everything and the brain is still a vastly unexplored area for new knowledge. But to outright dismiss science because it hasn’t gotten there yet is like admonishing a young child for not knowing the fundamentals of calculus before the fourth grade.
Science doesn’t proclaim to have all the answers. On the contrary, science is almost equally about what we don’t know as what we do know. As such, the scientific process is about gradually increasing our understanding of the universe. Science is always looking for improvement and discovery.
When I was in my third semester of college, I took an astrophysics class. I was interested in physics, and physics in space seemed to be even more interesting, so I chose the course.
During the semester, I learned the basics of stellar structures, and how stars “evolve” over time. As the class progressed, I could slowly start to see the underlying patterns that stars exhibited. Certain masses led to certain outcomes. Two massive objects orbiting near each other can have certain configurations.
In hindsight, I realize that these were, at one time, mysteries. Even the top scientists in the field did not know how stars worked. And now, it had gotten to the point that I could learn about these massive structures in our universe from a college course.
Furthermore, I was also struck by the nature of what we were learning. I thought it was fantastic that I could learn about objects that were immense distances away. Through some incredible feats of scientific thinking, I was able to learn about the inner functions of these massive objects, without even visiting the object itself! We didn’t have to go and visit a star to get its characteristics. Instead, we could simply observe it from afar and then use models to give us the rest of its information.
This is the magic of science.
At one point, these models were a mystery to scientists. However, through hard work and looking for relationships between characteristics, it’s now possible to know all of these amazing characteristics about stars. It’s quite the amazing example of solving a mystery that would be very difficult to solve by visiting a star.
If there’s a moment in which the value of science in solving mysteries became apparent to me, this was it. Over the course of a few thousand years, we’ve moved away from attributing everything in the sky as perfect and “heavenly”, and instead have figured out how each tiny speck in the sky has the potential for many worlds. We’ve been able to solve the mystery of what those tiny dots of light are. Not only that, but we’ve even made models of how they progress throughout their “lives”. All, mind you, without even actually observing a full life cycle.
Simply put, this is the extraordinary gift science gives us.
While many say that science hunts mysteries and ruins them by exposing the details and leaving nothing to the imagination, the presence of mystery is required in order to have science progress and continue.
There’s a reciprocal relationship between science and mysteries. After all, mysteries inform the next great challenges for science. When something doesn’t make intuitive sense or cannot be explained, it’s the goal of science to break it down into parts that we can understand. Then, because science has understood a subject with more depth, new mysteries surface that required previous understanding. From there, the cycle continues. Science seeks to both solve and find new mysteries.
If all the mysteries in the world were solved, the role of science would be complete. Thankfully, we have no indication that the influx of mysteries in the universe will slow any time soon.
Therefore, science and mystery are intertwined forever. Without the latter, the former doesn’t exist.
This whole debate comes back to what your reaction is to mystery. Is it curiosity, or acceptance? If mysteries make you curious, than you are primed for a scientific way of thinking. Curiosity is a fundamental part of doing science, and that is why every great scientist you find will have a huge sense of curiosity about the universe.
On the other hand, there are those who simply accept the mysterious for what it appears to be. These people aren’t concerned with explaining why such things are. Instead, they just continue on with their day, not troubling themselves with the mystery.
Even more dangerous is when people become emotionally invested in a mystery. Because of their uncertainty, these people create a story behind the mystery, explaining it in a satisfying way to them. Unfortunately, the foundations for this story are on shaky grounds, making it easy to poke holes at. However, since stories are so powerful to us, we can become emotionally attached to such narratives. Then, when they are challenged by others, we can become solidified in our beliefs, even in the face of mounting evidence to the opposite. This happens because it is more comfortable to stick with the story we know than to force our mind to adapt to a “new” reality.
This is why it is so important to be curious. Curiosity is a natural repellent against belief systems that are rigid. When we are curious, we are more willing to change because we want to find out more. Therefore, the best remedy for rigid beliefs is a dose of curiosity. And the best way to do that is to observe incredible things that beg us to ask, “What just happened?”
Science doesn’t have a cold heart. Science also does not strip from reality. Instead, it leverages it up to a level that can be incredibly inspiring. By explaining the world, it allows us to truly appreciate the way the universe works, without any misconceptions.
If that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is.