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The Never-Ending Climb Of Mount Science

Alexandru Sava

The other day, I was giving a public lecture when someone asked me a question that I wish people would ask me more often: "Professor: Why are you a scientist?"

I answered that I couldn't do anything else, that I considered it a privilege to dedicate my life to teaching and research. But what's really special in this profession, to me at least, is that it allows us the space to create something new, something that will make us matter. It gives us an opportunity to engage with the "mystery," as Albert Einstein called our attraction to the unknown:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, is as good as dead ...

Note how Einstein placed the arts and the sciences under the same umbrella, as fruits of our struggles to make sense of the world and of ourselves.

Science opens doors to the unknown, to that part of reality that escapes our senses. What we don't see, or hear, is as real as what we capture with our senses. We use different instruments to amplify our perception of physical reality, even knowing that we are perennially myopic; any telescope, microscope, or detector has limited range and accuracy, which improve as technology advances. It's obvious that a telescope from the 19th century couldn't compete with today's large telescopes. A telescope from the 22nd century will dwarf ours. As a consequence, what we capture of reality depends in essential ways on what our instruments allow us to see.

As technology advances, new instruments might change our worldview. Take the microscope. Invented in the late 17th century, it changed how people saw life. It allowed people to ask questions they couldn't have contemplated before. This is a theme I expand upon in The Island of Knowledge. Knowledge doesn't grow linearly but, instead, in unpredictable ways, always related to the technologies we have at hand. So, the mystery that surrounds us — the unknown slices of physical reality — will always be here. There is no complete or final knowledge.

This fact gives science a unique character. It's not only a path toward knowledge, but an open ended path allowing us to grow as we search. When people ask me, "What is the meaning of life?," my answer is unwavering: The meaning of life is to find meaning in life. People do this in all sorts of ways — exploring through science is certainly one of them.

As a final image of how I picture this search in science, imagine an alpinist. He has prepared for a long time to climb a very high peak. The day finally comes and, after much effort, he arrives at the top. From there, he can do two things: he can either pat himself on the back and climb down, or he can take a look around and see all the other peaks he hasn't climbed yet and start all over again, aiming higher and higher.

Science research is like climbing all the peaks that we can find. And when we exhaust what we can find around here, all we have to do is look up and take off to outer space.

Marcelo Gleiser's latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.