Saturday, December 24, 2005

Feasts of light

This is the season when people of many faiths celebrate the deepest mysteries of their faiths. An appropriate time to ponder the mystery that surrounds and permeates science. During the past year and a half I have chronicled here many discoveries of science. What we have learned only deepens our wonder at what we do not yet know.

Einstein once wrote that science is an activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives. "What I mean," he explained, "is that we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born."

It is a common misconception that science is inimical to mystery, that it grows at the expense of mystery, and intrudes with its brash certainties upon our sense of wonder. Many times students said to me that science "takes the mystery out of the world." In reply, I referred to the metaphor of knowledge as an island in a sea of infinite mystery, and pointed out that the extension of our knowledge insignificantly depletes the sea. Rather, the growth of knowledge extends the shore along which we might encounter the thing that Einstein sometimes spelled with a capital M.

To Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, he wrote: "It gives me great pleasure to tell you about the mysteries with which physics confronts us. As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists." Profound humility from a man who spent his entire life using his intellect to extend the shore of our knowledge.