Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cognitive dissonance

A paragraph from a recent article in the journal Science (January 5, 2007):
This then is our universe: On the whole, it is spatially flat and 13.7 billion years old, both of which are known to 1 percent precision; it is expanding at a rate of 70 plus/minus 2 km/sec per megaparsec, and the expansion us speeding up; and it is composed of 24 plus/minus 4 percent matter and 76 plus or minus 4 percent dark energy, with 4.2 plus/minus 0.5 percent of the matter in the form of atoms, between 0.1 and 1 percent in the form of neutrinos, and with the bulk of the matter dark and as yet unidentified. Stars...account for less than 1 percent of the total composition. The microwave background temperature has been measured to four significant figures, 2.725 plus/minus 0.001 K, and its tiny variations (about 0.001 percent) across the sky have been mapped with a resolution better than 0.1 degree.
What is most astounding about this paragraph is not the information that it contains, but that it can be written at all. Everything in science is subject to revision, but experimental cosmologists are writing a story of creation that is impressive in its quantitative precision, especially when you consider that we are talking about a universe whose breadth is measured in hundred of billions of light-years, at least, and contains hundreds of billions of galaxies that we can photograph. All of those mind-blowing images from the Hubble Space telescope reveal just the tiny part of the universe that is luminous.

The new creation story is getting more detailed all the time. Increasingly sophisticated instruments peer back to the beginning of time with ever greater resolution and every part of the spectrum. Later this year the most powerful particle accelerating machine on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider on the border between France and Switzerland, a 17-mile-wide underground colossus, will be up and running, taking physicists to energy levels that approach ever more closely the temperature of the big bang. (Check out the photographs of the Large Hadron Collider in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.)

Yet, very few people on the planet have even the remotest idea what any of this means. Half of Americans, for example, profess to live in a universe that is coeval with human beings, less than 10,000 years old. For all practical purposes they live in the conceptual world of Dante Alighieri.

There are two typical responses to the universe described in the paragraph from Nature. One is to whine "It all makes me feel so insignificant," and retreat into the anthropomorphic faith of our ancestors. The other is to embrace with pride what is surely one of the greatest flights of human intelligence and imagination.