This weekend, abandoning my problem sets and senior thesis, I crashed the birthday party of a complete stranger. After introductions, we talked for hours about philosophical questions — the kind of stereotypical college palaver that I usually sidestep for sleep.
Fellow undergraduates can easily imagine what we discussed: What does it mean to be a chair? Is there a canvas on which our experiences must be painted? Who is screaming in the bathroom? How do I know that you really exist? Does anyone want pizza?
At first, I wondered why we should pursue these absurdly basic inquiries. Obviously, I exist, and if I don’t, I certainly don’t want to know. Outside the mental Disneyland of college, most people shy away such thoughts in favor of finding a job, a partner and the like.
In hindsight, however, these vague questions were actually quite audacious. Although my new friends were comfortable extemporizing without hesitation, fully answering our questions would require a rigorous description of reality — a scientific rather than philosophical task. I remained keenly aware that the universe is a big, big place and we know almost nothing about it. We’re not even sure if life exists on Mars, not to mention a thriving civilization orbiting Alpha Centauri. And don’t get me started on dark energy.
Studying problems completely orthogonal to daily life is an odd use of limited scientific resources, but primal human curiosity must exist for a reason. In fact, this hunger for knowledge may represent incredible foresight, invaluable in a universe replete with unexplored wonders. Despite dealing with currently intractable problems, this mode of inquiry dovetails with people’s instinctive grasp of normal science.
People demonstrate remarkable mastery of the science of everyday experience, though scientific formalism is relatively inaccessible. Most people, for instance, can throw a ball with reasonable accuracy, but writing down differential equations of motion is a rare ability; some people cook well, but few chemists could precisely describe the myriad phase transitions occurring during the preparation of a meal.
Doing science to unfamiliar phenomena is a difficult, piecemeal effort. No one has an intuitive grasp on the existence of dark matter, the behavior of the Higgs boson or the lives of critters at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But armchair evolutionists like me would be shocked if it were any other way.
Human intelligence, formidable as it may be, is the product of evolution, which may produce the occasional useless thing like the appendix or the squirrel but is generally expected to favor utility. After countless generations, therefore, we have been hardwired to learn the rules governing the behavior of objects that are roughly our size and move on time scales relevant to our lives.
Unfortunately, our lives are confined to the surface of a small, rocky planet in close orbit around a rather ordinary star. The billions of other stars in the Milky Way and the innumerable galaxies in the universe? They are largely irrelevant, absent something like an alien invasion. The origin of mass? It’s linguistically simple to ask about it, but nearly impossible to describe in practice.
Still, people obviously do ask these questions. A simple explanation is that such exercises are like calisthenics for the mind, expending effort in preparation for useful pursuits. Physicists could, say, debate the origin of the stars as inspiration for harnessing nuclear fusion to inexpensively produce clean energy.
The framing of basic science as practice for applied research, however, is tremendously lame. I prefer to think that scientists are playing the long game, preparing for a future in which cosmic mysteries become relevant. The Kepler space telescope, which NASA announced last week would receive funding for an additional two years of operations, has already discovered thousands of planet candidates in a sample size of roughly 100,000 stars. A universe teeming with intelligent alien life is very different from a universe in which we are alone.
Of course, we probably won’t find aliens, or understand the essence of chairs, for a long time. But until we do, I’ll keep crashing birthday parties.
Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.