My grandmother once took my sister and me to the planetarium at Texas Tech when we were kids. The person running the show — probably a bored graduate student — made a definitive statement while showing us the majesty of the universe.
“We are the only form of life in the universe,” he said.
“What?” I thought. “All those planets and other things out there and this is the only place with life on it? That doesn’t make sense.”
To this day, I still respond to such definitive and negative scientific pronouncements with the same disbelief. I can’t prove these people wrong, but what they’re saying just doesn’t make sense.
Take the recent NY Times op-ed by Adam Frank entitled “Alone in the Void.”
Short of a scientific miracle of the kind that has never occurred, our future history for millenniums will be played out on Earth and in the “near space” environment of the other seven planets, their moons and the asteroids in between.
According to Frank, we’re still exploring space using the same principles as gunpowder — blowing things up to propel them — which will never be sufficient to get us out of the Solar System. Even though he’s an astrophysicist, he doesn’t see any possibility of a new scientific insight that alters our understanding of physics and allows faster than light travel or something similar.
Now near as I can tell, one of the things that happens regularly in science is that someone of genius discovers something radically different that changes everything we thought we knew. Right now everyone believes that the speed of light is the ultimate barrier, but I won’t be a bit surprised if someone comes up with a way around it.
I’m not talking about crackpot theories or even science fiction, mind you. I’m talking about a real discovery, one of the kind that changes the scientific paradigm, like Einstein’s theory of special relativity or the discovery that the human genome is only slightly different from the earthworm genome.
Whenever I hear a scientist pronounce that some scientific truth is completely settled and unlikely to change, it sets off my radar. My favorite example is from meteorology. According to Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm, 19th Century meteorologists firmly believed that no hurricane could directly hit Galveston Island. The 1900 storm that leveled the city and killed 6,000 people put an end to that belief. But it doesn’t seem to have stopped people — even smart people — from continuing to conclude that what we know right now is not just the real truth, but the only truth.
People in all professions get too narrow and start thinking nothing important will even change. And yet something always seems to come along and upend the apple cart. About the only thing we can be sure of is that things will change.
The funny thing is, Frank wrote about that recently, too. In an essay on the NPR blog called “The Liberating Embrace of Uncertainty,” he said, “To push the truth away with false certainty, falsely derived from either religion or reason, is to miss the perfect truth.”
Seems to me his certainty that we won’t find a way out of the Solar System for thousands of years contradicts that.