Canadian Consulting Engineer

The growing mystery of science

December 1, 2000
By Bronwen Ledger

"Not snow, no, nor rain, nor heat, nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed." -- Herodotus (c. 485-425 B.C.).No doubt each successive generation of human beings h...

“Not snow, no, nor rain, nor heat, nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed.” — Herodotus (c. 485-425 B.C.).

No doubt each successive generation of human beings has been convinced that it possesses almost all the knowledge it is possible to have about our world. In a circuitous illogic, we think we know it all because that is all there seems to be out there to know. The problem is that the horizons of knowledge — much like the universe itself — are constantly expanding. The more we are able to observe about reality, the more the mysteries of what “reality” is unfold.

The ancient Greeks theorized a geocentric universe, and this was eminently rational based on what they could observe of the celestial bodies at the time. But once Copernicus and Galileo put their thinking caps on in the European Renaissance, it started to seep into human consciousness that man’s planetary home was not the centre of the universe but just one of several tumbling around the vast regions of the solar system.

Einstein unravelled the theory of general relativity at the beginning of the last century, but even he struggled to accept the uncertainty principles allied with quantum theory. One wonders what he would make of the strange and unimaginable phenomena theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking are postulating today. They talk of matter and anti-matter, of neutrinos and quarks. They posit string theories where space time would be in 10 or 26 dimensions, and black holes where the laws of our physical universe break down.

Science’s relentless quest to uncover the final knowledge about our universe and the nature of our existence continues apace. Indeed, as the projects featured in this issue attest, we are prepared to invest huge amounts of physical and financial resources in order to improve our mechanisms and powers of observation of the physical world.

Featured are the Gemini telescopes that will help us to observe stellar events millions of light years away, the international space station where we have just begun our long-term occupation of space, and a synchrotron which produces light beams more intense than the sun so that we can explore the hidden secrets of nature at the microscopic, molecular level.

For me, an arts major who lost interest in science around grade nine, it has been astonishing to discover what scientists like Hawking are up to these days. As a student, I always had more of a penchant for the world of ideas — theology, philosophy, literature — because it seemed to offer a romantic trip into infinite possibilities rather than science’s preoccupation with the mere physical, observable aspects of life. Today, however, as writers from John D. Barrow to Hawking himself have suggested, the lines between the arts, theology and science are beginning to blur as science enters realms that are increasingly beyond normal human powers of sensory perception and objective reality. At any rate, as astronomers probe further out into an infinitely vast and unknowable universe, and scientists delve deeper into the just as infinitely mysterious sub-atomic realm of particle physics, I’m trailing behind, watching in wonder and awe.Bronwen Ledger


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