For many years, the very core of scientific understanding has been the desire to learn more and go farther–to push humanity into a new era. Who would have thought that, one day, we would stop hunting on the planes of the savannah and instead travel out into the stars? Today, we put our cognitive abilities to the test by visualising a universe where there exists more incredible things than anything that ever met the ancient eye (or imagination). Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.
The scientific drive started very early in Homo sapiens. It is thought by many that Thales of Miletus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, is the “Father of Science.” Many other ancient historians think Democritus is more deserving of the title, since he was reportedly the first person to suggest that matter was made up of indivisible particles. It turns out that Democritus was right (but of course, this claim was falsifiable).
We know that virtual particles exist because we can observe them indirectly, and since the implications of such phenomena were falsifiable (i.e., testable), it helped us eventually learn that virtual particles pop in and out of existence in empty space and, by extension, they pop in and out of being all around us. Why? Because empty space is all around us; it’s the space that is most dominant in the observable universe. A single atom is comprised of more than 99.99% empty space, and so are we!
So what naturally arose from physicists was the question, ‘If we are all mostly made up of empty space, then why do objects feel solid, why do we not just pass through everything else?’ We now know that, due to the negative charge of the electrons in atoms, we do not actually touch anything; as I write this, I may appear to be sitting on my chair; however, I am actually hovering over it. This is because the atoms in me and the atoms in my chair actually repulse one another on really tiny levels. And this repulsion isn’t the two circular looking ‘grains of sands’ picture that we like to imagine when we picture electrons, but a fuzzy cloud of wave-like behaviour which creates the illusion of solidity. Weird right? Welcome to the world of physics.
So you see, science also isn’t just about the destination; the journey is just as exhilarating and enthralling because we surprise ourselves–the offshoots are completely unpredictable.
Perhaps the biggest task of physics at the present moment (the thing that requires the most work) is uniting Einstein’s beautiful theory of general relativity with the weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics in one overarching theory of everything. Many theoretical physicists like Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and Leonard Susskind believe that String Theory is the only game in town. Others disagree, but that’s fine because the true nature of science is recognizing one’s mistakes. And eventually, one side or the other will give way, and our understanding will increase.
Ultimately, science is tremendously successful based on the important fact that it requires that we develop a hypothesis and test it in order to prove its worth. Hence, it often comes up in conversation that science “doesn’t know what’s going on” and how “it gets things wrong and then comes up with new theories.” These two statements are quite correct, but these facts are often interpreted as being bad. In fact, trial, testing, and admitting error in order to gain knowledge and conform to the evidence of reality–this is the most intellectually honest thing we can do, and that is what learning is all about. We stick to science as the path of our understanding because it works; we don’t need a priori superstition to provide answers for everything.
The mere fact that we could be on the verge of discovering things like the origin of the cosmos is remarkable to me, and I am very proud to be human, and most of all, proud to be part of this indescribably beautiful universe.