Scientific Pleasures and Guilt

Don’t scientific meanderings propel us to a different universe? Aren’t they pleasant daydreams done on a daybed with eyes grazing the clouds, mind half way to Neptune, fantasizing about space travel, the Future, and humanity’s fate? We won’t hesitate to give it a whole day, yet at the same time nearby are neighbors with a family of four earning few hundred dollars a month.

Being able to make space in my head for illustrious distractions, while pondering about big themes in life, is a luxury. And this inevitably begs the question: what’s the purpose of all these meanderings? Is it simply for self-pleasure and reimaginings? How does this become useful to my surroundings, other than as my own mental escape?

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How to Raise Scientists

What’s life without the world within us, a perpetually unfolding space that is the kaleidoscope to our reality? Children, being so free from the constraints of adulthood, roam in and out of this space without care, bringing traces from one world to another. These are the years of soft imaginings; of observing the world like a sponge which takes in all that it can take, without the pretense of an intellectual or the fear of being wrong.

At the same time, we are taught that these meanderings are nothing but child-like tendencies to understand the world. As we step into adulthood, we are transforming our minds to be computation tools to synthesize information, leaving the imaginations behind and forgetting that these kinds of meanderings, too, still remain to be the most fertile space to understand the world.

Scientists too are vivid imaginators. From Carl Sagan to Albert Einstein, the greatest scientists agree on a crucial thing – the role of imaginations to create space for theories and calculations. Carl Sagan lamented the ways parents dismissed children’s quirky questions, while Einstein had understood for a long time that “creativity is intelligence at play.” So what’s a better way to learn about this fluid spectrum of creativity and intelligence than to peek into some of the greatest scientists’ early beginnings; their first steps of fascination towards the worlds of invisible matters.

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Democritus

AND THE RETHINKING OF HISTORY

Democritus, or fondly called the Laughing Professor, was the first person to theorize the existence of atoms 400 years before Jesus Christ and a millennia before the invention of algebra:

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

A thousand years before the invention of telescope and microscope, Democritus vividly imagined that all things are composed of tiny matters that are indivisible and indestructible. These atoms, in Democritus’ mind, are pointy and sharp if it is salty, slippery if it’s liquid, airy and whirling if it’s air atoms, and have hooks and barbs that govern the interaction between each atom.

Democritus’ line of thought was ‘easy’ (too easy, even), clear, reasonable and practical (to the point that, in some sense, humorous), without spiritual fringes akin to Plato’s line of thought who believes that the physical world mirrors the godly world. It’s no wonder that Plato hated Democritus’ ideas so much that he required the burning of all his books. And perhaps hence, the beginning of our dismissal to Democritus’ sensibilities in thinking.

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When Carl searches for gods

I’m constantly perplexed by the science versus religion debates that seek differences and separations rather than symmetry, which is an attempt that feels more political than for humanity.

To many people, these dramatized scenes are mere entertainments. But to some people, the questioning of gods and religion is really a perpetual existential question. Whether that’s through historical records, the arts, the sciences, to search for god is to ultimately return to the question that nudges our very own meaning and existence. Because even with waves of solid scientific data, these numbers and fact can’t settle many uneasy hearts. Hence; the role of religion, stories, or even just imaginations, which is to reconcile with the unknown.

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Einstein’s Imaginations

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein; the man who endured years of telescoping into the unknown and meddling in the invisible fabrics of the universe, the mathematics and physics. We often disconnect math and the arts; the pure and the imagination; the objective and the subjective. Yet math, in the hands and minds of Einstein, came a bit like this: after hours and hours of rumination on math, he took violin breaks, and a little mathematical blessing comes in between the sweeping notes of music.

To anyone who assumes that different study fields are in separate pedagogical boxes; bless them, because they need to know Einstein’s idea of combinatorial creativity.

Einstein himself was never a child of prodigy. He not only skipped classes but grew to lament the German authoritarian school system that later defined his philosophies in learning. From elementary school to his university life, he picked and chose what he wanted to learn from the system. And the rest, he diligently studied at home by himself. Indeed, Einstein loved and much preferred self-learning and self-exploration ever since his uncle brought him books on math and sciences. In fact, he started tinkering with the idea of moving as fast as light –the seed of his groundbreaking special theory of relativity — at the tender age of 17 years old, when he had access to one of the best physics lab and a generous support from the more relaxed education environment in Switzerland.

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The Mythical Pythagoras

“Numbers rule the universe,” said Pythagoras. Living 500 years before Jesus, 900 years before the concept of zero was invented, and 1,700 years before the Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) was brought to the West, Pythagoras laid out the critical foundation of geometrical connections – that a2 + b2 = c2 – and concluded the fundamental relationship between a right triangle and a square. Yet he is also most memorable for his conviction that numbers are separate beings that unlock the true nature of the universe; a kind of wonder that still rings true until now, if not stronger.

Just recently, I learned how the Indians and Sumerians used more practical math to solve mundane day to day problems, like trading issues and counting wages, the opposite of some Greek thinkers and philosophers who tend to glorify numbers as god-like. Yet what the Indians and Sumerians produced were maths that are more straightforward, cleaner, and accurate. The discovery of a Babylonian tablet gives us trigonometric table more accurate than any today and preceding Pythagoras’ by a thousand years. And it was these people who built ancient architectures that still blow our mind away and really tempt us to assume they’re aliens-made. An Indian science historian writer concluded that the Greeks complicate the practical and in doing so, missing the answer. It’s a controversial statement and even a bit bogus.

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The Priest’s Big Bang

If you’re sure about something, you don’t need faith. It’s when you have the doubts that faith kicks in. And that’s true in science as well as anything else. – Guy Consolmagno

Already arriving at peace with the magnetizing mystery in the interplay of science and religion, Guy Consolmagno can console himself, knowing there is a God and maybe, aliens, too. Yet to many of us who are used to running in the notion that science and religion can’t coexist, we might have forgotten that the foundations of science, too, are often laid out by religious scholars. In the 20th century, a historical achievement in astronomy was made by a priest when he proposed the Cosmic Egg – or now we call it the Big Bang theory, a theory akin to the Creation story.

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