The impossible

Andrew - Rochester, New York
Entered on March 11, 2008

I’m a scientist – I teach classes in geology, environmental science, and radiation safety. I’m really not sure how many hours I’ve spent trying to convince people to change their views on evolution or about the risks (or lack of risks) from very small doses of radiation. After a few decades of this, I’m starting to realize that I can’t convince some people of some things. But I’ve also found that every time I try, I learn something – I find a better way to explain, I see some linkages I hadn’t seen earlier, I understand the material a little better, and I learn more about the other person’s views – and the better my argument is, the more I learn from them. Even if the person with whom I’m speaking comes away unconvinced, I find that I am better for the experience. I have come to realize that it might be impossible to convince someone that their heartfelt convictions might be wrong, but there is still something to be gained by making the effort.

As I think about it, I realize that there are a lot of things that may be impossible – or close to it. There may never be a reconciliation between science and religion, for example, and I am not expecting that everyone will suddenly decide that there can be both God and evolution. And, Star Trek notwithstanding, travel to the stars may never be easy and convenient. We may have to accept that some problems may simply never be solved – there are some things that may just be impossible.

On the other hand, just because something is said to be impossible is no reason to give up and not try. History is replete with examples of the “impossible” eventually giving way to advances in science, societal improvements, or changes in our view of the world. Airplanes, drifting continents, splitting atoms, tearing down the Berlin Wall, and a Catholic president were all impossible – until they weren’t. Having said that, some things may not be as accommodating – bringing everyone around to believing in evolution, traveling through cosmic wormholes, a lasting reconciliation between the great religions, and a bipartisan presidential ticket come to mind.

But to some extent, it doesn’t matter if all of the “impossible” problems are solved or not – it is the work that we put into attacking the problem, and the fact that we care enough to even try that is important. It is important that we try to solve the scientific and social problems that confront us, even if we fear they may be insoluble, because to fail to try is to admit that our fear of failure is more important to us than is our hope of success. Whether we solve the problem or not, we are the better for having tried. And we may even be successful.

So I believe in the impossible, and I believe that it is the manner in which we address the impossible that helps to define us.