One day when I was about 11, walking back to Public School 87 in Manhattan after our class visit to the Hayden Planetarium, I became overwhelmed by a feeling I’d never had before. I was gripped by a hollow, pit-in-the-stomach sense that my life might not matter. I’d learned that our world is a rocky planet, orbiting one star among the 100 billion others in our galaxy, which is but one of hundreds of billions of galaxies scattered throughout the universe. Science had made me feel small.
In the years since, my view of science and the role it can play in society and the world has changed dramatically.
While we are small, my decades of immersion in science convince me this is cause for celebration. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used ingenuity and determination to touch the very limits of outer and inner space. We have figured out fundamental laws of physics — laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, laws that dictate how time elapses and space expands, laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began.
None of these scientific achievements have told us why we’re here or given us the answer to life’s meaning — questions science may never address. But just as our experience playing baseball is enormously richer if we know the rules of the game, the better we understand the universe’s rules — the laws of physics — the more deeply we can appreciate our lives within it.
I believe this because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up when I tell them about black holes and the big bang. I’ve received letters from young soldiers in Iraq telling me how reading popular accounts of relativity and quantum physics has provided them hope that there is something larger, something universal that binds us together.
Which is why I am distressed when I meet students who approach science and math with drudgery. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. But when science is presented as a collection of facts that need to memorized, when math is taught as a series of abstract calculations without revealing its power to unravel the mysteries of the universe, it can all seem pointless and boring.
Even more troubling, I’ve encountered students who’ve been told they don’t have the capacity to grasp math and science. These are lost opportunities.
I believe we owe our young an education that captures the exhilarating drama of science. I believe the process of going from confusion to understanding is a precious, even emotional, experience that can be the foundation of self-confidence. I believe that through its rational evaluation of truth and indifference to personal belief, science transcends religious and political divisions and so does bind us into a greater, more resilient whole.
I believe that the wonder of discovery can lift the spirit like Brahms’ Third Symphony.
I believe that the breathtaking ideas of science can nourish not only the mind but also the soul.