Imagine the clearest, darkest night, and encountering some open place where the sky seems to wrap around you. You find a soft place in the grass and, and lay down to stare up. Here, far from the crowds and the lights, the stars are dazzling. You can see the dusty bands of the Milky Way stretch through countless constellations of distant worlds. To gaze upon the night sky like this compels you to wonder – compels all of us to wonder – at the vast beauty of the universe and our place within it. This is part of what makes us human – we’ve surely wondered at the stars for over a hundred thousand years.
But how you wonder, the stage of knowledge on which your imagination plays, turns out to be exquisitely unique in history. There have lived and died well over 4000 generations of humanity, but only in the last dozen or so have we grasped a glimmer of the truth about the universe.
You know that the points of light in the sky are actually infernos of hydrogen burning millions of light-years away. You know the stars and the sun appear to move across the sky because you’re the one moving on a rotating planet, and you know that gravity orchestrates the entire cosmic dance according to universal physical laws. You even know the age of our universe. As you shift your position on the ground, you think of your own planet compared to the billions that must be out there. You know that here on earth, storms are driven by pressure differentials, and earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates. You know that life’s diversity grows through evolution. But, what else remains to be discovered? Who else could be out there among the stars, wondering about the same things? That’s it, right there; the most important thing of all, why you gaze in wonder at the stars in the first place. You know that while there is vastly more yet to be known, we will keep etching away at the mystery through a powerful method of discovery called science. How are we so privileged to possess such tool of wisdom as our ancestors would have thought reserved for the gods? How did we so outdistance notions of magic and monsters and witches and werewolves to develop physics and chemistry and a cosmology filled with other planets? How did we mature from belief to knowledge?
I give you modern science, and how it began.