The late Richard Casement created the science and technology section of The Economist magazine. A book published some years ago in memory of him bears the poetic title Man Suddenly Sees to the Edge of the Universe. What does that mean?
The immediate sense of the phrase is that astronomers can now observe objects distant enough in space and time to be near the Big Bang, the beginning of everything. The Hubble Space Telescope has contributed; so have orbiting infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray observatories. On the ground, radio telescopes and new sensors attached to classical optics have provided huge data streams about the early cosmos. It's both exciting and frightening to imagine that we are on the threshold of viewing the origins of the physical universe.
But can we also suddenly see to the edges of other, more metaphorical, "universes"? Perhaps so. Consider physics, biology, mathematics, and cognitive science. In quantum mechanics and general relativity we may have some of the most fundamental laws of nature. Molecular biochemistry and Darwinian evolution could be the big keys to understanding living creatures. Via this century's discoveries in logic, algebra, and analysis we find answers to many of the most perplexing questions of proof, infinity, number theory, and the limitations of formal systems. And through work on computation, neuroscience, perception, and applied philosophy we may be closing in on the roots of consciousness — the sources of the mind.
Is the above sheer hubris? Does the edge of the universe recede faster than our knowledge can ever approach it? An optimist would speculate not. Yes, the more we learn, the more we find that we do not know — but perhaps we do suddenly begin to see faint outlines of the most important truths. Science isn't over; there's much to work on beyond measuring known parameters to a few more decimal places; important new discoveries will surely raise and resolve questions which we cannot even formulate today. But the big picture may be emerging. What wonderful things we now see!
Tuesday, June 08, 1999 at 06:33:21 (EDT) = 1999-06-08