Foreign Policy, Flemish Painters, and Pharoah Placement: The Many Purposes of Science

Dick Teresi | Posted on 01/01/05

In the 1980s, I attended a scientific meeting in San Francisco on the uses of lasers in the restoration of art. We were shown one slide after another of oil paintings and statuary that had been cleaned and brightened with laser light, each at an average cost of $80,000. I tried keeping a running total cost as the slides flipped by, but lost count when the sum ran into seven figures. Afterward, in private, I asked the chief scientist where he got the funding for such an ambitious, inspiring, yet impractical experiment. The answer was simple: he and other laser scientists were tapping into the billions of dollars Ronald Reagan had earmarked for SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. SDI, the scientist told me, was a joke, but the money was fueling a wide range of laser research.

“You mean,” I said, “that we can’t knock out the Russians’ missiles with space-based laser weapons?”

“No,” he said, “but we could clean their statues.”

For the following article, I went in search of the purpose of science. I tell the above anecdote as a cautionary tale. You can’t believe the obvious. You can’t believe numbers or sums of money. You have to look into the hearts of scientists, which is not as hard as it sounds, so long as you don’t take their heads too seriously.

Take my laser scientists. To the proper funding bodies, they are all fire and brimstone. “Yes, we will build death rays!” In secret, they yearn to reveal the artistry of the great Flemish painters. Yet if a historian in the year 2104 were to sum up the motivations of twentieth-century scientists, he would see an urge to kill and destroy: mustard gas, the Manhattan Project, SDI. If he looked at federal spending, he would see mostly violence in the hearts of science and its practitioners. Yet, in more than thirty years of covering science, I have met few bloodthirsty scientists.

Should science have a purpose? Re-upholsterers and muffler shops have well-defined missions, but we can’t even define science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific organization in the United States, has no definition of science. Some attempted definitions have been centered on “falsification,” the concept introduced by the philosopher Karl Popper. A scientific theory can never be verified for all time, said Popper, but it should be able to be falsified. Isaac Newton, for example, stated that F = ma; that is, force equals mass times acceleration. We cannot prove every object in the universe obeys this law, but we can try to disprove it in specific experiments. (In fact, some of Newton’s concepts have been disproved, by Albert Einstein and quantum physicists.) Thus, science should be falsifiable, while, for instance, religion remains nonfalsifiable. There is no scientific experiment for the existence of God or for testing whether “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Even these definitions break down. Astrology, for example, is falsifiable. “You will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger this Thursday,” says your astrologer. That is patently falsifiable. Just wait until Thursday. Yet few would accept astrology as a science. Some religions are also falsifiable. Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted specific dates for the Second Coming. Again, this is falsifiable. Yet few doubt that Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to a religion, and are not scientists. (Still, for those of you inventing new religions, it’s advisable to be less specific. Say that the Second Coming will “be along shortly,” but not “Tuesday.”) Conversely, some sciences defy falsification. Cosmology and evolutionary biology are but two. You can’t recreate a big bang or evolve a new species in the lab.

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Here in the modern age, we are supposed to construct a firewall between science and religion. In my search for purpose in science, however, I found myself drawn to purpose in religion as well. For most of human history, religion and science have been inextricably bound, and, in fact, science and math were actually subservient to religion.

• In the third millennium B.C., ancient Egyptian astronomers aligned the great pyramids at Giza with the northern circumpolar stars. These stars were called ikhemu-sek, “the ones not knowing destruction,” as they never set on the Egyptians’ world. Astronomers developed alignment via the stars because Pharoah’s tomb had to be situated so that the entrance to the underworld lay due west, allowing him to pass safely before joining the gods. The shape of the pyramids themselves imitates the way clouds and dust scatter sunlight into broad swaths that form stairways to heaven.

• The Enuma Anu Enlil, a Babylonian religious text written between 1702 and 1682 B.C. that relates the creation myth of Mesopotamia, also contains centuries’ worth of Venus observations, incorporated in the so-called Venus Tablet 63, more popularly known as the Venus Tablet of King Ammizaduga. Tablet 63 made it possible to forecast lunar eclipses and record the intervals between successive eclipses.

• Hindu Vedic sacrifices spurred mathematics in India. The Sulbasutras (“Rules of the Cord,” as geometers used cords to measure shapes), written around 800 B.C., dictated how to build sacrificial altars and what dimensions they had to be. Indian mathematicians were thus among the first to develop a method for calculating square roots. To double the area of a square altar, for example, one needs to change the length of the sides from 1 unit to the square root of 2. Vedic mathematicians came up with 1.414215, close to today’s value of 1.414213. When Vedic sacrifices declined in popularity, so did Indian mathematics.

• Arab astronomers in the Middle Ages were pressed into service to determine the qibla, or right direction, toward the Kaaba, the shrine of Mecca, from every geographic coordinate possible, and to set the five daily prayer times for Muslims. Complicated Islamic inheritance laws spurred full employment for algebraists: “One-fourth of a woman’s estate must go to her husband, the rest divided among the children except that sons must receive twice as much as daughters....”

Again, we must be careful. Did the ninth-century astronomers working in Baghdad’s Bait al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), the great Islamic research center, really care deeply about the qibla and praying to Allah, or were these just excuses to wrest funding from the Abbasid caliphs so they could study the heavens?

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Anthony Aveni, a professor of astronom\ and anthropology at Colgate University, and one of the pioneers of archaeoastronomy, suspects divination was a prime motivation of early scientists, particularly astronomers. Speaking to our view of the ancient Greeks, Aveni says we like to think of our intellectual ancestors as “high minded,” contemplating the universe “for its own sake.” Whatever that means. “Meanwhile,” says Aveni, “most Greeks were running around getting their fortunes told.” The Mayans and the Babylonians were interested in omens. “Prior to the Enlightenment, astronomy was directed toward prognostication for the rulers,” says Aveni. We find “when/then” types of information in Babylonian records, like when Mars is in retrograde, a great battle will be fought.

Still, it led to some good astronomy. The Venus tables in the Mayan Dresden Codex are accurate to one day in five hundred years. Of course, these ancient naked-eye astronomers had ample stimulus to be accurate. Aveni imagines a Mesopotamian astronomer passionately trying to understand the skies: “Please, dear god, let me get it right. Or the king will murder me.” Aveni is quick to point out that the ancients had deeper motivations as well. He cites the Mayan astronomer who wrote, “What’s to become of us?” He may have been worrying about the earth being hit by an asteroid, but the question also had spiritual underpinnings. “We are all looking for meaning,” says Aveni.

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I asked science historian Robert Crease about what drives scientists. He divides their motivations into little purposes (little p’s) and Big Purposes (Big P’s). The acting chairman of the philosophy department at Stony Brook University, Crease says there are lots of little p’s: the personal ambition of scientists, the quest for tenure, practical purposes like the search for a room-
temperature superconductor, and other purposes that can attract government or industry funding.

Crease is suspicious of little p’s. “Scientists often say a lot of things they don’t believe, but it sounds good.” Government funding inspires considerable mendacity. Crease points to the space program, which, like many government projects was often promoted on the basis of spin-offs. As a science writer, I was sometimes guilty of pushing the Mercury and Apollo programs with the promise of such spin-offs as Tang and Teflon. Did we really spend billions of dollars and lose the lives of three astronauts in Apollo I so that we could have an instant artificial orange drink and nonstick frying pans? How many of us remember Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon? How many of us remember our first gulp of Tang?

Weaponry is a popular spin-off. The late physicist Robert R. Wilson played a significant role in the Manhattan Project. Years after two atom bombs were dropped on Japan, his eleven-year-old son came home from school distraught. “How could you do it, Pop?” he asked. “How could you?”
In the 1970s, Wilson was in charge of building Fermilab, the largest particle accelerator in the world. He needed $250 million from Congress, and Senator John Pastore thought he was tossing the Manhattan Project veteran a softball when, in a congressional committee hearing, he gave Wilson the opportunity to justify the new atom smasher using national defense.


Pastore: Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?
Wilson: No sir. I don’t believe so.
Pastore: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.


Not every scientist is so enlightened. When James Watson and Francis Crick were attempting to decipher the molecular structure of DNA, one of their best moments came when their chief competitor, Linus Pauling, the world’s greatest chemist, made a boneheaded mistake. Watson admits he and Crick went to a pub “to drink a toast to the Pauling failure.”

Leon Lederman, a Nobel prizewinner in physics, points out that there may not be an “I” in “team,” but there is an “m-e.” He writes:


If you are mortal, like most of the scientists I know, the far sweeter moments come when you yourself discover some new fact about the universe. It’s astonishing how often this happens at 3 a.m., when you are alone in the lab and you have learned something profound, and you realize that not one of the other five billion people on earth knows what you now know. Or so you hope. You will, of course, hasten to tell them as soon as possible. This is known as “publishing.”


Alfred Crosby, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas, and the author of Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 - 1900, says not to forget money as a purpose. James Watt had wealth in mind, says Crosby, when he invented the steam engine. Others were compelled by genius. “Archimedes and Einstein were cursed with their incredible minds.” They had no choice but to transform science.

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But there may be a greater purpose. Indeed, as Aveni says, “We’re all looking for meaning.” Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard University, opened a recent lecture with a very unastronomical question: “What’s the purpose of it all? We all ask this question, whether we’re deists or atheists or agnostics. Is it all just a macabre joke, something science has foisted upon us, or are there alternate realities?”

Aveni, who describes himself as an agnostic, says that when he’s doing science, he’s “trying to find an answer with ‘me’ in it, [but] not finding it. It’s fun. Maybe it is religion. Maybe religion is beneath our drive to find out.” The late science popularizer Carl Sagan often proclaimed his atheism, but then spoke freely of wonder, grandeur, and a great mystery. “Ultimately, Sagan, too,” says Aveni, “was looking for meaning – with him in it.”

Crease says, “When you’re talking about little p’s, small purposes, the difference between science and religion is major. When you’re talking big P, it looks much the same.”

“There’s a salvific quality to science, especially among those doing basic science,” says Rev. Christopher Carlisle. The Episcopal chaplain to the University of Massachusetts, Carlisle founded the God & Science Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, which brings together scientists and others to explore the common ground between science and religion. “Scientists want to be saved from mortality and purposelessness. The scientist seeks a meaning that extends beyond the time in which he lives,” says Carlisle.

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The purpose of science is “to discover our role in the universe, our place in the world,” says Crease. In some cases, science can help in a literal sense. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of a deer caught in the headlights. It acts paralyzed. Biologists at first looked for a physiological explanation. Is there something about bright lights that stimulates a temporary paralysis, preventing the deer from escaping imminent danger? The latest hypothesis holds that this apparent paralysis is not due to physiology but to faulty deer cosmology. Paul Johns, a researcher at the University of Georgia, says most animals will freeze in your headlights. A rabbit, for example, will scurry back and forth in the beam, never leaving it, and get run over.

The column of light, says Johns, creates a visual barrier between extreme brightness and darkness. A deer will not venture beyond the light/dark interface. Its visual universe is defined by what it sees now, not by its memory. The woods it just departed no longer exist, in a practical sense. A human caught in the headlights includes the shoulder of the road in its universe, and dives for safety. A faulty cosmology can be lethal. (Johns suggests, by the way, that should a deer freeze in your headlights, turn them off for three seconds. The deer’s universe will expand, and it will flee.) This is just a hypothesis, but zoos and aviaries now use the above concept to replace cages. The River Bank Zoo, in Columbia, South Carolina, keeps its birds in a brightly lit room, enclosed in a cylinder of light in lieu of a cage. Spectators pass around the cylinder in the darkened corridor. The birds do not fly into the darkness.

Cosmology is an attempt to construct a “You are here” sign on the universe, but it is also an attempt to fly, at least mentally, into the darkness. Certainly, there are those who consider cosmology a quasi-science. Many of its details can be falsified, but the overall models (whether the universe began as a big bang, for instance, or fluctuates eternally as a steady state) are not conducive to experiment. In 1966, when the cosmologist Edward Harrison accepted a teaching job at the University of Massachusetts, he was handed the Redbook, a manual for faculty members. It explained what a university was, and what it wasn’t. The Redbook cited two courses that one wouldn’t find in a curriculum of higher education: witchcraft and cosmology.

Harrison calls cosmology “that new-time religion.” It provides comfort and purpose even to the agnostic. He warns, though, that we have to be prepared for our universe to change on a regular basis. The medieval European universe was a comforting and static one: humans at the center; heavens populated by angels; a sphere of fixed stars; beyond it, the primum mobile (borrowed from Islam), a sphere maintained in constant motion by divine will; and, finally, the empyrean, a realm of pure fire where God lives. This cosmos provided both purpose and place, though we humans were relegated to the cheap seats, sitting on the surface of the earth, right on top of hell and far from God. When science popularizers such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould talk about “the great demotion,” that Copernicus upset the Church by removing the earth from its “special” place at the center of the universe, they speak from ignorance. “Special” in this case is similar to “special education,” and “center” was used in the sense of a drain in a sink, a central catchall for the detritus.

Today we find the big bang universe more to our liking. It’s a masterpiece of marketing. With its fiery explosions, wormholes, white dwarfs, red giants, and black holes, the big bang universe satisfies our Lucasfilm sensibilities. It also features an abrupt beginning to appease our Judeo-Christian creation myths, and is constantly expanding, like our economy is supposed to be. We are not at the physical center of the big bang universe, and there is no God, yet it is an anthropocentric model. The huge numbers – the comparative strengths of the four forces, the surplus of matter over antimatter, etc. – are delicately balanced to result in the evolution of intelligent life (i.e., cosmologists). Once again, a human-constructed universe ends up with humans, at least mathematically, at its center. Harrison warns, however, that all Western cosmologies have succumbed to their successors. No doubt there’s a new, improved universe right around the corner.

Much as I chide the cosmologists, they are as useful to us as any scientists. They expand our vision; they keep us from being frozen in the headlights. They refashion our art and literature. The most famous case is that of the English poet John Milton, whose poetry was transformed by looking through Galileo’s telescope. There are doubts, but most authorities believe Milton visited Galileo during the latter’s house arrest imposed by the Inquisition, and that Galileo showed him the sky, or at least lectured him on it (it was difficult for a novice to see much through the early telescopes). Galileo had determined that the Milky Way was composed of vast numbers of individual stars, and was not the nebulous mass of light hypothesized by the Aristotelians.

Milton alludes to Galileo in Paradise Lost, calling him the “Tuscan Artist” and writing about the moon seen through the artist’s “Optic Glass.” More important, the universe in Milton’s poetry changed dramatically after his alleged visit with Galileo. The previously accepted Aristotelian universe, with all the stars contained neatly in a finite sphere, was now gone, replaced by a grander vision of stars scattered throughout all of space. Much as Star Wars and Star Trek took their cues from modern cosmology, poetry in the seventeenth century was transformed by Copernicus and Galileo.

I took my own purpose in life from a classic 1977 book, The First Three Minutes, by Steven Weinberg, a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin and a Nobel laureate in physics. Weinberg made the famous statement: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” I took this as a justification for my slacker life, quietly snickering at the achievers and believers. Unlike them, I was at one with the universe. The universe and I were both pointless. Unfortunately, when I interviewed Weinberg recently, he told me I had misinterpreted his statement, and should have read further. He had added that while the universe suggests no point, we humans could find purpose in our lives, including trying to understand the universe.

“There is a widespread belief,” says Weinberg, “that there is a purpose for our actions that has been laid out for us. That is not true. We have to get used to that. We have to grow up – I mean, as a species. We have to create a purpose for ourselves. The things we treasure do not have a purpose in themselves outside of that which we give them.”

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In the early part of the twentieth century, we saw a full frontal attack on cause and effect. The Lost Generation formulated a new way of writing. Ernest Hemingway’s simple declarative sentences seemed as if they could be shuffled and retold in any order. Gertrude Stein took the backbone out of narrative, writing as if everything was in the present. The Dada school of art was marked by incongruity and nihilism. Its very name suggested babble.

The biggest strike against causality came from quantum theory. Democritus, the ancient Greek who has been called the father of particle physics, wrote, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” The example he offered was the poppy. Chance determined whether the seeds would land on fertile or barren soil, but necessity, or causality, ruled that if a poppy seed landed on a good spot, it would grow into a poppy, not a geranium or a wildebeest. For the next two thousand four hundred years, scientists concentrated on necessity, and let chance blow in the wind.

Revelations about the atom by Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Heinrich Hertz and others changed all that. Theories spun from this evidence by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and others confronted the reality that chance wasn’t just a wild card, but was woven into the very fabric of matter. While a table might seem solid, the electrons and other particles within it were now allowed the luxury of uncertainty. We cannot determine both their position and momentum simultaneously. From our foggy macroscopic perspective, though, objects are stable. Our dinner table stays put because it comprises squillions of particles, and their random motions average out to zero, or close enough to it so the gravy doesn’t spill. We see a calm, stable world. Beneath the surface is a roiling mass of particles. Democritus envisioned atoms in constant violent motion. We should have listened to him sooner. In the space of a few decades, the neat, deterministic clockwork universe begun by Galileo and Isaac Newton and topped off by Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in the nineteenth century had been trumped by randomness.

What does this do to purpose in science? Can we derive purpose from randomness? Weinberg says no. “It does no good to have a purpose if there is no junction between that purpose and our actions. You need some causality. As far as human affairs are concerned, we’re still in the nineteenth century.” He was quick to point out that we’ve developed some good rules for dealing with the quantum world. It’s a matter of asking the proper questions. “Quantum mechanics sharpened our sense of randomness,” he said. “You could no longer use classical language – velocity, momentum, and such.” You can’t ask about the momentum of the electron, but you can ask about the wave
function and what it will be in the future. The answers come out in terms of probabilities instead of absolutes, but they are good answers.

Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian Nobel laureate whose equation is central to quantum theory, once joked about tossing a brick from his office window and killing Adolf Hitler in his motorcade below. Schrödinger’s defense would be that the prosecution could never establish malice aforethought, that is, purpose, because all of the particles in the brick had the freedom to move to the left, and thus spare der Fuhrer’s life. Schrödinger’s friends persuaded him that the judge was likely to have a Newtonian worldview.

A very different scientist agrees with Weinberg that one needs causality for purpose. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, is the author of Darwin’s Black Box, an argument that natural selection fails to explain several features of evolution, such as sight in animals and humans. Behe is straightforward about his own purpose: “I am a Roman Catholic. There is an overarching purpose to human life – to be in communion with God, to live a moral life, and to go to heaven and be with God forever.”

He is a proponent of ID, intelligent design, which holds that the universe was built by an intelligent designer, probably God. Like many other IDers, he doesn’t think the world was built in a week, and he believes that evolution took place and that natural selection probably played a role, but that natural selection can’t explain everything. I’ve seen Behe debate Darwinists and neo-Darwinists, and he more than holds his ground. He also beats his opponents on their own court – natural selection, in which reproductive success is the end-all and be-all. Behe has nine children. “Charles Darwin had ten,” he reminds me.

Behe admits that his fellow ID proponents have overreached their hypothesis, seeing the hand of God in the arrangement of flower petals and such. There is room in his universe for randomness, just as there is in Weinberg’s. “You could have an intelligent designer who simply built a random universe and let it fly,” said Behe. What about the billions and billions of stars? What purpose do they serve? “Maybe God likes stars,” said Behe.

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When my last book was finally edited, my editor said I needed one more thing, an essential ingredient in any science book. She wanted me to write what I call the “money graf,” a paragraph full of awe and wonder, written as if the author were wetting his pants with excitement. This would be the prose equivalent of Carl Sagan in the TV series Cosmos staring awestruck at the night sky (of course, he was probably just looking at the studio ceiling). I bargained the editor down to one sentence, gritted my teeth, and wrote it with as much phony passion as I could muster, like an atheist staring at a ceiling. The sentence was, of course, quoted copiously by reviewers. Still, outside of the TV and publishing world, there is real wonder.

A few years ago, Steven Weinberg gave a lecture to a packed auditorium at Amherst College entitled “Can Science Explain Everything? Can Science Explain Anything?” Weinberg was at his quirky best, asking why there was no skiing in the ancient world. “Herodotus doesn’t mention skiing,” he said. It’s not an easy concept, even though the Greeks certainly had the necessary technology. Weinberg noted, “It’s not obvious that one can strap two boards to one’s feet and slide down a hill – and enjoy it.”

Weinberg did not exaggerate the power of science. In fact, the Nobel prizewinner wasn’t sure that he could explain what “explain” means. It has something to do with “Aha!,” he said, which is what physicists say when they find some underlying fundamental principle. Weinberg pondered why we should care about finding fundamental rules. “Why are Newton’s laws more satisfying than, say, an almanac showing each planet’s position at every point in time?” The theorist said that physicists are more interested in rules than events, in things that are timeless – the mass of the electron, for instance, as opposed to a tornado touching down near Tulsa.

The purpose of science may be even more subtle than “Aha.” Stony Brook’s Crease believes that “wonder” drives science, and that this wonder not only cuts across cultures, but is pan-animate, cutting across species. He directed me to an essay by philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, who is somewhat soured on modern science, saying its credo is to “annihilate wonder.” In her article, however, she includes the photograph of a young chacma baboon. He is delicately holding a small object in both hands, close to his face, examining it intently with a kind of rapture. There is little doubt in my mind that, given his look of wonder, he has discovered something fundamental about the universe.