Tonight I’m bored with music. Bored with the arts in general, actually. Art, it seems to me, concerns itself mainly with the human experience — with human perceptions, aspirations, and emotions. Recent headlines have left me profoundly disgusted with the human species. So why would I care about art?
Seeking other fields to explore, I went to the library and checked out a couple of books on physics. Not for the first time. I’ve read a bit in recent years on both cosmology and particle physics. One studies the universe at extremely large scales, the other at extremely small scales. The two fields are both concerned with the same fundamental questions. And what’s rather disconcerting is that both fields are a glorious mess. The brightest, hardest-working, best-equipped scientists the world has ever seen have, among the lot of them, not a clue about the fundamental nature of reality.
The deeper they probe, the more of a muddle they get themselves into. According to something I was reading recently, “dark energy” accounts for 73% of the mass of the universe. Also, dark energy may be the same thing as the cosmological constant. The absurdity of this may become clear when I explain that the cosmological constant is a number. Yes, one school of highly reputable, well-trained scientists tells us that 73% of the total physical stuff that the universe is made of is … a number.
This is only a little more bizarre than a lot of the findings of modern physics. No, “findings” is too definite a word. “Guesses” is better. There are, to be sure, findings. The microwave background radiation is a real phenomenon. It can be measured. There are some quite plausible guesses about what its existence tells us about the very early universe. Surrounding these guesses is a skein of more tenuous conjectures, few of which can be tested experimentally, other than in very indirect ways.
The truth is, we don’t know what sort of universe we live in. We will never know. You can look at this fact in three ways (if not more): Perhaps the nature of the physical universe is ultimately unknowable — and this could be comforting or terrifying. Perhaps it’s knowable, but we haven’t yet developed instruments of sufficient fineness to penetrate its secrets. (Perhaps we never will.) Or perhaps the human species just isn’t smart enough to figure out what’s going on.
One thing is certain: If we let the Republicans ruin our educational system, we’ll soon be moving back into the Dark Ages. In the headlines this week, a Republican presidential contender openly advocates assassinating scientists. I am not making this up. Rick Santorum was referring specifically to atomic physicists in nations like Iran and Russia, whose nuclear capabilities he finds frightening. But it’s only a short step from saying the government should kill foreign physicists to saying the government should kill foreign biologists or cryptographers — or, for that matter, domestic ones whose loyalty is open to question.
This kind of thing makes the doctrine of Intelligent Design laughable. If a supernatural entity of some sort had a hand in the design of the human race, intelligence was not a factor in the equation. Call it Stupid Design. That’s closer to the mark.