THE BLOG
10/02/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Where Are We Going? A Wandering Scientist Asks

This is the blog of a wandering scientist. "Wandering" because we are all wanderers, living on top of a planet called Earth, moving through infinite space. "Planet" comes from the Greek, it means "the wanderer, the one that moves in the sky." The ancients thought the planets move, as they apparently move on the sphere of the sky above us, while the stars, which they named "non-wanderers", or immovable, were not moving--on the sky. Today we know that everything moves through infinite space, stars and planets and galaxies, everything. Our sun (our stellar home) moves around the center of the Milky Way galaxy (our galactic home), and drags along with it all the planets, including our Earth (our planetary home). Our humanly built physical homes house us but they too move through space. Have you thought about it? Your own home is flying through space at incredible speeds of several miles per second! But once you think about the motions through space, calling yourself a wanderer may not appear to be very profound. You are wandering, I am wandering. We are all moving, we are all wandering, seating on top of a speck of dust if seen from far away, our blue planet, that wanders.

Now let's examine the scientist part. I am by training and by profession a scientist. But foremost I am a human being. As a human being, I wander through space. As a scientist, I of course also wander through space. But being a theoretical physicist and a scientist, I also wander through the realm of thoughts. All humans do. However, scientists make careers out of thinking, not a bad thing I must say. And in the process, I wonder (pun intended) where I am going. I don't mean through space, that much can be understood and accepted. I wonder where I am "going." You had that thought I am sure, probably many times.

Why would a scientist's wandering thoughts be more profound than anyone else's? Actually, I don't think they are. Since though a scientist is trained to methodically think, to consistently think when developing scientific ideas, the wanderings of a scientist thoughts might be interesting and more applicable to general situations than just individual, private thinking wanderings. That's all.

The scientific activity is supposed to be objective, self-consistent and the products of scientific minds that scientists call "theories" are supposed to also be subject to tests of falsification. Generally they can be falsified in the laboratory -- or they can be falsified if they are not self-consistent. If a theory, or let's just say a scientific product, withstands some tests of falsification, we say that theory or product is "good." If the products of scientific minds cannot be put to some test of falsification, they are not science. They may be beliefs, conjectures, dogmas, myths, or whatever but they are not scientific theories or products. Or at least this is what science holds to be true.

Now the word "science" comes from the Latin word scientia, which the Wikipedia tells us means "knowledge." It is a special "systematic enterprise" that can be put to tests. Science is a special kind of human knowledge (yes, it is human, after all) that always seeks to disprove itself. You might think that is some sort of punishing or self-inflicted nasty activity. As humans, aren't we after all not happy when we are proven wrong? Don't we want stability, please no changes? When someone tells us that we are wrong, don't we get defensive and, often, indignant? Well, a particular scientist might not be happy when her theory is proven wrong. Science, however, progresses by many, many scientific ideas becoming wrong, upon examination, careful examination, shown to be wrong. Some that survive, at least for some time, we view them as successful ideas. In some ways science progresses over the dead ideas, which in the process become discarded and thrown out. So if you are a young person and want to become a scientist, get used to the idea that your success will most likely require you being wrong, probably many times and occasionally being right.

In these series, we will explore questions that are profound and not so profound. We will ask questions under the general category, where are we going? Where is science going? Where is our technological society going? Where is the planet's future going? Where is consciousness going? Where is evolution going? Where are particularly successful scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics, going? As wanderers, we will be wandering where many things that concern us are going. Because if there is no direction of going (moving toward), a wandering can become random, purposeless, and even counterproductive.

Science is today a most powerful, successful and continuously changing human activity. An activity that asks "big questions," such as, how did the universe start? An activity that also asks questions that may not be "big" but are, nevertheless, very important, questions that affect our everyday lives and well-being.

In our wanderings, we will ask how will science change, how will it evolve (we already established that by its nature, must change). We will examine some fundamental challenges facing current science today. Often progress occurs not when we carry out business as usual but when we are facing some profound challenges.

These are the musings of a wandering scientist. Let me close today's wandering with the thought, and the strong belief, that any scientific wanderings have to be relevant to non-scientists. And it is my strong world view that other humans should understand what scientists are saying. Many of my colleagues probably don't agree with me on this, holding the view that science is too difficult, too "esoteric," you need years of study to understand it, etc. Fair enough, it may not be easy. But it is the job of scientists to communicate what they are doing and making accessible what they are practicing. This much this particular wanderer will try to do. In the process, we will have fun!

Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles (Harmony).