In the last fifty years, there has been tremendous progress in Science and Physics, in particular. One of the biggest achievements is undoubtedly the Moon landing. For the first time ever, in July 1969, our species had set foot on a different world altogether. This amazing feat can never be exaggerated. Even when we’ll land on Mars, hopefully within the next couple of decades, this will not undermine what we’ve achieved in the Apollo 11 mission. On the contrary, every step we take forward reinforces the importance of any previous achievement. Sometimes, we even leap forward. Felix Baumgartner‘s leap from the ‘edge’ of space illustrates perfectly well how the whole enterprise of Science and Engineering can allow us to push our limits. (I say ‘edge’ because strictly speaking, Felix did not jump from the edge of space. The Earth’s atmosphere stretches to about 100 km from the surface. Jumping from 39 km is less than half way up. Regardless, this is the highest anyone has jumped from, so far.)
Speaking of the furthest reaches, the Voyager 1 space probe has recently passed the 18 billion km point from Earth. That’s right, it’s currently at the edge of the Solar System. We’re not overstating this time when we mean that it’s at the limit of the Solar System. At 18 billion km from us, Voyager 1 is the only man-made object to have reached a point so remote that even light takes 16 hours to travel there! And light, as you would recall, travels very fast. It covers about 300 000 km in one second! At that mind-boggling speed, light takes 8 minutes to reach us from the Sun. Now a 16-hour journey is a long way away; no doubt about it. To reach that far, Voyager 1 had been adrift in space for about 35 years. Its journey from Earth to the edge of the Solar System has not been a straightforward one; far from that. It’s gone past the outermost planets in the Solar System, taking pictures and beaming back information about them as it went past them. The spacecraft, with all its sensors and instruments and panels, span about 10 m and weighs less than a small car – it’s not huge by our everyday standards. Yet, that little piece of engineering has gone where no unmanned or manned craft has been before.
There are several other examples in Physics that shows how far we’ve pushed our boundaries of knowledge. Not only have we travelled billions of km from home but we’ve also gone in the opposite direction. That is, we’ve delved deeper and deeper into matter. We are now able to have a peek inside subatomic particles. This is the opposite end of the scale. Here we’re dealing with distances so small it’s practically inconceivable. However, our instruments are so advanced that we can measure the properties of the most fundamental of particles. We’re able to observe the building blocks of matter. And in so doing, we’re able to carve out the most accurate of models that describe what we are. The Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Geneva, is the largest and most sophisticated man-made structure we’ve ever built. With a circumference of 27 km and about 175 m deep, it’s a gigantic apparatus that allows us to recreate conditions which would have prevailed soon after the Big Bang.
The list of extraordinary achievements is a long one. What we have to bear in mind is that, across all of them, there is this noble enterprise called Science. Science is what make things happen. Yes, engineers will actually build those devices with the help of the latest technology and give life to those mathematical models. But it’s Science that redefines our boundaries and lays down the path that takes us beyond unexplored territory. It’s Science that allows us to put ourselves into question, to see things with a different eye, to stimulate our curiosity. We owe a great deal to the scientists who have helped reshaped our world. Whether it’s in the form of medicine, telecommunication, transport or materials, Science has always worked towards bettering the human condition. True, there can be a bad side to Science in terms of how we apply it. But that is up to us to decide what is good or bad. All Science does is provide us with the means to do good. It’s a different issue altogether whether we want to do good with it or not. In fact, Science is neither good nor bad. Science just is. It’s powerful, definitely, but it’s not the source of evil nor is it good in itself. It’s how we apply it that determines if it will benefit or harm us. We are the agents responsible for making good use of Science.
If I had to pick the best aspect of Science, it’ll have to be its ability to make us feel humble. You see, by being such a powerful enterprise, Science allows us to answer fundamental questions such as where do we come from, how did the Universe come about, what is life, why do certain things behave the way they do, when did the Earth form, etc. Through our quest to find these answers, we push our boundaries of understanding. In so doing, we are humbled by the fact that the Universe is such a wonderful one. That might sound biased, as this is the only Universe we know of, but still, it’s such an amazing one that to fully appreciate its raw beauty we have to turn to Science. By taking these leaps forward and by always reaching for the edge, we are actually able to step back and contemplate our truly inspiring Universe. If there’s one thing Science can teach us, at the very least, it’s that whether we’re looking outwards or inwards, there is an inherent neatness and structure in the Universe which makes it so splendidly elegant.