No one has answered that question better than the single greatest mind in the history of science. To quote Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
The power and scope of the human imagination is of fundamental importance to our time. In fact, it may prove our salvation.
As a species, we have been around for 200 thousand years, which is not remarkably long considering that Tyrannosaurs Rex existed for two and half million years. Yet in this very short time, the human imagination has led to a profound if still limited understanding of the laws of physics and our place in the universe.
The fundamental concept of the 21st century, the question of life beyond our planet, has exercised human imagination, and sometimes stirred irrational fears, since the ancient Greeks. The search for is our great secular meditation on the Other.
As we wrote in an recent post, these fears were in part responsible for the gruesome death of Giordano Bruno on February 17, 1600, when he was taken from his Inquisition prison cell in Castel S'ant Angelo across the Tiber from the Vatican, marched to the Campo dei Fiori, and burned at the stake in large part for his belief in an infinite number of inhabited worlds.
Today, some 400 years later, two mutually exclusive world views of our cosmos are at conflict; world views that infuses science fiction as well as popular culture and scientific debate. The first, the physical world view, believes that cosmic evolution ends in planets, stars, and galaxies; the second, the biological worldview, believes that the emergence of life and intelligence is pre-programmed into the laws and constants of physics, which function similar to cosmic DNA. Each results in vastly different implications for science, for society, and for human destiny.
The biological universe worldview is captured perfectly in famed physicist, Freeman Dyson comment that The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming. It is a vision of the world as profound in its implications as that of Copernicus and Darwin.
Finally, there is the new, emerging worldview of Cambridge physicist, Sir Martin Rees, Lee Smolin ,and Richard Gott of Princeton who imagine that in addition to planets, stars, and galaxies looms the "multiverse" -of more than one universe, where "universe" is defined as everything we have seen, or can see.
The fact that the universe seems to be fine tuned for life has given birth to the poorly named "anthropic principle" -a misnomer because it is relevant to the existence of all forms of life in the universe, not just humankind, and therefore is not anthropic.
These divergent worldviews fuel our daily press with feature news
stories about fierce battles for congressional cutbacks in space
exploration; essays on the urgency of space colonization, terraforming,
the galactic certainty of eventual asteroid impacts, and a new focus on searching for non-carbon-based life forms mainstream
media such as the in the New York Times; History Channel specials on the Universe and the search for with pros, cons, and all views in between.
Many of the most exciting subjects of contemporary science appeared first as products of brilliant science fiction: H.G.Wells wrote "The Time Machine" in 1895, ten years before Einstein imagined a universe of curved space-time -of special relativity. At that time, with the Newton's theory, time travel looked impossible. But with the Einstein's theory of special relativity moving clocks tick slowly, and later, with the general theory of relativity, space and time are bendable.
A similar result came about with Carl Sagan's novel and blockbuster film Contact about wormholes. He asked Kip Thorne at Cal Tech to examine whether his wormhole physics make sense. Thorne looked into the physics and found that circumstances and solutions might allow a time machine to visit the past.
Arthur C. Clarke, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) played out a universe populated by advanced, machine-based intelligence . The Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem represents yet another vision: in Solaris (1961) and His Master's Voice (1968) he argues that we may be unable to comprehend, much less communicate, which lends special weight to a focus on searching for non-carbon-based life forms.
Perhaps an accurate vision of our future be found in the science fiction of Alastair Reynolds, a young, recently retired scientist with the European Space Agency. Several critics believe he is on track to be the next Arthur C. Clarke (2001 -A Space Odyssey). His trilogy a "vision of a future dominated by artificial intelligence that trembles with the ultimate cold of the dark between the stars." -asks the great question: if there is intelligent life out there, how come we never encountered it?
Biological or physical? We won't be burned at the stake, but we'll bet that if past is prelude, it's a biological universe, with all its profound implications for the future of the human species.
Posted by Casey Kazan.