This past weekend I watched the first eight episodes of the new Cosmos. Besides presenting outstanding tapestries of the known physical universe, framed by dramatic orchestral music reminiscent of star wars, it also wove the scientific breakthroughs that most people just take for granted. In a moment inspiring self-reflection, the host Neil Degrass Tyson captured one of the main themes of the show, scientific illiteracy, while discussing Jan Oort, the discover of the center of the Milky Way and the origin of most comets, by musing ”Does the fact that most of us know the names of mass murderers, but have never heard of Jan Oort, say anything about us?”
I, for one, am always affected and a bit ashamed of the things that I know I do not know. There are so many books that I’d like to read, mental paths I’d like to follow, but never “have enough time”. These include, among others:
- Reading Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the Story of the Stone, the Analects, Das Kapital and the Wealth of Nations.
- Understanding geometry, calculus, and mechanical physics to a degree that I’d be able to use it to explain the shapes of things I see around me and their motion through space,
- Figuring out how to really understand the general theory of relativity and electricity.
Yes, life is short and there’s a million things that we all think we have to do. But is it possible to live a fully-conscious life without understanding the big ideas that shape individuals, society, and the world that surrounds us? And if you’re not living consciously, for what purpose are you doing all of these millions of things? Cosmos makes it clear that none of the insights into philosophy and the nature of being were gained easily. In fact, most of them were the offspring of propitious, serendipitous accidents. Galileo was imprisoned, Confucian scholars buried alive, and Socrates forced to down hemlock for their refusals to bend under authority and compromise what they believed to be the truth. What a shame that rather than profiting from their insights, we subscribe them to the responsibilities of professors, scientists, and philosophers and not to everyday people. But just as the accumulated capital of generations before should not be distributed out of proportion to a few people, neither should the accumulated intellectual wealth remain locked away in ivory towers. Projects like Wikipedia, Librivox, open text-books, and open-source software go a long way in spreading knowledge–now the responsibility’s ours to take advantage of it.
From the original Cosmos: “One glance at (a book) and you hear the voice of another person - perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time.”