I still love science. Other than reading Fantastic Four #62 for the first time (my first experience with the real stuff after watching the Saturday morning cartoon), the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience was watching and reading Cosmos by Dr. Carl Sagan in college. It’s true. It was Dr. Sagan who helped me understand why I loved science so much. In fact it was Dr. Sagan who helped me to understand, in a way I never had before, just what my existence meant and what was my place in the universe.
From Cosmos I learned my true origins: not the mythology that they teach you in church, but the actual, physical reality of our being and that of everything around and beyond us. Before Cosmos, I had known but never really understood that all the matter in my body and everything around me had come from space. I had never truly made the connection with the fact that everything that you and I and the lamppost, so to speak, are composed of was cooked and fused in stars ancient beyond our knowledge, and flung across space in supernovae. I had never really considered what the ultimate fate of the world and everything that ever existed on it will be, that the entire mass of the planet will one day be swallowed up in the expansion of the Sun into a red giant star, and that all but the innermost layers of that swollen giant will eventually return to space and go into other stars, other planets, and perhaps other life. (The rest of the Sun will contract into a white dwarf.) That will include every atom and every particle in my body and yours, and everything and everyone that has ever existed on this Earth.
And long before that, at the time of my death, my bodily mass and the energy of my mind will return to the Earth itself, to be redistributed into the soil and the water and the air and the grass and the trees and other creatures, on an on until the Sun swells up and returns me and all of us to the universe from which we came. Death is the redistribution of life. It is nature’s recycling program. The mythologies of the churches will never teach you that. (Probably not even the Unitarians, whom I respect a great deal. Rod Serling was born Jewish and became a Unitarian. We’ll get to him in the next post.)
It’s as Dr. Sagan said: “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of us knows that this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the Cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
There were things that had helped me on my way to my acquaintance with Dr. Carl Sagan. I had gone from being a young, small boy who latched onto his family’s set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia and read all the science and nature articles in it, to a boy who loved The Fantastic Four and Star Trek (the latter of which has inspired more scientists, engineers, and doctors than anyone will ever know), to a charter subscriber to Omni magazine by the time I was in high school. Does anyone remember Omni, the creation of Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione? I have always marveled at the fact that the man who gave us Penthouse, a magazine couched in straight men’s venery towards women’s bodies, also published Omni, a magazine that revered science fact and fiction and human intellect, and married science to art in the most beautiful, poetic, and inspiring way. It was Star Trek and Omni that helped me turn away from supernatural thinking and towards the beauty, poetry, and romance of science. It was Dr. Carl Sagan and Cosmos that sealed the deal and established my thinking for the rest of my life.
It was a journey that I was truly meant to make. Looking back on my relationship with The Fantastic Four, I realize why Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, had to be my all-time favorite hero. He was exactly what I first wanted to be, a man capable of anything and everything scientific. Reed’s scientific genius is a super-power in and of itself. Reed’s gifts embrace physics, astronomy, astrophysics, quantum theory, chemistry, biology, genetic engineering, geology, oceanography, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The man has a portal to an antimatter universe in his home! I quickly learned that my own gifts lay more in storytelling and art than in hard science, but science was like a palette of colors with which I loved to work, or a toy chest full of the neatest things in the world to play with. (J.A. FLUDD FACTOID: I was also always the absolute worst at math. It was the torment and humiliation of my youth. After just barely meeting the school system’s requirements for math to graduate, I swore never, ever to endure the torture of a math class again as long as I lived. And I never have. It’s the ideas and principles in science that I love, not the equations. I even skipped the mathematical parts of Cosmos. Seriously.)
The first image in this post is from the aforementioned Fantastic Four #62, page 8. It is a summation of the entire character of Reed Richards and the core theme of The Fantastic Four (aside from the “family” theme that is the first thing that everyone always brings up). It is also one of the finest things that Stan Lee ever wrote, a soliloquy that Reed gives as he is on his way to what he thinks is his certain annihilation in the Negative Zone (of course, he’s rescued). I keep an abridged version of it on my Palm:
”There is so much yet to learn . . . so much to see, and marvel at . . . But there will be others, those who come after me, and they will unlock the secrets of the cosmos, one by one. For the mind of man is the greatest key in the world, the key which may one day open the door to...immortality! And each of us, in his own way, does what he can for those who will follow. That is the only true legacy we can leave to those we love: that we have made the world a little better than we found it.”
There, my friends, on one page, in one speech, is why The Fantastic Four, in essence, will always be “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” (Whether they use that epigram on the covers or not.) In a medium filled with Super people and Bat people and X people and Spider people and Wolverines and Punishers and characters of every stripe, nothing, but nothing else, has the mentality and vision of The Fantastic Four.
So it is that my relationship with scientists is akin to that of the guy sitting at home in his recliner chair with his bag of Fritos, watching his favorite football team and rooting for his quarterback. He may not be able to do what the football players do, but he basically gets what they’re doing and cheers them on. (My friend Derrick will appreciate that analogy; his religion is football.) That’s me and the world of science in a nutshell. Hey, don’t be greedy, pass the Fritos back here.
I found this article last week in a Newsletter called Early to Rise, to which I subscribe. I thought I’d share it with you now:
The Literature of Truth
By Alex Green
According to Dr. Jon D. Miller, Director of the Center for Biomedical Communications, the number of scientifically literate adults in the U.S. has doubled over the past 20 years.
The bad news? That only gets us up to 20 percent.
Only 48 percent of Americans know that humans didn't live at the same time as dinosaurs. Less than half know that electrons are smaller than atoms. And few know what DNA is or can define a molecule.
We live in a world highly dependent on the fruits of science. Yet most of us have little scientific knowledge.
Does this matter?
Without some minimal scientific understanding, we can't possibly have informed opinions on important issues. We surrender our ability to participate as responsible citizens in society.
Uncle Sam spends more than $100 billion annually on science agencies, university laboratories, and grants for independent research. Most of us know very little about where this money is going or why.
But there is an even more compelling reason to remedy our ignorance: Scientific illiteracy diminishes the quality of our lives.
For most of human history, our ancestors looked up at the night sky and never realized the twinkling lights were suns unimaginably far away.
We created myths to explain the phases of the moon, the appearance of comets, meteor showers, and solar eclipses. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, and volcanic eruptions were attributed to angry gods. [Some people still do this. --JAF.]
Our ancestors hadn't the slightest inkling that the universe is nearly 15 billion years old or that our sun is one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. (Which, itself, is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.)
Science has been called the literature of truth. The systematic classification of experience. The antidote to enthusiasm and superstition.
Of course, few scientific truths are self-evident. Many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious, for example, that empty space has structure or that everything is made of the same basic elements.
Science writer Isaac Asimov once noted that we are among the tiny fraction of 1 percent of human beings fortunate enough to live in the era where science finally got the big questions right.
Until Einstein worked them out, we didn't know the basic rules that govern the universe.
We didn't realize the universe is expanding before Edwin Hubble discovered it in 1923.
We didn't understand the mind-bending rules that govern subatomic particles until the advent of quantum theory.
Still, science makes no claim to truth with a capital T. All scientific knowledge is subject to revision.
The scientific method is successful, in part, because it acknowledges human failings. With its critical thinking and error-correcting mechanisms, it advances knowledge through reason and evidence, revealing successive approximations of the truth.
Today the basic picture is complete. No future scientist, we can safely say, will disprove the principles of chemistry, the germ theory of disease, or the interrelatedness of all life on earth.
Yet despite all that science teaches us, many smart, talented people can't be bothered to learn.
We appreciate the countless medical and technological advances that extend and improve our lives. But most of us know little about the history of the cosmos... or life on earth.
That can't help but diminish our awareness and understanding.
Fortunately, it isn't hard to change. Here are just a few suggestions:
Subscribe to Scientific American. I read this magazine years ago and found it tough sledding. But the magazine is much improved. It is written primarily for non-specialists. Jargon is minimal. Most articles begin with a short summary of key concepts. And the monthly columns by Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss alone justify a subscription.
Rent or collect the BBC documentaries with naturalist David Attenborough. Especially Planet Earth, The Trials of Life, Blue Planet, Life On Earth, and The Living Planet. Astronomer Carl Sagan's classic Cosmos series too. [And learn the difference between astronomy and astrology. --JAF.]
For a crash course, read The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier. Or -- if you prefer your science served with hilarity -- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
Science is a tool. A window on the truth. Carl Sagan often referred to it as our "baloney-detection kit."
And there are other benefits. Science teaches us wonder, community, oneness ... and humility.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that the common feature of all scientific revolutions is the dethronement of human arrogance.
Without natural science, we may also miss great beauty and understanding.
As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow:
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? ... Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"
[Ed. Note: Alex Green is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of "Spiritual Wealth," a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.]
Thank you, Dr. Green, and “Up with Science!”