I say I'm a guy
But really I'm just a speck
Compared to a planet
And compared to a star
The planet's just another speck;
To think about all of this
To think about the vast, emptyness of space
With billions of billions of stars
Billions and billions of speck."
- Bill Nye, The Eyes Of Nye
This is my first sermon, so you're going to have to bear with me. I understand all preachers, on their first few tries, get to use that excuse. Once upon a time, my father, a preacher too, related to me that you can reuse any sermon within a year if your congregation is more than a hundred people. The smaller your congregation, the longer their memories, and the less they want to kick up a stink at hearing the same thing again. With an audience of... yes, yes, you in the back... seven people, I'll be able to repeat this whole thing sometime in 2013, after the conclusion of the Mayan calendar and, of course, all our lives.
The proceeding quote by Bill Nye is a fascinating one to me, brought to my attention by the Symphony of Science
piece, 'We Are All Connected.' It's spoken by a man who has a career primarily as a children's science presenter, an educator who meets so few of his students, in a piece he made to express his views, unshackled by the needs to be 'whacky' or 'funny.' The net result is this above paeon, where he gives the audience a moment to appreciate the scale of the universe - and it is an awesome scale, if you stop to let your mind creep around the edges of it.
The world to which Carl Sagan's Billions And Billions spoke is a world, I can say, that is so different to the world in which I found myself growing up and living as to make the sounding of it be alien in my ear. To Nye, and to me, there's a certain helpless awe at the beauty. It can be depressing, if you choose to focus on the darkness; certainly, if you were to briefly compose things in their darkest possible tone, there is the meddlesome reality of physics as we understand it which says, in a cosmic sense, we came from nothing important and we're going nowhere interesting, if you take a long enough view. Even through that lens of deliberate cynicism, however, we have to squint pretty hard to not see the exceptional things. Because the dawn of the universe was not, as I understood it in my youth, a single colossal block that represented all matter, but was rather everything that was, is and ever will be
, compressed into a single unit of volume. It was intensely hot in a place where there was no time to be
hot. And of course, in that state there's potential; there's the hope, there's the idea that this thing represents everything
. In that one point, there was the possibility for New York City, for hommus, for Meat Loaf tickets, for my nephew, for baseball caps and rear spoiler fins. Everything
. It takes a lot of mental effort to make everything
When you flick the dial to the other end of the reel and look at the universe when it's done, the picture is a lot more grim. It's a vast soup, beige in colour - if you could view it from the outside - and it spans the limits of our universe, spread out as evenly as possible. The Heat Death sounds like a terrifying thing, because it does represent, to the mind of a science-borne person who is willing to embrace the realities of the life we live, an end point. It doesn't, really - well before that point, we'll have to be tapping black holes for energy if we want enough heat to warm a broom closet, but the Heat Death represents a cut-off point at which point current understanding says 'Seriously, this is it
.' It is sad to consider, a fleeting whisper in the mind that speaks to us of the impermanence of everything, and it is that shadow that looms ahead of us when we think of space in saddening terms.
First, the Heat Death is not on the horizon. It's not even on the horizon's horizon. Nor that horizon, nor that horizon, nor that horizon. We have more lifetimes time to conquer these challenges and perhaps even encounter some fascinating tool, some useful way to achieve beyond the limits of what we understand to be even feasible
, or to come to terms with what we see, or to travel to another universe or whatever
than we have people alive. And even then, all this provides us with not a sad denoument to the story of our universe - it is in fact, but a setting fixture, a backdrop for the real
drama of our cosmos, the story of our galaxy, the speck made of billions and billions of specks, some of which were orbited by other specks, upon which live, in this case, roughly seven billion specks.
This is an expression of wonder. It is an expression of awe. It is an expression of something that, in the oldest meaning of the world, something that is holy
. It speaks to me of scale
. It speaks to me of preciousness. Of rarity
The universe is a vast wasteland, and contrary to popular thought, it is not a cold and pitiless place. Indifferent indeed, but it is a desert, hot in ways that it's hard to understand and boiling in ways that we can barely feel. And across this vast desert, there are strung bright lights, campfires we call planets. Right now, we are all huddled around this particular campfire, a bright light in the darkness. It feels almost shameful to quote Sagan here, but his message deserves to be echoed: everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was...
This is our campfire. We are travellers across this desert, and we are looking for water. But not all these travellers are like us - some are very small, some are very large, and they are all here with us.
How much more important is it, then, to treat them well?
If you flatten this universe, roll it up like a rug, grind it into powder and winnow through that powder with the finest of seives and you will never find another human being just like your lover. You do not love someone who is one in a million. They are not one in a trillion. There are not words
for the beauty and rarity of our lone little star-travellers, knots in the cosmos that stare out upon the world that brought us to be, the cosmos that we are ourselves
There are no words
We stand before a vast desert in which there is such a scope of beauty and wonder, and things to be learned and discovered and understood all over anew. Yes, we should feel small before such things, because though we know, in the end, it must be a finite quantity, its scope is so great that we haven't the tools to grapple with the scale. It is so close as to infinite as to make no difference. In our own history on this planet, that of the clever storytelling monkeys, humanity has found laying behind us, a billion ancestors, and a billion more, more creatures that have died than have been alive at any one point in time. We have looked back into our own history, we have looked into the stars, and we have even looked into the very building blocks of the world, and what we have seen is that our world is both larger, and finer, and longer and more interesting than we would have ever been able to invent on our own. The world we are in looks back at us, and says Look at your works, ye currently mighty, and be humble
Our world is one that tells us that we are a limited creature. We are finite and we are rare and we last for a heartbeat of a sun.
So, noble scientist - And I mean real scientists. I mean actual scientists, because I know you're reading this because I sent it to you - what am I trying to tell you with this? For the most part, you're all completely aware of these facts, and you've probably heard it said better by educators who were trying to inspire and grow in you that passion, beauty and joy that you can receive from science. Yet now you slog through what can only be called a job
, in which searching for open anglebrackets, navigating CAD4, 'resolving biomass' (a euphemism up there with 'abbattoir') and of course, paperwork
. And then you go home and come to bed and you sit up and watch as some wanker
stands up and says something like 'The science is still out on science.'
It can grind you down. And the world shrinks, the vast cosmos outside and the inner universe that teems beneath the limit of our eyes, and somewhere, those muddy, grey lenses and you start to squint and it can feel so very tiring
. The facts that science carved out of the world and that spend even to this day refining are scorned and spurned. Even the most iconic understood scientific realities in our world have people who rail against them. There is a serious, sincere flat earth society. Homeopathy and Chiropractic both throw Germ Theory under the bus. Evolution is being hammered at by Creationists. There are Zero Denialists
This, sadly, is true. I have stood in the presence of sincere, well-meaning and completely wrong people who will routinely and aggressively argue for things they don't understand where their stance is completely wrong.
With the knowledge that spans from whence we started, afraid of fire, afraid of earthquakes, standing beneath trees and hoping they ward us from the lightning, dying to our teeth and brutalising one another as our options for interacting with the world it can feel at times much as you, scientists, are following a sisyphean path. No sooner do you roll the stone up the hill, than it tumbles back down.
Hope shines, yet, though, and in the parlance of gamers, here it is: Knowledge is the most powerful buff there is - and it stacks. That's
why it's important to roll the stones up the hill. Some will roll back down, yes. And when we do that, we go back down the hill, and we roll them back up again. And when that stone rolls down the hill again?
We brace the shoulder and we roll that motherfucker up the hill once more
When we find a stone atop the hill, we can shore it up a little. We can show our children and our friends, See this Stone? See this thing that seems so obvious and safe up here? Once upon a time, it was down in the valley, and people feared its shadow.
Look at it now, look at it here, up on the hilltop, in the light of the sun, we see it as a monument for what we have done.
The hill is not the scientific method, the stones are not the hard-worn facts carved out and worn smooth, freed from ignorance by the weathering of days. The hill is public understanding, the stones our ideas, the ways we as people handle them.
Spoken aloud, here is where I would shuffle my paperwork, clear my throat, and let the conversation lull. This is where the little kids in the audience would be quietly adjusting in their seats, wondering if it's almost over. Sorry, kids, suck it down.
Liquid Oxygen is a substance that in 1845, Michael Faraday pronounced impossible to make. It was one of the 'permanent gasses,' elements that science at the time understood to be different to the other gasses in that they didn't liquefy the way that Faraday was expecting. Faraday reduced all the gasses he could find into liquids because, while doing something else
, he noticed that he had developed a method that let him do it - so he went on to try it on everything he could. Not that this was the first time Faraday did something like that; he and Humphrey Davy set a diamond on fire and found it was made of carbon, not so much so because they wanted to see what would happen, but because they devised a method and thought it should work, wanting to see what would happen if they did it.
Note that Faraday's creation of the dynamo and the electric motor were in a similar vein; he was trying to find a way to overcome the problem of having something with a current being run through it spin without restraint, and was the guy who nutted out that he could use mercury. That he had, at first without noticing, created an item that could convert mechanical energy into electricity and back again took a moment to settle in.
Now, despite what Lord Kelvin's proponents, most of whom are about as historically informed as the fact-checker for Wild Wild West, Liquid Oxygen wasn't finally distilled from the the air itself
until Raoul Pictet, a mad Swiss physicist in 1877. He was able to liquefy oxygen by taking a totally different path to Faraday. Yet he wasn't the only man doing it, and while he probably did it first, the alternative venue makes for a better narrative, so follow along: Alongside Pictet was Louis Paul Cailletet, whose liquified oxygen was not the result of aggressive competition, but was instead because he was finding accidents in forges weird.
Following gaseous impurities through the refinement of steel, Cailletet found that exploding steel was the result of escaping gas, and saw that pressure and heat connected. Taking this method and stepping backwards, flipping it in reverse, by applying
pressure, he could increase the temperature at which the substance boils. And through that method, by removing head and adding pressure, Cailletet stepped from the heat of the forge and into the shivering cold of liquid sky
Three steps. A technique discovered by incident. An exploration of the technique. And an alternative technique developed exploring trying to do what that other technique couldn't. Why is this interesting? Why is it important? Sure, these liquid compounds are made useful - Liquid methane has applications, sure, but nobody you know uses it, do they?
The engines that propelled Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, into the skies were powered in part by dumping vast quantities of liquified oxygen as an oxidant.
When Pictet and Cailletet and Faraday took the steps along that path that they did, they did not do so planning
to send us from the cradle of our birth into the vast open wilds of space. They did it for curiosity. They did it because Oh hello, that's interesting
, because What happens if I try this?
, because Faraday couldn't
. These problems were solved for their own sakes. They were small steps that were nonetheless essential in developing the hardware that sends men to the moon.
What are you, my scientist friends? What are
you? Are you a computer scientist, a person who makes lightning dance across pathways of thinking sand? Do you speak the language that makes the works of men into the echoing, resounding mind of sand - which is simple and yet intricate in that it can do almost anything we tell it to if we can but conceive of how to tell it. Are you a biologist, a person who, last I heard of it, was finding a way to bridge between plastics, made from oils that are themselves made from the blood and bone and skin and nerves and hairs of our forefathers, an inheritance from the prior kings and queens of this world, and the nerves and blood and bones we ourselves currently have, also
our inheritance of our forefathers, handed down recklessly, thrown from generation to generation as a kind of genetic game of hot potato, a trillion trillion temporary solutions that coalesce in the shape of us? Are you an engineer, a man who stands before a mountain and can mutter to himself in all honesty, "Well, I can do better than that
You are all, collectively, toweringly more intelligent than I am, than I ever fear I will be, and even if you haven't more raw talent, you have all shown the dedication and the strength of mind to bend your natural inclination to learn to swim in the vast ocean of knowledge which is so far beyond most people that you have to invent a language to speak to one another, a language designed to be precise
You may feel you're not doing much. But you're making ripples. And those ripples in the ocean will connect with other ripples, and other ripples, and eventually they will be a roaring tide.
I cannot tell you, you, my friends, you, my peers, you, the people I love and the people who have helped my in even the most implicit ways
to step away from superstition and nonsense and lies told to goatherds, just how much respect
I have for you.
The men of the enlightenment believed in one unfortunately beautiful but naive principle; They believed in the idea of the momentum of progress, the notion that it was simply inevitable
that knowledge would expound and flow. They didn't fight for science because why would you fight for that
? It would be like assisting a tidal wave, trying to speed the sunlight.
It is precious and people like you are part of the momentum, people who fight for it and fight within it, but always part of it. It is our shield and our cause; it informs and uplifts our lives, it enriches our understanding of the world around us and lets us move ourselves towards the things that we truly deem to be important.
We know better. We know that science is not a sun, it is not a tidal wave. It is a candle. A light that flickers, that people don't see the light, but instead see the shadows it casts across the valley. They fear what we don't understand and flee from the light, staying in the shadow and holding their breath for fear of the monsters that the candle shows to be just rocks.
With determination and vigor then, we step out and see a shadow in the valley, and we go and get our sticks and our shovels and we start shoving the rock up the hill, all over again. It is a labour of love, enlightening our fellow man, and is such a fight worth fighting.