The Power of Science

In a billion miles away, amidst the vast emptiness of the universe, an man-made machine is circling Saturn. It took this machine 7 years to reach its destination. Launched from the earth in 19997, Cassini today is sending back unprecedentedly pictures of Saturn and its satellites, revealing ice and organic molecules.

For most people on the earth, stars are like fairy tales. In our flesh eyes, they are hanging high up there in the sky, like dotted sparkles, with no significant difference from each other. When I told a friend about “billions of billions stars”, she raised her brow, “Really? How do you know for sure?” Apparently she is not convinced. Similarly, certain religious groups today are still questioning the age of the earth, or the idea of evolution. All of these are well-accepted facts in scientific community, yet cannot be easily grasped by our daily experience.

For lay people, science is just theories. It is theory about atoms, about molecules, and about stars. But when these theories meet reality, they became powerful force. From an elegant equation of Einstein we derived atomic bomb. From structure graph of a molecule, we build powerful drugs. From the calculation of the movement of planets, we can send a probe to a billion miles away. The result of science is the result of reasoning and reality checking.

Human being exists in two worlds, one is his own mind, the other is the environment around him. Our mind creates belief and a model of the world. It creates imagination and stories to comfort us. In harsh dire poverty, people imagine their life to be reasonably well. They need this belief to survive. The extreme example is North Korea, where people are made to believe that their life is far better than those in South Korea and in America. Regardless our belief, the world outside us has its own law that is not affected by our belief. You can tell yourself it is not cold outside, but you will freeze to death when you sleep in the open under zero temperature.

Science seeks to explain what exists outside us, which is independent of our personal wish. Religion seeks to explain what our deep wish and emotion are, and how we can be comforted with a good story. In many cases, we need both to survive, as along as we keep religion in a healthy boundary. When religion steps into the scientific domain, trying the uphold that the earth is the center, trying to insist that we human has nothing to do with other animals, or even trying to stipulate the age of the earth, problems arise. In al l of these cases, religion holds back us from understanding the environment outside us, and from harnessing the power of the nature.

The success of Cassini is the triumph of science, whose remarkable reasoning leads us to a billion miles away. It is the triumph of collaborative engineering, where engineers and scientists build a remarkable machine that can propel itself far into the universe, withhold coldness, and navigate smoothly into Saturn’s hazadous orbit.

As war is still raging on half of the earth away, I look up into the far away universe. There, outside this tiny planet called the earth, truth and reasoning prevails.

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The Next Frontier

Today’s science has achieved reasonable understanding of the universe (at least its age and composition), the atoms, and the genes. What’s left to explain, the thing that is still murky is our brain. How does our brain process information? Why do we have consciouness? Are humans the only species that have consciousness? Why do we have dreams? These unanswered questions points to the last frontier of science: understanding the brain. The progress in this field is lead by neuroscience, together with physiology and psychology research.

To understand the brain, we need to start from our five senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Each of these provides a window on how brain processes information, and how brain generates response. Neurscientists have made great stride in each of these five subjects. We have come to understand clearly, at least in physiological level, how the structure of the organs –eyes, ears, nose, limbs, tongue — and how the send information to the brain. Research in this direction also leads to the design of articial eyes, artificial ears, and artificial sweetners.

A second step is looking at the aggreate pattern from sensory information. one of such aggregate patterns is our emotion. In this issue of Scientific American Mind (Oct/Nov 2006), researchers found that our emotion is also affected by our facial expression. if you make a sad face, after a while you will feel sad. The coupling of our emotion and facial expression (and maybe body posture) is a fascinating discovery. Therefore emtion is not entirely generated from inside (the thinking process), it can also be generated from automatic muscle movement. This explains why small body movement improves a depressed person’s mood, and why taking deep breath and standing upright makes you feel powerful. This secret was discovered by Self-help guru Anthony Robbins independently, and he teaches people to apply this to improve their emotional state.

A third step is understanding language, how it is processed and how it affects our emotion and thinking. Current MRI study has revealed how our brains respond to different words with different brain sections. It also reveals bilingual speakers respond to the same words in two different languages with the same region of the brain.

Then we need to understand dreams. What do they tell us? Is it possible to take a snapshot of a dream, rendering it to a computer screen? If we can do this, we probably have had a good understanding on the neuron interaction and electronic process inside the brain. Dream is an important of piece of puzzle on brain study.

Finally we will grab the most coveted prize: human consciousness. How do we perceive ourselves? How do we perceive reality. This will lead to the answers to age-old religious questions. We will finally understand the issue of soul, and the relationship between mind and body.

The Infinite Universe

I watched Cosmos TV series in 1996, and have since remembered the phrase “billions of billions stars”. It’s both astonishing and puzzling. Could there be so many stars in the universe? Here is what I found out from Wikipedia: In our our milky-way galaxy, there are 200 billion stars. Then there are 10 billion galaxies in the universe. Our Milky Way galaxy is just a medium size one.  Thus “billions of billions” is not an exaggeration. In fact, the total number of stars in the universe, based on Wikipedia, is 7×10^22, which translates to 10,000 billion of billions.

In this vast universe, the earth is just a tiny dust among billions of billions of swirling and shining entities. Each of us, a human being, is an even smaller dust among 6 billion moving moving particles on this tiny earth. If there is a God, who looks at us from the far away universe, aren’t we just a bunch of miniature creatures clinging on a remote tiny sphere?

Now let’s consider the life span of the universe. The age of the universe, the one that we can observe, is 13.7 billion year old. Relatively young, our earth is only 4.5 billion year old. Yet, the history of humans is only 2 million years. The written language appeared no more than 9,000 years ago. How short our civilization is! Our collective effort and our intelligence have changed the face of the earth, and potentially will for other planets.

In 1 billion years, the Sun will die out, leading to the death of the earth and all planets in the solar system. We will not be around to see it happen, which is a million millennium from now on. But our offspring will be, and life will carry on.