01-10-2006 - Traces, n.9

An Inexhaustible Desire Searching for Reality
Scientific discourse at the Meeting in Rimini, from astrophysics to mathematics and biotechnology: Scientists and scholars–such as Beckwith, Nelson, Pellegrino, Israel, Mac Low, Benvenuti, Robberto, and Bassani–took part in a series of discussions, testifying to their research and passion for knowledge

by Mario Gargantini

A giant infrared photograph of the Milky Way welcomed thousands of visitors to the exhibit. “ ‘… Wherefore so many lights?’ The Milky Way in Science, History, and Art.” Myriad digits of the perfect number (one of 43 such numbers known) nearly overflowed the projection screen during the meeting “Vastness and Infinity in Science.” Both spectacles were the signs of the endless possibilities that can be attained by using reason when it is applied according to the criteria of the scientific method. Yet, at the same time, they were also signs of an unfathomable reality, and of an infinite that is both continuously and scarcely tapped by observation instruments and the daring imagination of researchers.

Inexhaustible Desire
Science is a rapid ascent toward the extreme dimensions of reality, and is thus a powerful reminder of that inexhaustible desire of man that no discovery or theory will ever be able to satisfy. This is the first consideration resulting from the intense science program of the 2006 Meeting in Rimini. Visitors may feel bewildered or even overwhelmed by the huge quantities of data and the shocking images: it may be disturbing to hear about the black hole being a pivot in the center of our galaxy, to learn about an obscure energy filling the universe and accelerating its expansion, to look at ultra-deep space through the Hubble Space Telescope and see objects whose light set out over ten billion years ago, or to watch in astonishment as a simulation of a truly “galactic” catastrophic event unfolds: the Milky Way’s collision with the Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years.

The Explorer
All this, however, would still be a hardly understandable idea if scholars and scientists had not communicated it by fusing “reason and passion.” Consequently, what could appear as a fascinating or terrifying show turns into a message, an invitation, a possible approach to reality. An example of this approach is the explorer who ventures, curious and alert, toward unknown territories, ready to grasp even the smallest signal that might turn into a clue of an event. He will then try to record and explain this event. It is an interesting human position, refined by scientific practice and rigor. It involves a personal awareness that one is facing a friendly and understandable reality, organized in complex systems, a reality that is not abandoned to pure chance but based on a clever, ordered, and traceable system. Scientists of the 21st century see the universe as “contingent and convenient,” according to Cardinal Schönborn, who was thrilled to visit the Milky Way exhibit. Contingent, because it could be very different from the way it is; convenient, because many phenomena initially appear as indifferent or hostile to man, and then turn out to be precious and providential.

Opportunities for Education
However, in order to read scientific data without reducing them, scientists need to be open-minded in their research adventures. This is how science becomes something good and interesting not just for scientists and specialists, but for everyone. Science helps us become aware of the reality that is given to us; it invites us to ask questions, without stifling any inquiries. One can hardly resist the attraction of certain images of the cosmos, or the beauty of certain geometric shapes, or the fascination of some mathematical evidence. For scientists, these are opportunities for education, in order to help us learn to see beauty anywhere, even in very ordinary situations. They provide an educational method that can be applied by everybody to any daily interaction with reality.

The Need for Meaning
The same logic can be applied to bioethics, which points out aspects of science at first sight in contradiction with what we have explained so far. There are undeniable risks, as pointed out at the Meeting, resulting from a neo-mechanicalism, which does not recognize the uniqueness of a person and annuls any differences and specific aspects. However, this attitude is anti-scientific. The manipulating tendencies of many bioscientists and, even more disconcerting, of many neuroscientists, results from a concept and practice of science that does not respect its true nature.
Today’s bioethics debate expresses a need for finding a meaning. This is particularly evident in sensational cases, but it is the same, constant necessity of science to remind researchers of their responsibility. It is hard to imagine that one can suddenly find one’s sense of responsibility in extreme situations if one does not practice it in the particular circumstances of every day.