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''The world as revealed by science is far more beautiful, and far more interesting, than we had any right to expect. Science is valuable because of the view of the universe that it gives.''
Like any other child of the Discovery Channel era, I grew up to the soundtrack of human scientific achievement. Science, an impeccably dressed presenter would proclaim with a smile and a flourish, was our ticket to probing the heavens, exploring the depths of our oceans and deciphering the banter of exotic species. But the fodder of documentary television had little effect upon the young skeptic I was turning out to be. As a child, I watched my grandfather fight a long and debilitating battle against an illness I couldn’t understand at the time. When the wails of mourning relatives awoke me one December morning, I chose to blame modern medicine. On TV, all Alexander Fleming had to do was to prod curiously at a rogue orange. But no matter how many times my grandfather was prodded, no matter how many cocktails of pills he desperately consumed, his end was ultimately painful and inevitable.
If real life were a grossly over-budgeted crowd-pleaser, that episode would’ve been my ticket into the class of comic-book super-villains whose childhood anguish makes them bent upon destroying the world, which in turn gets them thrown down scalding craters of lava to meet their befitting demise. Naturally, I opted for the mellower and safer option of becoming a ‘realist’. Science couldn’t simply be an enabler of infinite eureka moments (sans the naked old men dancing in the streets, of course), I reasoned. It also had to possess a dark side, a prohibitive facet that demarcated the finite nature of its abilities. And there it was - science, the greatest of man’s schizophrenias.
Whoever it was that said ten-year old ‘realists’ with delusions of precocity ought to be given a reality check gratis was probably a very wise man. There I was, all smug and satisfied that I had uncovered science’s greatest flaw, when all I had done was to stumble upon its very lifeblood. It was only years later that I discovered that indeed, the world of science is a study in limitations. My own personal experiences reveal that our radio telescopes can peer only so far into our galaxies and that our supercomputers can model only so large a molecular system. But that isn’t really a problem; science, by its very nature, exists as a logical response to these barriers. It is a tradition that is humbled and motivated by the same thing – a compelling need to find, create and understand more.
Yesterday’s scientists have pulled aside the curtains to reveal new worlds and the secrets that came with them, but with each new day comes the reminder that these pictures of science, as splendid as they seem, remain incomplete. There are species out there that defy classification and subatomic particles that escape detection, just as there are secrets lurking in every known and unknown corner of this universe. But the advancement of scientific inquiry must resist the inevitable conclusion that knowledge is truly boundless and that incompleteness is an innate feature of science. For the beauty of science is not solely within the coveted end results or glossy National Geographic posters. It is the pursuit of scientific knowledge that is truly valuable and beautiful, the art and the act of exercising our inquisitive dispositions and methodical facilities as we find ourselves on remote islands and on the frontiers of the big and the small, the familiar and the foreign.