By Adam Frank
Every generation thinks it stands at the crossroads of history. Every generation believes it will define a pivotal step in human evolution. Averaged over the 50,000 years of homo-sapiens forging their culture, most of these generations have been wrong, deluded, ego-aggrandized. For the generations alive today this belief is neither folly or delusion. In a cosmic twist of fate, opportunity or bad luck we have, in fact, been dropped off exactly at the corner of crossroads and history.
Unless you are politically pre-disposed to ignore the signs, something seems to be shifting for our "project of civilization". There are many names for it floating around -- a bottleneck, a singularity, a critical point. There are many issues that seem most pressing -- climate change, resource depletion, population carrying capacity, technology run-away. Each one raises the specter of a moment when change is demanded if we are to continue forward as a technologically advanced species. Understanding what we need to do, and marshalling the will to do, is exactly where Science and Culture come crashing into each other. And that is why I am here.
I am in love with science. It's a romance that has never flagged. When I was 5 years old my dad replaced the terror of a booming thunderstorm with awe by explaining the storm as surging electric currents and powerful atmospheric shock waves. Now I am a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester. My group uses supercomputers to study processes at work in the birth and death of stars. In my spare time I write on science, its' results and its' meaning for magazine like Discover and in books like The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs Religion Debate. In the 42 years since my dads' explanation I remain amazed at the power inherent to this process called science and awed at the beauty of the world it reveals. Our ability to discern patterns in the world and then seek causal links that explain those patterns seems like an evolutionary gift, the equilivent of having sharp claws or broad wings.
But science is just one part of the greater evolutionary gift that is self-consciousness and the culture that arises from it. It is easy to think of science as some kind of lumbering giant picking up brute facts and handing them to us in the form of revolutionary technologies (cell phones, atomic weapons, antibiotics). This is a limited view and obscures the tightly woven fabric of human evolution binding science and culture together. The knife-sharp separation of science from other human endeavors like art, politics and spiritual longing is too clean and too abstract to be true or helpful.
That is why I am here. That is why I am part of 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. Like the other members of this group I am interested in understanding the living context in which this fantastically powerful tool we call science should be placed. It is a deep question about the nature of what is true and real in the world. It is a deeply moving question about the nature of our response to the beauty that reveals itself in so many ways including the fruits of scientific activity. And now, in this strange moment we find ourselves in, it is an urgent question. Now there is a harsh imperative to understanding science and its cultural context because it is exactly that collision which we must learn to manage at the crossroads.