Society

Science And The Meaningful Life

A crow flies above the flowers in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, California, April 29, 2008. i i
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
A crow flies above the flowers in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, California, April 29, 2008.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

What makes a life meaningful? When that eventual moment comes and we prepare to slough off this mortal coil, will we be able to look at our years on the planet and feel that we created real meaning for ourselves and those around us? Umair Haque, a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, thinks we aren't reaching our potential:

"Maybe the real depression we've got to contend with isn't merely one of how much economic output we're generating — but what we're putting out there, and why. Call it a depression of human potential, a tale of human significance being willfully squandered (on, for example, stuff like this)."

Looking at much of our cultural output, Haque asks:

"If that's the best we can do, no wonder our economy is falling short of its potential — and no wonder our lives occasionally feel empty, even meaningless. (Even star quarterbacks married to Brazilian supermodels occasionally say to themselves, there's got to be more than this.)"

Haque's essay raises a number of thoughtful points about our overheated culture, its legacy and our own roles within it. In response I wanted to reflect on what science brings to the table. Some of what I have to say relates to the practice of science. I also think it's important to consider what science asks of us, and what it gives back as an approach to life.

Science certainly provides a powerful sense of meaning as an activity. Will my scientific papers be read 100 years from now? I hope so, but doubt it (sigh). Either way, the process of trying to honestly enter into a dialogue with the world establishes a context for my own life that sometimes allows me to rise above the petty day-to-day squabbles of broken washing machines and general knuckle-headedness. By entering into that dialogue with great effort and earnestness, the world ceases to be something merely "at-hand," something merely there for distraction or entertainment.

Instead, it's fully alive and fully present. The ever-opening sky, the wheeling stars and even the nightly stream of crows I watch heading to their evening roosts all become a poignant mysteries that speak of greater powers than I will ever fully understand. They surround me, whispering that there is more, so much more, to the world than my small concerns. Practicing science keeps my feet on the ground and my ear to the wind. It keeps me alert so that I might still hear that quiet call.

You don't have to be a practicing scientist to know any of that. You don't have to write papers to carry out your own research, your own fervent investigation into the texture of your own being.

The questions are always there.

They are waiting for you everyday when you open your eyes to yet another strange day in this strange world. The practice of science is just a codification of something that has always been possible for human beings. With integrity and honesty in our own investigations of what it means to be alive for these briefest of moments, we can all enrich our work, be it nursing, building, teaching or cooking.

Science always asks for excellence. In reality, life always asks for excellence, too. It asks us to give our best, to be attentive, to awake to the everyday miracle that is every day.

Nothing is more full of meaning and nothing holds out a greater hope for us all. As individuals in a culture we are forever re-inventing, this collaboration of investigation with the universe is the very essence of a meaningful life.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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