I love baseball. Of all sports, I find this sport the most dramatic. To a baseball fan nothing matches the final inning of a team down by a run, with two outs and a man on base. In the recently-ended World Series, we had an extreme version of this, when the Boston Red Sox overcame a three to zero deficit in a best of seven series against the New York Yankees to win.
Sports speaks to an ancient innate drive: the desire to be part of a dominant group. This drive, so apparent in any social animal, must give those possessing it a tremendous evolutionary advantage; but in historical times, it has torn societies apart. The drive to dominate is particularly destructive when the division is along ethnic lines, when it can lead groups to armed conflict. Sports helps alleviate the negative impact of this inevitable drive by direct us into the harmless fanaticism of rooting for a school or city team.
But despite the artificial composition of a team, and the artificial goal of winning a trophy, when the competition is on, the goal can seem more important than anything else in the world; the turns of a game or a postseason series can plunge you into black despair or lift you to unimaginable joy. When in the middle of this fever, I feel as though everyone else in the world is as focused as I am on the teams, on the games, and on the outcome.
This year I was not emotionally vested in any of the teams in baseball's League Championship Series or the World Series. Still, I was thrilled by the teams that had won my temporary allegiance. Despite being a baseball traditionalist, this year I supported an American League team, the Red Sox. I sat up late at night watching them come from behind to beat the Yankees in extra innings in games four and five of the American League Championship, I was ecstatic with the pitching performance of Kurt Schilling in game six, and I was on edge all during game seven, despite the massive lead of the Red Sox. I was overjoyed watching the Red Sox beat the Cardinals to win the World Series.
But as always happens, the next day comes, and the outcome of the playoffs suddenly becomes meaningless. The games had served a deep emotional need, but in truth, the outcome is unimportant. How do the baseball players perform, day after day, at a high level? I suspect that the goals of winning, of a successful season, and of a championship have a transcendent power to drive a ball player. To them, the glory of winning is as real as the ball and the bat, and it doesn't disappear with the achievement.
We often discount the role of human emotion in the development of scientific knowledge. When one works on a scientific problem in astronomy, the outcome can seem to be of universal significance, with the whole world watching the developments. But in truth, the importance of the goal is largely subjective. The knowledge we gather in astrophysics has no commercial application; its value is purely the value you put on understanding an object. If the exact nature of our expanding universe is important to you, then the recent research on type Ia supernovae at large redshift will be very important to you; but if the simple fact of knowing that the universe is expanding now is sufficient, and the details are irrelevant to you, then the results of the type Ia supernovae studies are unimportant. The goal, as in sports, is as important as you choose to make it. In practice, which problem is important is determined by the problem's impact across the profession. So the expansion of the universe is particularly important, because the resolution not only impacts those studying cosmology and the early formation of stars and galaxies, but also those studying general relativity and particle physics.
But as important as we may consider any one problem, our feelings for it does not approach our reverence for our basic physical knowledge. This is seen in our insistence in calling the basic theories “laws of nature.” When we speak of classical electrodynamics, general relativity, or quantum mechanics, we present it as an objective thing that is independent of ourselves. The attraction of science for many scientists is the sense that we are unveiling a set of universal truths that were previously hidden from us.
An extreme example of this is an assertion I heard made at lunch many years ago by a physics professor from the University of Chicago. He claimed that within mathematics there is only one equation that is fully self-consistent, and this equation will be the equation that describes the universe. Such a view of the tie between mathematics and physics is almost mystical in character.
When we don't ponder the nature of our understanding, our human nature leads us to endow the goal of scientific understanding with a transcendent objectivity. Like Plato, we want to be developing a thing that is great and glorious, and so, like Plato and his world of forms, we see our mathematical theories as pieces of a larger transcendent theory, glorious in its simplicity, reachable through reason guided by experimentation, existing independently of ourselves.
But in truth, what is meant by an understanding of the universe is inevitably tied to what evolution has given us as human beings. We can understand the world that we see and feel because it is understandable at a level that promotes our survival. Specifically, our mind constructs a three-dimensional model of the world, and within that world we see concrete objects that our mind can classify by characteristic or recognizes by uniqueness. In our model world we see predictable motion, and we see causal relationships. This world is the source of our mathematics. We have integers because we see objects; we have real numbers because we see space as a continuum; we have limits, the basis of calculus, because we can imagine the repeated subdivision of space to ever-smaller segments. These concepts are ingrained in us, they are an accurate representation of our macroscopic reality because they were acquired through an evolutionary empiricism, and their use in our descriptions of nature provides us with our “laws of nature”. But our mind creates this three-dimensional world so that it can recognize the predator in the bush and the prey fleeing from us. Our understanding of the universe is not the least transcendent—it is utilitarian.
Without a transcendent vision, science becomes a mundane and limited activity. As long as we are describing the macroscopic universe, our mathematical theories work wonderfully, and we can completely describe and predict the operation of the universe, but as we leave the macroscopic world and look down into the microscopic world, we find our understanding faltering. We have theories that are neither fish nor fowl, or more accurately, both particle and wave. We can partially describe the universe, but our descriptions are uncertain. No one truly understands quantum mechanics, a vision of interacting probability waves that describes the statistical motion of point particles. Our attempt to understand the universe with macroscopic concept have reached its limit with this theory.
Why should our mind, developed to understand the macroscopic universe, be sufficient to understand everything? The wonder to me is that we understand as much as we do, and that so much of our complex universe reduces to a handful of descriptions.