Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s golden age, and science’s place in religion

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I recently got the chance to attend a lecture presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson — a rock star in the science world and well known even among those without an inclination toward science.

The lecture dug into some of the most depressing traits of humanity, but also some of the most empowering and uplifting.

Humanity’s highs and lows

Among the most depressing things Tyson discussed was our current state of affairs, especially here in America — a state many former civilizations found themselves in before disappearing off the map.

Failing infrastructure, a lack of dreaming and imagination, and an increasingly cold shoulder to the scientific pursuit that opens so many doors for us. We’ve lost our curiosity and creativity and no longer seem to foster an enthusiasm for questioning and wondering. As we create, question and wonder less, solutions to current problems remain just out of reach as our society and infrastructure collapses around us.

However, at the same time we’ve accomplished so much with so little. Tyson mentioned that we understand about 4% of the universe: Matter. The remaining 96% of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter, things we’re just barely beginning to wonder at and grasp for.

With that 4% knowledge we have cultivated our entire planet. We have tamed beasts and land and even the atom itself. We’ve reached into space and our work has reached beyond the solar system. Imagine what we could do if we keep questioning and wondering and learning!

Golden ages going and gone

Tyson mentioned the golden era of Islam in a clear parallel to America today. The golden age of Islam gave us some of the most important tools we use today. It gave us algebra, our numeral system, the concept of zero. It mapped the stars and gave us advancements in biology and medicine. In all, it lasted for about 300 hundred years before collapsing around 1260 A.D.

Tyson attributed the collapse of this golden age not so much to a Mongol invasion, but to a fundamental shift in the way people in the Middle East thought. Toward the end of the golden age, rules and credos took the place of questions and curiosity. The ability to openly discuss, criticize, refine, toss out, endorse, and applaud different ideas and ways of thinking fell to one way of thinking and one way to do things. The will to science was replaced by the expectation to obey.

Today, the Middle East is known more for extremism, terrorists, bloodshed, and strict Sharia law than for being a world superpower or hub of innovation and creation. What will the United States be known for in 750 years?

Religion and Science

Almost every religion believes that this life is a test to prepare us for something — whether it be our next life, Heaven, God or something else. If that’s true, I think a major component of our preparation is getting left out at the pulpit: science.

In the Bible there is a parable about a master and three servants. In the parable, a master gives one servant five bags of silver, another servant two bags of silver, and his final servant one bag of silver.

The man with five bags earns five more. When the master sees this he is pleased saying “You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!”

The man with two bags of silver earns two more. The master has similar praise for this servant.

The final servant takes his bag and buries it from fear of losing the money. The master scolds him saying “You wicked and lazy servant! … To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Indeed, as we have learned and gained more through science our responsibilities have exponentially grown. Look at the incredible responsibility needed for the atomic bomb, the true epitome of our scientific knowledge to date. As our technology has increased to give us the internal combustion engine and supercomputers, our responsibilities to not pollute the planet and help others have also increased.

As long as we have taken what we we have and continued to ask questions and learn more we have been provided with an abundance. This country has been a superpower because of our science and curiosity.

If we decide to neglect what we have and do nothing with it, another country will become the new world superpower. Infrastructure continues to crumble and people are fighting about marriage instead of working together to figure out what dark matter is, question the universe, or envision the next great discovery.

The weeping and gnashing of teeth has already started, but there’s still time to reverse it.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: “The Times. The Times!”* | Learn or Die

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