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Sometimes I feel discouraged when I witness the gulf between science and the general public. Sure, millions of people are avid consumers of science books, podcasts, TV shows, and videos, and that is wonderful. When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was much harder to access science. There were magazines like Scientific American and Popular Mechanics. There was the occasional documentary series — think Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. But the general public certainly has more accessibility to scientific content now.
Despite this, little has changed. The people most interested in science are those who understand its relevance to their lives and who are legitimately curious about the workings of Nature. But the vast majority remains uninterested. Most people are dismissive of what science does and how scientists work.
To these outsiders, science is a black box. They see scientists as weird, cold rationalists, devoid of any hint of spirituality — as people who care only about their own research and their grants. Sure, some admire what scientists produce, from the cures they find for diseases to the rovers they send to Mars. Science does have a massive “wow” factor. But these remarkable feats of human creativity and skill are seen from a distance that no one has felt compelled to shorten.
A moment of understanding
I will give an example of how I came to realize this problem in my own life. About twenty years ago, I did a live interview for a radio station in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. The interview took place during rush hour at the city’s busy bus terminal. The depot was crowded with workers from rural areas who came to the city to work all sorts of jobs, from cleaning the streets to working in factories and private homes.
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This interview made me rethink my understanding of how to bring science to the largest number of people. It impacted me for the rest of my life. It made me realize that making science relevant to a wider audience requires an emotional, not just a rational, appeal.
When science speaks to people’s hearts, it makes a much deeper impact than any list of discoveries and clever accomplishments. The “wow” factor from achievements is ephemeral. The one that sticks is the one that shakes you inside.
The interviewer asked me questions about science’s take on the apocalypse. It was inspired by a book I had just published, The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World. The book focuses on cataclysmic celestial events and how they have inspired religious narratives as well as scientific research. By cataclysmic, I mean asteroid or comet collisions, like the one that accelerated the extinction of dinosaurs; stars exploding and collapsing into neutron stars and black holes; or the fate of the Universe as a whole, either expanding forever, or shrinking back into a singularity.
A practice ancient and modern
I started the book arguing that images of celestial chaos stand out in many religious texts. Witness the many instances that stars, or fire and brimstone, fall from the sky in the Bible. Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, and the Apocalypse of John in the New, are but a couple examples. Remember also how the Celts believed that the skies would fall on their heads to mark the end of a time cycle. Signs of celestial chaos were obviously extremely scary, and they were frequently interpreted as messages of impending doom. In the late 17th century, scientists such as Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton used their science to try to make sense of such events.
The practice has continued. It is common to hear of new possibilities of impending doom coming from the skies — or, even worse, cataclysms of man’s own making. Now, we call them “existential risks.” Many books have been written on doomsday science since I published mine, including Martin Rees’s Our Final Hour, and, more recently, Katie Mack’s The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) and Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time.
Back to the interview in Brasília.
I mentioned how 65 million years ago, the collision of an asteroid six miles wide into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. I made a point of explaining how that event changed the history of life on Earth, freeing small mammals from predator pressure while resetting the planet’s evolutionary drive — a long story that finally brought humans into the game some 200,000 years ago. My point was that no divine intervention was needed to explain these episodes in our planetary history. The processes are natural, not supernatural.
It was then that a hand went up from a small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face: “So the doctor wants to take even God away from us?”
I froze. The despair in that man’s voice was apparent. He felt betrayed, as if the ground had just been taken from beneath his feet. His faith was the one thing he held on to, the one thing that gave him strength to come back to that bus station every day to work for a humiliatingly low wage. If I took God away from his world and offered instead the rational argumentation of science, with its methodology of empirical validation, what would that even mean to him? How would it help him go forward with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic and comfort of supernatural belief?
Exploring the mystery
I realized then how far we scientists are from the needs of most people; how far removed our discourse is from those who do not already look to science for answers, as most of you reading this essay do. I realized that to reach a larger audience — to bring the wonders of science to a much larger slice of the population — we must start from the youngest age with an outstanding science education, one filled with wonder and discovery.
We must inspire a sense of awe about the natural world, showing how our science illuminates our search for meaning. We must teach that science has a spiritual dimension — not in the sense of supernaturalism, but in the way it connects us to something bigger than we are. The bridge is our need to connect with the mystery of who we are. Faith and science both address this need, albeit from different perspectives.
I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim how much scientists have discovered about the world. I saw how useless such claims are to someone whose faith is the main tool for coping with life’s challenges. Why should that man believe me when I say that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old? From his perspective, it was my words against the Bible.
If we really are going to make scientific education not just informative but transformative, we have an enormous task ahead of us.
It’s not Science vs. God
I answered the man, in a shaky voice, that science does not want to take God away from people, even if some scientists do. I told him that science explains how the world works, revealing the wonders of the Universe big and small, for all to share and appreciate. I went on to explain that scientific research is a passionate enterprise, one that brings us closer to Nature, to the mysteries we still face as we try to understand more of the Universe and our place in it. The man smiled. He did not say anything, but I knew that he identified in the scientific drive for understanding the same passion that drove him toward his faith. He understood that there is room in our lives for both science and faith, if that is the choice we make. Science does not have an interest in taking faith away from people. We should not confuse what science is with what some scientists do. There are many ways of knowing, and they all have a place in our lives.
I left the interview and went for a long walk around a lake. I thought of Einstein and his belief that scientific enterprise is the only true religion. He meant it in a deeply spiritual way, seeing science as an act of devotion. Scientists should engage with the mystery of existence, inspired by a deep sense of awe and filled with humility. If science is seen this way, many more will be ready to embrace it as one of the highest expressions of the human spirit.