the editor, Kalamazoo Gazette, March 25, 1998
by Kirk Korista
As an assistant professor of astronomy at WMU, I read with great dismay the editor's note of March 12, Expanding universe boggles the mind, and was ``boggled'' at the conclusion reached that the universe is just too complicated a place to understand, so let's be happy with our ignorance. Astronomy is a science, and like any other is one that studies and strives to gain an understanding of the universe we live in. What the editor apparently does not realize is that one could replace the science discussed in the note, astronomy, with any other science, and still reach the same naive conclusions with the same faulty reasoning. For instance, how many times have we seen differing and conflicting reports in the media about research in cancer (most recently breast cancer), HIV and other infectious diseases, Earth's climate, human origins, etc? Human beings are far more complex systems than stars or galaxies, and so would the editor declare ``oh, cancer and disease are just too complex, `give us the mystery of the unknown'.'' Unlikely. When should scientists have decided that there are ``limits of human knowledge''? Back when mystics and philosophers were happy with the notion that the immobile Earth was the center of the universe and the Sun and planets moved around it? Maybe back when we had no grasp of infectious disease and its causes? One lesson of history we have learned is that ignorance kills. Even if there are ``limits of human knowledge'', who knows what these are? Apparently these limits have been extended over the course of human history.
What the editor fails to understand is that this is the way science works. In short it is a continuous process of testing ideas up against the observed universe (small or large), and no hypothesis or theory is safe from improvement or even rejection when new data and human understanding become available. It is an incremental process, sometimes moving along blind alleys before the course is corrected. However imperfect the scientific method (done by imperfect human beings), it is a time-proven method in advancing our understanding of our place in this universe. And progress is made - we do know more about the universe, from viruses to distant galaxies, than we did 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.
(because of space constraints, the following
Yes, the universe is vast, and I will be the first to concede that we may never know the full workings and meaning of our universe. We can look up to the stars or into the eyes of another human being and wax romantic, poetic or philosophical. But, even non-scientists can and should hope to understand a little bit about our universe. As scientists, it is our responsibility to share our knowledge with you.