#BlogElul 7: Understand


As a scientist, I have often thought that my job was to try and understand the world. I’ve now come to the conclusion that my understanding of “understand” was flawed.

Understanding is a funny thing. When we use it with regards to the words of another, we mean that we have comprehended their meaning – we can follow the other person’s thought process, and can put ourselves in their place, either logically or emotionally. It doesn’t mean that we agree with what they said, but we can relate to it and follow it back to its logical or emotional origin.

Science uses that word differently. In the physical sciences, and especially in physics itself, we say that we understand something when we can describe it, ascribe a mechanism to it that makes sense to us, is mathematically pleasing, and is predictable – given a certain opening circumstance, we can apply this mechanism, and we will get the result that we expected. Then we declare that we understand it.

As an example, few phenomena have been as well described and explained mathematically as gravity. Every baby learns experimentally how gravity works, and we all know that gravity is the force that keeps us from floating off into space.

If you happen to have misspent part of your youth studying general relativity, as I did, and as my son appears determined to do as well, then you have fancier words to describe what I just said. You have more elegant mathematics. You can calculate the probability of the creation of black holes, and the tiniest deviation in the orbit of Mercury. You can call it a result of the curvature of the space-time continuum (doesn’t that sound exciting?), and measure its waves with delicate instruments in deep mines.

The fact remains, though, that we don’t really understand gravity, in the sense that I described in my second paragraph, above. We can’t follow it back to its logical beginning. In other words, we are very very good with the “how” of gravity, but not so good with the “why”.

In a universe without gravity, we almost certainly would not exist to ask these questions, so from that point of view, there are people who argue that the “why” of gravity, and pretty much everything else, is so that we can exist. This is called the Anthropic Principle, and I can’t help feeling that it’s kind of narcissistic – everything is the way it is purely for our benefit, in the best of all possible worlds.

I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to these philosophical questions, but since Rabbi Sommer gave us such a profound prompt for today, I couldn’t resist.

Now you know part of why I’m no longer a working scientist. In the search for true meaning, I think I’m more likely to find it between humans, than in the mysteries of the universe, grand and beautiful though they are. So maybe I do agree with the Anthropic Principle after all.

How about you?

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