[From a collection of essays: Beyond Religion I, 1996].
In February 1987 Sanduleak went super-nova and left no remains to tell the tale. The astronomers were stumped. When a star 20 times the size of our sun blows itself into the kingdom come, the heavier elements at its core are supposed to collapse under their own weight and shrink to a much smaller but extremely dense mass called a neutron star. A neutron star with the mass of our sun would be hardly 10 miles across. Now that's denser than my grandmother's Christmas cake––and then some.
When such an enigma occurs, the astronomers, the guys who spent all night watching the stars, defer to their colleagues, the theoretical physicists. Now these guys don't watch anything much, they just run a hot bath, climb in, and start thinking. Seriously, the theoretical physicists don't observe the world. They observe the observers and whenever the observers get stuck by observing or, as in this case, not observing what they were expecting to observe, the theoreticians start theorizing.
"Their ideas derive from an intuition about the way nature behaves on its most fundamental level, the kind of 'feeling', or hunch––almost a personal aesthetic that is every bit as important for a good theorist as the ability to solve equations." [A direct quote from an article MYSTERY OF THE MISSING STAR, by Adam Frank, in the December '96 issue of DISCOVER magazine].
In other words, first you must reach into your intuition; reach into your inner self. Then you order your thoughts into a language you can share with others, work like the devil to translate your ideas into mathematical equations which must fit into the logical processes on which our science is built. Then you ask others to observe if your insight, intuition, your personal aesthetic was right. It's a long process. The world started some 20 billion (give or take a few billion) years ago, and we still have little idea how it works. We must be pretty slow thinkers. According to a cute film called "Defending your Life" most of us use between 3% and 5% of our brain. Offhand I'd say that's a slight exaggeration. Most of us haven't started using our brain at all. Except for the cerebellum, to flex our muscles and the medulla oblongata which controls our automatic functions.
So much for the theoreticians. Now a word about the observers.
A lady born in 1913 died not so long ago. Her name was Mary Douglas Nicol, who later married Louis Leakey. She, together with her husband had been observers. Mary had no formal training but she was recognized as "a tremendous archaeologist and paleo-anthropologist all the time." [dixit Derek Foe, an Oxford University lecturer in paleolithic archeology]. Some reference! All the time! Apparently, she never stopped observing. That, surely, left no time for theorizing. To make sure that we are on the same wavelength, let's define some terms. Archaeologists are people preoccupied with ancient cultures. They dig and dig until they find something old, and then they do just a little theorizing, but mostly they go right on digging. Paleo-anthropologists we must break down into components. Paleo- means ancient; anthropo- means man or human, and logist is derived from a Greek word meaning: to speak. So Archeo-paleo-anthopo-logist basically refers to a person who talks about what they found while digging. It's not a bad pastime and it certainly sounds important.
But is it?
At one time Mary Leakey, and she was the best, remarked that "All these trees of life with their branches of our ancestors, that's a lot of nonsense." She ought to know. Mrs. Leaky (assisted by her husband) worked in the wilds, enjoying the wonders of nature. It beats soaking in the bathtub! Over the years she unearthed many ancient sculls and other bones. Some of them apish, some proto-human. Yet after a lifetime dedicated exclusively to her passion, she declared that her discovery in 1978 of footprints frozen for 3.5 million years in volcanic ash, which demonstrated that early hominids walked upright, was "the most important find in view of human evolution" [She was referring to her discovery at the Laetoli site, south of Olduvai Gorge].
Now I have utmost respect for a woman who spent her entire life doing what she loved doing the most. This very fact is surely her greatest achievement. This and her love of mystery stories and malt whisky. But surely, there are many apes that walk upright today, and some of them are not even human.
There is a tremendous gulf between an African jungle and a hot bathtub. But there is one thing which Mrs. Leaky and the theoretical physicists have in common. They had and continue to have a passion for their work. Dr. Hans Bethe, the theoretician, at 90 continued teaching at Cornell in Ithaca. Both scientists reached into the past, but enjoyed it in the present. Perhaps they made a point that time is elastic; or, perhaps unwittingly, that it is less important what you do than how you do it. I doubt that the human race will change its course as a result of either scientist’s contribution. Regardless of their findings, the universe will unfold itself as it should. It did just that, for quite a while, without their help.
Yet, to me, both scientists are philanthropists. Whether they were concerned with the celestial or Paleolithic bodies, by the very love they expressed for their work, they injected a dose of joy into the matrix of the universe. Their contribution shall add sparkle to the texture of the human past, present and future.
Perhaps that is all anyone of us can do.