How Much Knowledge Do We Really Need?

As part of my job I often have to go to lectures held on campus. Sometimes I look forward to them, sometimes not. Last night was one that I wasn’t sure about. Brian Greene came to campus to talk about string theory and the discoveries leading up to the idea for the theory. I’ve read a book or two on quantum mechanics and string theory and watched most of Greene’s “Nova” program several months ago.

I didn’t learn anything at the lecture last night. I’d like to say it was because he kept the lecture so basic that there was nothing discussed I hadn’t read, and that was part of it. But the truth of the matter is that I just don’t get it. I don’t get the theory and I don’t get the need to prove it. All through the lecture I kept thinking of the films “Excalibur,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Jurassic Park.” The line that kept coming to mind most was, I think, from “Excalibur” – Why do you seek the cup of Christ?

Why do we seek to prove this “theory of everything?”

In “Excalibur,” the knight Galahad was first refused the Holy Grail because his heart was not prepared. He wanted it for personal glory; he wanted to be the one to bring it to King Arthur. Later, after tribulations, he found a higher purpose and was deemed worthy. What is our purpose in finding a scientific reason for the existence of the universe?

Some say string theory will prove the existence of God. Some say it will prove God doesn’t exist and that anything can be explained through the language of mathematics.

In “Jurassic Park,” Jeff Goldblum’s character made the comment that the scientists were so busy trying to see if they could clone the dinosaurs they didn’t bother to ask if the should do it.

What will we gain from proving that everything we know of is made up of these tiny vibrating one-dimensional strings of energy? What did we gain from learning we could split the atom? Well, a very dangerous, unstable form of energy that produces waste that takes centuries to break down. Oh yeah, and the ever-present danger of a nuclear holocaust that could destroy every living thing on the planet.

What weapons will we make if we find the strings?As a person of faith, I have no real problem with the concept of string theory. So what if everything is made of these strings? I know people who can build houses out of pieces of wood and brick, so it isn’t hard to believe God made everything out of pieces of energy. And yet, I find myself rejecting this kind of research. Perhaps it’s the writer balking at the idea of poetry being replaced by mathematics, a language I will never understand.

Or maybe it’s the 1950s big-bug movies that show mankind terrorized by its creation run amuck.

Is it a conservative’s fear of change, or a liberal’s fear of bigger weapons and more damage to the only home we have in this universe? I don’t know. I only know that I hope the people out there on the frontier of science are asking themselves why they seek knowledge and what might come from obtaining it.

As to last night’s lecture, Brian Greene is an entertaining speaker but he might as well have been trying to explain to me how voodoo works or how to measure love. As a writer of horror fiction, Greene showed the opening to several mines I’d like to dig in. I just hope I don’t get buried in one of them.

I didn’t provide many links in this installment. So, here’s one that was helpful but that I couldn’t find a good spot for.

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