The Restless Spirit of Science
By Bret S. Moore
Bret Moore writes from Tucker, Georgia, USA (just outside Atlanta).
His website is located at
There is in humanity a great, latent restlessness. We are rarely content to enjoy the same view for very long. We can't seem to help ourselves, we are constant migrants, vagabonds, equal parts Huck Finn, Leo Africanus, and Alice. We crossed oceans in primitive canoes and rafts, settling on tiny islands in the vast expanse; we crossed mile-thick glacial ice on woven snowshoes, clad in furs, following the rivers down into fertile valleys. We trudged through vast, sandy deserts, stopping and sharing oases with predators; we meandered through thick jungles, cautious and silent in the steamy mists. We climbed the tallest, snow-capped mountains, and descended into deep, secret places; we endured countless hardships just to see what was there, over the horizon, waiting to be discovered, observed, tasted, felt.
This basic, spiritual restlessness is the core of scientific inquiry.
On these trips, whether we go in person or through our constructs and tools, we are always amazed at the presence of life, its tenacity and ability to exist in places we only dare to walk leaning on our technological crutches. But really, this shouldn't surprise us. Programmed into basic biology is a primal urge to move, to stretch out, an incurable ambition to get beyond and outside of itself, to sense and experience what else there is, to multiply and thrive and expand. As best we can tell, this primal urge dragged life out from the depths of warm, shallow seas onto the dry soil hundreds of millions of years ago, in a continual search for a survival advantage. And it spread, literally, everywhere on our little planet nestled securely in the warm glow of a humdrum star trillions of miles from the bustle of the galactic center, a cosmic culde-sac, ordinary and tranquil.
I can empathize with the star: I am just an ordinary American child of the late 1970s. I read Our Universe, wondered at the floating gasbags of Jupiter and the strange ostrich-slash-rabbit like creatures of Mars, speculative creatures dreamed up, I believe, by Sagan. I watched Nova on PBS with my dad, pointed at the Voyager pictures, and Challenger's strange, sad ending. Later, when I was older, I watched Galileo, Europa, and Io. In college, I watched the Mars Pathfinder land, heard a geologist on CNN discuss things about Martian geology and wondered what a geologist knew that I didn't.
That innate restlessness wouldn't, couldn't be ignored.
So I studied science, and afterward I wandered through the lonely, crushed landscape of Central East Greenland, all rocks and lichen and ice and bleached muskox bones. Much later, I was married by an old gray preacher beside a little creek in the Appalachians, with the water babbling in its soft disinterested voice as it has done for unknown thousands of years, headed south and east towards the sea.
And I watched my own children as they entered the world through blood and water, squinting at the bright newness of what had been to them only a muted, veiled dream. I've smiled at the lights in their eyes as they clap and point and coo, while whales twist and sing in clear azure waters on TV.
Everything that happens, everything that we do and see and learn, is a progressive movement traced along the curve of our lives, through space and time. Add up all of these curves and you get mankind's beginning, middle, and eventual end (I think a post-biological end, but we'll see). From the first upright movement in the tall grasslands to the first stone tools and beginning of language and culture, the innate restlessness to move on, to see what else is out there, waiting to be discovered, drove our ancestors onward, to metalworking and steam engines and nuclear fission.
This spiritual restlessness drives us on to new places and new ideas, as it always has.
When I stand on the shore and look out across the ocean at the waves rolling in, I always get this sense in the pit of my stomach of something just over that distant, curved horizon, as if there's someone looking back in my direction, wondering, as I am, what it's like on the other side. In the future, maybe I've gone there, seen the place, learned something about it, and brought that knowledge back home, to share. Or maybe I stayed, the exploratory move become permanent, the free frontier captured me and held me there for a while. At least, until the frontier moves again.
And what's out there? It could be quite a lot, we're finding out. Sagan intuitively knew the data was there, waiting to be observed, but he didn't live to see it. Maybe he found out what was on the other side of his life curve, and was able to see how it all turned out. I hope that he did. Each of us must walk our own path, but we don't have to walk alone: we can take the words and ideas and experiences others with us. “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” Lots of human beings have reached the same simple, profound conclusion that Sagan did.
Still, there it is: the inscrutable void, beckoning our species like the sea, like the mountains. It is the “great cosmic dark,” the “grandest of mysteries.” We'll continue to explore and study because we have to. The act is hardwired into us. What lies over that curved horizon? Who is looking back at me? With Kepler, we'll look as long and as wide as we can, first, and we may be able to find an answer before we go. But eventually, we must go.
I think we'll find that we're even more ordinary than we thought. Future generations will be bored by our excitement; our frenetic anticipation will induce yawns in our children.
But for now, as Sagan said, “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”