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Searching for Great Adventures

There are an infinite number of inspirational scientific journeys awaiting out there, and not all of them require looking up.

Tony Rothman


The 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole once painted a series entitled “The Voyage of Life.” In the first canvas, Childhood, the infant voyager sets off on a skiff down a stream surrounded by lush overgrowth, the far landscape hidden from his naive eyes. In the second panel, Youth, the stream has widened to reveal majestic castles floating above distant, beckoning horizons. In the third panel, Manhood, darkness colors the scene and our hero holds his hands in supplication as his skiff approaches swirling rapids. In the fourth panel, Old Age, well, you get the idea …

As romantic as Cole’s allegory strikes us at a distance of 200 years, it holds much truth. With the onset of adulthood, expectations diminish, adventures become smaller. Be that as it may, I see adventures everywhere, even more than I did as a youth gazing only skyward at far pavilions and moon landings.

Twenty years ago, plastic grocery bags routinely tore at the slightest provocation. Now, they display the character of flexible steel. They are a wonder of modern materials science, a subject lying at the intersection of physics, chemistry, and engineering. A 1-farad capacitor used to be a monstrous thing (and this former boy scientist remembers collecting such beasts from junkyards: two feet tall and 50 pounds). Due to recent advances in nanotechnology, in our freshman lab this year we employed 1-farad capacitors the size of a thumb. Surely, the development of such devices, and the novel materials that make them possible, is a Great Adventure.

At the artistic end, mathematics is one of the greatest adventures. The mathematical universe is vast, larger than the physical universe, fully infinite. Unfortunately, it is also, as German poet Hans Magnus put it, “a blind spot in our culture—alien territory, in which only the elite, the initiated few have managed to entrench themselves.” We hear vanishingly few segments about mathematics on NPR, much less Fox News, and those few are invariably capped by the demand for practical romance.

To be sure, the quantity of curiosity- driven mathematical explorations, amusements, and games that turned out to bear enormous practical fruit is astounding: number theory and cryptology, quaternions and satellite pointing, topology and the delivery patterns of FedEx. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t need to resort to counting mathematical spinoffs, even if their numbers exceed NASA’s. The very infinity of the terrain should inspire. Unfortunately, mathematicians are a particularly inarticulate species. If they do not wish to stand perpetually shouting for attention from the sidelines, that must change.

2014-01PerspectiveF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBecause I am a mathematically inclined physicist, my perception of great adventures tends to be biased in that direction, but truly the directions are myriad. President Barack Obama, in announcing the 2013 Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies initiative, recognized that the exploration of the human brain is a Great Adventure. With its hundred billion neurons—about the same number as stars in the Milky Way—and a quadrillion synapses, the brain presents one of the most expansive terrains for new discoveries. Looking outward, we cannot fail to mention the oceans. As marine researchers regularly proclaim, we know more about the surface of the moon than about the ocean floor. Exploring there is not only a path to inspiration; it is also of crucial importance to the survival of the planet. And then, of course, there are origin-of-life studies. I do not mean the mere identification of Earth-like planets but an understanding of the pathways to the first cell here on terra firma.

As a scientist who has spent his career tangling with fundamental issues and never getting to the bottom of any of them, I long ago came to the realization that I would be happy to understand just one thing in nature. My embrace of a micro-goal may indicate that I have passed out of Thomas Cole’s second stage of life, but it may also be that civilization itself has voyaged past Youth. In our epoch it is unlikely that any single adventure will lift the spirit of a nation, as the moon race once did, for the simple reason that society has become too diverse to obsess over just one inspiration. I am not alarmed; my muses stand everywhere, waiting to be acknowledged.

Sooner or later there will be a colony on Mars. That is gratifying and inspiring. But a colony on the ocean floor would be equally gratifying and inspiring. The creation of an effective malaria vaccine, a molecular computer, a proof of the Riemann hypothesis…

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