Two Fundamental Questions
Imagine that a teacher told your kid to seek answers to these two questions: “Where do we come from?” and “How did we get here?” Those questions have intrigued humans for thousands of years and prompted fledgling civilizations to invent myths. The “creation” account in the book of Genesis of the Judeo-Christian bible is only one sample of myths about the origins of the world and of us humans.
Even if your kid didn’t attend a parochial or denominational school, you might be tempted to search for a dusty copy of the bible and tell her to read the first chapters of the first book. Your response might be different, of course, if you “knew” the answers to those questions; that is, if you had non-religious, non-mythological answers. But, do you? And what does it mean to “know” those answers? Is that knowledge available? Does someone have the answers? If so, how did they obtain that information?
You would be wrong to assume that, besides the religious or mythological answers, there is no other way of approaching the matter at hand. For there is an ongoing process, known as the “Scientific Revolution,” which has produced a vast amount of knowledge about us humans, about virtually everything in our planet and about the Universe in which we happen to live. Scientific knowledge has made possible not only space travel, antibiotics, electronics, the atom bomb, plastics, television, laser technology and elementary particle physics, but also a revealing and coherent, although yet incomplete answer to those two questions that your kid must try to answer in our hypothetical scenario.
If the teacher were to expect your kid to look for the answers in creation myths, he would probably allow her just a few days to finish the assignment. But if the teacher wanted another kind of answers, those based on the interrogation of nature -the product of the work of many scientists dead and living- he must allow the students much more than just a few days, weeks or months. Better still, instead of commanding them to look for the answers, the teacher would need to introduce his students to Science.
Arguably, no high school teacher would ask his students to look for the answers to the fundamental questions “Where do we come from?” and “How did we get here?” Particularly since the most relevant fields of science in this area -Cosmology and Evolutionary Biology- are not exactly included in the elementary, junior high or high school curriculum. So your kid would have to wait until college. But even there, a typical undergraduate science curriculum would not include in-depth treatments of the two most fundamental questions that a human being could ask. At that point of her education, your curious kid would probably have to do a lot of self-study.
Cosmology studies the origin, structure and ultimate fate of the Universe. Cosmologists strive to understand the physical processes that made possible all that we see here on Earth, in our Solar System and in the Universe that the Hubble Space Telescope and all kinds of optical and non-optical instruments have unveiled. Human beings have always been speculative cosmologists and the product of their musings has included all kinds of hypotheses. Of course, the religious-minded have invented their share of creation stories, mythological descriptions of how the world and everything in it was purportedly “created.” But mythological accounts of “creation”, as well as mere speculative hypotheses, belong to the infancy of our species, when we knew almost nothing about the workings of nature, not even that there are such things as germs, which can cause disease and even death.
Theories are not hypotheses. They are much more. Scientific theories not only explain the facts, but also make testable predictions which, if they conform to the observations, strengthen our confidence in their suitability to explain whatever set of facts and phenomena they purport to enlighten. Observations, experiments and theories all go hand in hand as part of the scientific method.
In physics, theories are suffused in mathematics, a language that is hard to master and that gives physics much of its reputation of mystifying unintelligibility. The good news is that the rest of us mortals can understand the basics of most physical knowledge about the Universe without having to master the mathematics. We just need to identify the sources, mainly good books and journals written for non-scientists. Then you have to read a lot and you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to become minimally knowledgeable about the workings of the Universe and just about everything that is worth knowing.