Our common quest for knowledge


#15 The Known


Florian Aigner


Shiwen Sven Wang

Those who seek knowledge in research are not solitary geniuses who lock themselves away and produce revolutionary ideas all on their own. Research becomes science when many people pool their talents – globally.

If a tree topples over in the depths of a forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a noise? Yes, of course it does. As it falls, the tree produces sound waves that spread through the air. In terms of physics, there is no doubt: the sound exists, whether it is heard or simply fades away unnoticed. But what if someone produces research on a topic and nobody hears about it? Is it science? This question is a little more complicated. After all, research results alone do not pass the threshold for science. This only happens when we humans implant our ideas into other people’s minds so that, together, we can create something bigger. By interweaving our numerous minor insights, ideas and observations, we can create a sustainable net of knowledge that we can all depend on. That is science.

Theory of Evolution – a web of facts
In the 1830s, the young Charles Darwin sailed the world’s oceans aboard the HMS Beagle. He rejoiced at all manner of exotic creatures that crossed his path on these travels, and marveled at the strange shapes of the finches’ beaks on the Galapagos Islands. Later, when the naturalist was pondering how species are able to change over time through natural selection, his theory of evolution had yet to achieve the status of accepted science. It was still just a crazy new idea in the mind of an inquisitive oddball.

Today, things are different: countless experiments, theses and research projects are now expanding on the theory of evolution, connecting to it and connecting it with other scientific findings. The theory of evolution has been reaffirmed so often, using a variety of methods, that it can no longer be doubted. Paleontologists examine fossils and find that animal and plant species do actually keep changing over time. These conclusions gel perfectly with the observations of plant growers and livestock breeders. The geneticists of today can explain how these phenomena relate to DNA, and we can now use mathematical models to work out how fast changes in DNA are propagated. And biologists can then corroborate these calculations in their labs – for example, by examining bacteria that multiply abnormally fast.

We can be wrong on our own – but together we are right
All these findings combined form a coherent corpus of knowledge – and that is precisely why we can rely on it. What would happen if someone miscalculated when evaluating a genetic engineering experiment, or at some point a dinosaur bone was incorrectly dated? Nothing at all. Our belief in the theory of evolution would not be shaken as a result. Science thrives on lots of different people thinking carefully about lots of different things – and then sharing what they think in discussions, debates and sometimes disputes.

The world’s most complex machine
One powerful symbol of human cooperation is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva – the largest particle accelerator in the world and arguably the most complicated piece of machinery ever constructed on our planet. A circular tunnel more than twenty-six kilometers long has been dug underground, right on the border between France and Switzerland. Through this tunnel runs a tube made of steel, inside which there is an almost perfect vacuum – a space devoid of any content, the kind of emptiness posited in the depths of the universe. Tiny particles hurtle through this channel, kept on course by enormous electromagnets, until they finally collide at unimaginable speed, creating a cloud of new particles, which are then measured in ultra-complex particle detectors. This generates data that is carefully analyzed and evaluated in the quest to understand the most fundamental mysteries of matter. This process requires countless people from a kaleidoscope of research fields; from experimental physics to develop suitable detectors from electrical engineering to construct high-powered electromagnets, from computer science to find ways of harnessing the huge torrent of data, and filtering out the interesting bits. Additionally, somebody has to dig the tunnels, weld the metal and plug in the cables properly. People are also needed to keep the buildings clean and cook in the canteen so the Nobel laureates don’t waste away. A large project like this is not the glorious accomplishment of individual genius. It is a combined feat of humankind. We are the only species on the planet capable of this type of collaboration.

Science and anthills
This is not just about a division of labor. It’s important to note that. Science does not work like an assembly line, where you only need a lot of people because there is a lot to do in a short time. Collaboration in science is more complex – more like building an anthill: at the end, something big that benefits an entire population emerges from a seemingly chaotic, uncoordinated mêlée of activity. No one single ant has the big picture. None of them have a blueprint of the end product in their heads. But all these little ants build big things by working together. It’s the same with science: no one on the planet knows everything – all the laws, effects and phenomena. But humanity as a species, as a whole, has understood science. We award Nobel Prizes to brilliant researchers. We name streets after them and adorn the courtyards of our universities with their busts. And that’s a good thing. But let’s not forget that science is not, in fact, the accomplishment of outstanding individuals, but rather the product of people power. Each of us is a part of this whole, whether we engage in research or not. And for that reason, we can all be justifiably proud of the great innovations spawned by the human race.

Florian Aigner is a physicist and science journalist who lives in Vienna.

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