opinion

COLUMN: The empathy of physics



When we read novels and write history, we understand ourselves. These stories say something about us and our observations and teach us how to become empathetic human beings.

Science does, too.

Though we know a lot about the universe, about 85 percent of the universe is made of matter we can’t fully explain. Scientists have theorized dark matter, an invisible type of matter that makes up much of the mass in the universe, accounts for these things we don’t know about.

Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall suggests dark matter fills the “gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality,” in her book “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.” Dark matter exerts a detectable gravitational force on objects, but, despite our observations of this force, we don’t precisely know what causes it.

As dark matter mysteriously controls the universe, unseeable forces govern our everyday social lives.

The tiny indomitably powerful sociopolitical elite controls much of society’s functions, while the rest of us perform the necessary day-to-day labor, like putting roofs over our heads and answering emails in 
cubicles.

Factors like social caste, sex and race make our identities in ways we don’t always notice. We understand physics the same way we understand society: by knowing the unknowable. And in the same way that learning about ourselves fights ignorance such as racism and sexism, science teaches us what we don’t know about the universe.

Seen this way, science tells a story about ourselves. Everything from the psychological habits of human interaction to the yeast cells at the bottom of a petri dish remind us of our place in the universe. Science tells us our limits, and the fallibility of our subjective 
experience. This way, we develop a humanistic empathy that unites us.

From the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, light and matter simultaneously behave like particles and waves. When we observe them they act like particles, but the rest of the time they form variable waves. Stories work the same way.

Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov suggests in his book, “The Physics of Sorrow,” that when we write stories about the past, our observations re-create something knowable about the uncertain human condition the same way our scientific observations create the phenomena we observe. Science tells us about the world in which we live like literature explains ideas of ourselves.

As scientists try to explain the universe from a coherent point of view, we give room to what we don’t know and understand. From the very beginning, science has overthrown hubristic knowledge, such as the idea the Earth was the center of the universe or how we share common ancestors with other creatures.

We have continuously built and re-built our knowledge of reality and opened ourselves to a greater scope of who we are. As we do so, our observations make a statement about human culture. And in the same way, we understand the individual boundaries of our experiences.

Through our understanding, science is a driving force that unifies us as human beings. As scientists, we share the goal of understanding ourselves. And through that, we become empathetic human beings capable of reason and 
sympathy.

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