Searching, searching. I have been asking questions about how things work for as long as I can remember. I turned pro after college, and learned a lot more about how science works as part of my on-the-job training in cosmology. We learn about the Universe by making hypotheses about its nature and workings, comparing the corresponding predictions with what we actually see, and updating our degree of belief in each model using the mathematics of probability. Degrees of belief quantified by probabilities: this made sense to me. My beliefs are probabilistic, not absolute: they are things I would bet on, with odds I have in mind to help me decide how much to bet.
What then would a statement of my beliefs look like? To talk about the beliefs I would bet my house on would be very boring: it’s a list of facts, that all of you already know! However, the fact that you already know them is not at all boring: a well-tested and widely-agreed upon belief is that the Universe is predictable, such that observations of its phenomena are reproducible. The Sun will come up tomorrow, we will orbit it according to Newton’s Law of Gravity (or Einstein’s General Relativity, for a more precise prediction), and the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation will still appear to have come from a hot Big Bang: and everyone on Earth (depending on their access to a radio telescope) will be able to verify and agree that these things are “true.”
Science, the process of rational enquiry, of learning through trial and error, shapes our beliefs. We also believe in it: we have faith in the predictions of scientific models, because they have already been shown, usually by several groups of people, to explain our observations. When those predictions turn out to be wrong in some new way, we experience the delight of discovery. I feel so alive when I have just learned something new, and then again when I share it with other people: this joie de vivre of understanding and connecting, it’s like being in love. I believe science is something worth celebrating: for the wisdom and inspiration that it gives us, for the way it brings us together around things we can agree on, and for the way it provides a deep connection to the Universe we are part of. As Richard Holloway likes to say, through us, the Universe is learning about itself.
And perhaps not just through us! We haven’t yet detected any extra-terrestrial intelligence, but we can make some hypotheses, and place some bets.
If they ever detect our radio and TV signals, we might expect our new audience to have a civilization much older than ours (which is still so young): I bet such a people would understand who we are, and recognize in us how they themselves used to be. Since they’ll be doing radio astronomy, we can also expect them to agree with us on the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, and hence also agree with us on how our Universe began: their beliefs will probably be very similar to ours. I bet that any civilization that has got as far as that will, like us, understand the benefits, and the necessity, of co-operation: we can expect them to have also evolved by natural selection to be at least as good at working together as we are. And so, I believe that they too will sense that there is good in everyone, and that they too will have a concept, and a strong experience, of love. They probably spend a fair amount of time and energy celebrating it, just like we do - perhaps also on Sunday mornings. I think there’s a very good chance that such strangers will turn out to be just friends we haven’t met yet, and we shouldn’t be afraid to reach out.