Making sense of the world is always personal. I am a scientist, but I also believe that the scientific approach to the world is not exhaustive. Love and friendship, fear and hate, these are real and true things, they exist in the world, just not in the same way as a mathematical theorem, a planet, or a nucleus. It would seem that those things that make life most meaningful slip past our measuring instruments because they live in our hearts and minds alone. They are embodied in flesh and blood, yet they are so much more. We should thank the universe for the undeserved gift that the cold equations of physics have given rise to a warm world, redolent with the potential for empathy and compassion.
If there is a unifying theme for the postings to Icarus Question, it concerns my abiding fascination with the question of how we adapt to change. I consider myself a cautious techno-optimist, and I believe that science and technology should aim to make the world a better place. Yet, in our attempts to overcome our current human limitations, we have to recognize that each new invention can be turned into a weapon, and each new idea can change human behavior, sometimes for the worse. Like the ancient inventor Daedalus, father of Icarus, our creative aspirations often create new forms of tragedy.
Hence the Icarus Question: Can Icarus learn to swim?
If science has a claim to producing reliable knowledge about the way the world works, it always draws its strength from what might at first seem a weakness: all good science starts from a position of formal epistemological humility, a realization that our understanding is always provisional, and that we must always seek more data. If we stop believing in the potential for surprise we have not only become old at heart, we are no longer scientists.
Some writers start out knowing what they think about a topic, and so can simply write it down. Others discover what they think through the writing process itself. I’m in the latter camp. After a long career in science, I don’t yet have an answer to the Icarus Question, or perhaps I have too many. These writings are my attempt to articulate some of those answers. The Icarus Question blog collects my writings that don’t fit in the usual places. Sometimes those ideas come out best as a piece of scientific exposition, sometimes as a piece of memoir, or a rough cut, and sometimes a piece of sci-fi.
I am Chancellor Professor of Physics Emeritus at William & Mary, and was a founding Fellow and Director of our Center for the Liberal Arts. You can find a summary of my scholarly publications on Google Scholar, while my writings for a more general audience have appeared in places like Aeon, American Scientist, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Scroll.in.
Gene Tracy, Williamsburg, Virginia