On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain. Either you will reach a point higher up today or you train your powers so you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.

 

Nietzsche

 

I had the tremendous fortune of spending a large part of my youth skiing, biking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains. Week after week, the peaks beckoned me to use any means at my disposal to arrive at their summits. I was drawn to the magnificent panoramic views on display, even if the inhospitable conditions at the top forced me to descend back into the valleys after just a few moments. I understood why many philosophers and artists have found inspiration on mountaintops: that’s where the views are!

Seeing the view from above gave me perspective, allowing me to see how each slice of the landscape fit into the larger range. I took these impressions and formed a mental map of my environment, one that grew and shifted over time as I explored different corners of my state.

As human beings, we seem hardwired with a curiosity that prods us to see what’s on the other side of the road, or what lies just beyond the horizon. This tendency drives us to climb mountains, but it also inspires us to investigate the physical world.

Just as standing on top of a new peak alters the previous ways we viewed our surroundings, new scientific understandings force us to reconceptualize our environment as well.

Copernicus and Galileo shouted down to the rest of us: hey! we’re not at the center of the universe! Darwin arrived at a revolutionary understanding that showed we are but one branch on a vast tree of life. Edwin Hubble caught a glimpse of an expanding universe, demonstrating that we live in a cosmos far vaster than we could have ever imagined.

Each of these scientists encountered great resistance from those who felt threatened by the new information. Our species has not been kind to those who challenge established viewpoints; we often disdain and ridicule those offering fresh perspectives, setting fire to their maps and/or their bodies.

 

 

The history of science shows that our understanding of the universe is always provisional. To think at any point that we’ve arrived at the apex of understanding would be as ridiculous as climbing a single mountain and thinking that’s all there is to see.

Each horizon reveals more horizons. There are always further peaks that await our exploration, and if/when we arrive at them, the new vision they afford will surely force us to reevaluate the way in which we previously understood ourselves.

Before Copernicus, it was natural to think that we were at the center of things- and we acted accordingly. We then understood that our solar system is only part of one galaxy among billions. Now, physicists are beginning to think that our seemingly infinite universe is but a small ripple in an inconceivably large multiverse.

It’s as if God is laughing at us. “Oh ya, you thought that was big? I’ll show you big! There’s plenty more to uncover that will make even your universe look like small change.”

I like to think about the revolution in perspective that would happen if we could actually demonstrate that we live in a multiverse. What would we see if we could scale that mountain? How would that change our perspective?

Speculation forthcoming next week!