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However, these incommensurable scales of space

What Can We Do?

and time are not what disturb people so much in their views of the universe and mankind’s place in

What can we as scientists do to meet the

it. It is the role of chance in the organization of the

challenge?

universe, in the formation of our solar system, and of the Earth, and as the driving mechanism of the

1.

evolution of life that rocks their “beliefs.” Wilson

work experience, discoveries, and even our failures

put his finger on it when he wrote, “Evolution in a

with the public.

pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the

2. All large scientific projects must fund

exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted

and maintain strong public education and

by natural selection from one generation to the

outreach programs. These programs must avoid

next.” This is the “hard nut” we have to crack.

triumphalism, spectacle, or entertainment.

We must continue and do more to share our

3. We must promote rational thinking and critical The concept of chance or randomness transformed

reasoning, at the same time keeping an open mind

modern physics and chemistry through statistical

on various non-scientific ways of understanding

mechanics in the late 19th century and the more

our universe.

fundamental step of quantum mechanics in the early

4. We must steer away from wishful thinking,

20th century. Amazingly, the underlying role of

boosting expectations, or promising “final answers”

randomness in nature was implanted more than 2,000

to big questions.

years ago: yes, the clinamen of the early atomists.

5. We must work on creative approaches that

Then, as today, this unsettling fact and idea was

bring the scientific community and the public

strongly resisted. It is still considered profoundly

together, in a respectful and fruitful dialogue.

repulsive to so many of our fellow citizens. This is our challenge.

Jean-René Roy is deputy director and head of science at Gemini Observatory. He can be reached at: jrroy@gemini.edu

June2009

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Issue 38 - June 2009  

GeminiFocus