N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 7 I S S U E
The Big Question
Mario Livio, an adjunct professor in the Krieger School of
Arts and Sciences'
Department of Physics and Astronomy and
an astronomer at the
Space Telescope Science Institute, is
author of The Accelerating Universe (John Wiley & Sons,
2000), The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most
Astonishing Number (Broadway, 2002), and The Equation That
Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the
Language of Symmetry (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Photo by John Davis
What is the Most Beautiful Thing in the
"Our universe is extraordinarily complex, with processes occurring on all scales, from the subatomic world to the universe at large. Yet humans have been able to discover a small number of laws — the laws of nature — that appear to be capable of explaining most (if not all) phenomena. Furthermore, with all its limitations, the human mind has been able to develop precisely the kit of tools needed to explain the universe. This wonderful arsenal of intellectual weapons is the discipline we call mathematics.
"When you think about it for a moment, the human comprehension of the cosmos is nothing short of miraculous. The universe started with a Big Bang, in which only the lightest atoms were formed. Heavier atoms, such as carbon and oxygen, were fused only much later, in the nuclearfurnaces at the centers of stars such as the sun. The dust and gas surrounding some stars formed planetary systems. On one such planet, the one we call Earth, the conditions were just right for primitive life forms to emerge. Those evolved into more complex life forms, culminating, in terms of mental ability (at least so far), with humans. Then, through a process that included a series of false starts and blind alleys, the human mind continuously gained access to more and more of nature's incredible secrets and their explanations.
"Isn't this absolutely fantastic?"
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