Volume XXVII Number 1
When I was young, my father liked to stump me with this question: What’s after the end of the universe?
And long before most of us understood the universe is expanding, I would try to ponder what was after the end of everything. But soon enough, I’d quit. Call it a failure of imagination—I didn’t like thinking about Dad’s question. I didn’t know how.
Fortunately, many people do have the know-how to think about the universe and the myriad questions it elicits. These thinkers persevere, despite their unfathomable research subject. And lately, they and investigators like them have persevered despite a culture where the politicization of science seems to be reaching extremes.
This year, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued two fat reports soundly criticizing the Bush administration’s “sound science” (we must base decisions on “sound science, not what sounds good, but what is real,” Bush said in 2002). The UCS cited numerous incidents of unprecedented “manipulation” and “distortion” of scientific knowledge. By July 2004, more than 4,000 scientists, including more than a dozen faculty from several IU campuses, had signed on to the reports. In late summer, presidential candidate John Kerry announced he would “stand up for science,” as the medical and biological study of embryonic stem cells became a hot-button political issue. News reports repeatedly noted that in 2004, scientific research occupied a prominent, and polarizing, place in the presidential campaigns.
Whither scientific objectivity? With science mixing it up with political ideologies, left and right, the spirit of independent exploration that can be found in the university is all the more crucial to preserve. We need science (all manner of research and creative activity, for that matter) to keep us pointed toward the big questions, like the one my father posed. And research needs to stand free of politics. Progress, scientific and otherwise, depends on our willingness to think about the hard questions: Where do we come from? What are we made of? How do we fit on this planet and in the universe?
Since I left my father’s house, I’ve looked at his question through the lenses of literature and religious studies. I never have fathomed an answer, but now I understand that’s not really the point. By their example, scientists and researchers have taught me, as the poet Rilke once wrote, “to love the questions themselves.”—L.B.