Most of us want to be in the know. We need to know what is going on around us. Humans everywhere like to be experts in almost everything we think is important.
In America, every child is required to go to school through the twelfth grade. This is a daring social experiment that envisions literacy for an entire population and provides each individual with a chance for success. Yet formal education doesn’t always put us in touch with those things that ignite our deepest curiosities. We are often too quick to teach to the test, to channel students along a career path that excludes looking at the longer or broader view.
Many of the explanations included here are less than 25 years old. They are based on new research gathered by modern methods and techniques for collecting and interpreting data. Typically, parents, along with elementary and secondary teachers, are trained to think that there are simply no answers to big questions. And they are often unaware of brand new developments, especially in the sciences.
All of us ask big questions throughout life, sometimes if only for our own amusement. However most people do not choose science, art or philosophy as a professional career. And if you don’t have an instinct for pure mathematics, chemistry, or physics, an entire body of knowledge becomes unavailable to you. You are simply locked out of an opportunity to learn about yourself and your relationship to the wonder of all things. You are on your own, left to figure out what you can by reading, searching on-line or in libraries, and talking with interested friends. But this is isolating and often tedious, or simply not adequate. Most of us soon give up and allow the global media to determine where we get our information and how to interpret it.
We can’t blame science for this. Since the 1600’s when Galileo established a critical method for hypothesis and experiment, scientists have had a responsibility to maintain the rigorous standards of their respective professions. Most have been content to restrict their findings to the science community. Fortunately, in recent years there have been an increasing number of researchers and science writers who have begun to share their ideas with the general public, and who have been generous in their mandate to communicate knowledge and information without watering it down or noticeably pandering to their audience. Because scientists have begun to openly share their ideas, artists, philosophers and ordinary citizens are changing the way they see themselves and the world. Likewise when people show a serious interest in science, it encourages scientists to share what they know.
This project is an introduction, a guideline, to big ideas in nature, science, and art. The information is explanatory; it attempts to explain ‘why something is’ rather than to state ‘what it is’ or ‘that it is’. It is gathered from science writings, from my own informal research, from rigorous discussions with informed artists and scientists (especially my Nature and Inquiry colleagues), and from 20 years of teaching a college art course on these general themes.
The material is aimed at secondary and college students and those who may be unfamiliar or uneasy with larger-than-life questions. But it is also intended to make clear that reliable information and knowledge, once available to only a few, is accessible today to anyone willing to do a bit of research with an open mind and a creative spirit.
I fully expect and hope that this online project will one day become obsolete through familiarity, and will be replaced or informed by a new and intriguing library of ‘big ideas’ in nature, science, and art.