Thought for the Day - Rev Professor David Wilkinson - 27/08/2012

Good morning. In a pre-flight news conference in the summer of 1969 Neil Armstrong said, ‘I think we’re going to the moon because it is in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul’. A few days later, Armstrong took a small step to fulfil this nature - built on an incredible investment of courage, engineering skill, scientific understanding and 20 billion dollars.

As tributes to Armstrong continue, today NASA holds a news conference reviewing the first three weeks of another billion dollar mission. After its successful landing and test drive, the Mars rover Curiosity will investigate whether past conditions on the planet have been favourable for microbial life. It carries equipment to gather and analyse samples of rocks and soil, but it also has on it the signature of Clara Ma, a high school student from Kansas, who was the winner of a national naming contest for the rover. She wrote, ‘Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder.’

But is such investment justified? Many historians of science point to the influence of Judaeo-Christian theology in the development of the kind of curiosity upon which science is based. The Greeks saw logic as key to understanding the world. But astronomers such as Galileo saw that if the Universe had been created freely by God, not bound by human logic, then you had to observe, experiment on and explore the Universe in order to find out what it was all about. Indeed, Galileo pointed his telescope at the Moon and saw it was not the perfect smooth surface predicted by the philosophical arguments of the time. For him, such a capacity for curiosity was a gift from God to humans made in his image.

Pope Paul VI reflected this when he met the Apollo 11 astronauts in the autumn of 1969. He said we have ‘a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown’ and that their mission testified to the ability of human beings ‘to reach beyond human nature, to attain the perfection of achievement made possible by God-given talent.’

Dorothy Parker famously said that that ‘Love, curiosity, freckles and doubt’ were the four things she had been better without, but curiosity for me is at the heart of the scientific enterprise and indeed part of what it means to be fully human. So today I give thanks for the achievements and inspiration of Neil Armstrong, tolerating my freckles but rejoicing in scientific curiosity.

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