At a lecture on campus recently, the director of the National Science Foundation, Subra Suresh, referred to our being in “a new era of observation.” As he explained, at least from the NSF perspective, one of the most powerful developments of today is our ability—or that of scientists—to observe on scales we could previously have not imagined. As if in an ultra-modern take on the classic “Powers of Ten,” he talked about what can be detected and manipulated on the nanoscale and smaller, as well as how far into the universe we can push our data collection.
And because the NSF also funds research in the social sciences, this is more than just an exercise in examining matter. We can, Suresh said, “look at the biology of a single molecule in the human brain, and combine that with the psychology of the human mind” to better understand, for example, the politics of clean energy.
The implication is that these finer details at both ends of the scale, previously so subtle as to be little more than shadows in the most powerful of imaginations, hold answers that will sustain and advance our existence.
But as we peer into the depths of human origins and the molecules of our physical manifestations, I wonder if even the overlay of psychology on these constructs leaves something out. Is it mere mysticism to suggest, in this new era of observation, that what remains unseen—in fact, “unseeable”—is an essential component of our understanding of the world? This is presuming, I guess, that deep exploration and introspection through the lens of literature produces a spiritual synthesis that cannot yet be tabulated and placed on a spreadsheet.
Certainly no one expects the NSF to probe for those sorts of answers. At least, I hope not. That is the business of writers and thoughtful readers, some of whom are scientists themselves. As the era of observation rapidly unfolds, I just hope the writers can keep up.