Tuesday, August 17, 2004

When Scientists Meet Dinosaurs

Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a course called “Physics for Future Presidents”. Since 1972, he has been a Jason consultant on U.S. national security.

In a recent article commemorating the 25-year old discovery which led to the standard explanation that the extinction of the dinosaurs was due to a comet or asteroid ramming into the Earth, Muller wrote that science is driven by a sense of adventure, rather than curiosity (as many people would say).

If scientists were plain curious, without being adventurous, Muller argued, they would spend most of their time reading, just like what truly curious people would do. Curiosity is the impulse to learn something new, while being adventurous is the desire to be there first. In just a few books, a curious person can learn a thousand times as much as a top scientist could possibly discover in a lifetime of research.

Until today, we do not really know whether it was an asteriod or a comet that wiped out the giants. In fact, with every discovery comes many new questions to answer. There is a lot more that we don't know today than we didn't know 25 years ago. However, just like the legendary Sisyphus, Muller contended that scientists are better off.