You need look no further than the popularity of "Survivor"-type TV shows to prove the wisdom of the late physicist Max Born's observation: The physics of one era is the metaphysics of the next.
OK, so maybe the relevant science in this case is evolutionary biology, not physics. But the point holds: Ideas from science seep inevitably into the way we think about almost everything, including the cheesiest of entertainment. We believe what we think science tells us and apply it to arenas that have nothing to do with science.
"Survivor," of course, takes off from a popular misreading of Darwin's "survival of the fittest," the idea that ruthless competition allows the cream to rise to the top. This conclusion is overly simplistic at best. (For one thing, it ignores the fact that scum also rises.) In fact, cooperation has been just as important as competition to the survival of species: Our very cells are nothing so much as cooperative communities of previously independent microorganisms that banded together for survival--and flourished.
But the tension between cooperation and competition pervades almost every aspect of what we do.
Consider, for example, a recent meeting of a thousand-odd particle physicists to decide on the next big accelerator, the tool of their trade. One of the major arguments for U.S. sponsorship of such a project is the wish to keep our country competitive. The next big accelerator is already under construction in Europe, and if the United States doesn't build one of its own, the frontier of physics will move far from our shores.
On the other hand, physicists know full well that international cooperation is the sine qua non for any successful project. (The late, lamented Superconducting SuperCollider died, in part, because it didn't have enough.)
Now physicists have learned the hard way what microorganisms knew all along: Work together or go extinct. Europe, in effect, kept particle physics going with a new machine after the SSC went under. "It's our turn to reciprocate,"said SLAC's Jonathan Dorfan.
Another set of competing ideas addressed at the meeting involves what kind of accelerator to build.
On the one hand, electron machines produce clean, easily read collisions; protons produce a bigger bang but messier results. Which way to go? No question, the two approaches are in competition: Accelerators are expensive, and there's only so much money to go around.
On the other hand, both are needed. Proton machines are the big sticks, but electrons are precision probes. Proton machines can more readily produce new species of particles, but electron machines are needed to study them in detail.
The European accelerator under construction collides protons and so is primed to make some major discoveries. However, it will take an electron collider to understand what it finds, says Dorfan (who would like to have an electron collider at SLAC). With the European machine, "you identify a large animal; you weight it," he said. With an electron collider, "you can say, is it striped? Is it male or female?"
In the end, the two are complementary. Choosing between them would be like choosing between a telescope and a microscope. You need different tools for different purposes.
The power of science comes from using different sets of tools to come up with the same answers--different lines of evidence that agree on conclusions. Astronomers wouldn't believe in the Big Bang if the only evidence for the explosive birth of the universe were observations that galaxies are receding from each other as if they had started out from a common point.
They needed to find the leftover glow of the "explosion" as well--a discovery that came many years after the apparent expansion of the universe was detected.
In the same way, astrophysicists believe they know how much matter there is in the universe because the answers they get from many different lines of evidence all agree.
Everyday perception works much the same way. How do you know you're reading a newspaper rather than, say, a cat? For one thing, other people looking at the same object also call it a newspaper (agreement). For another, your various human senses (perceptual tools) agree: It doesn't look, feel, smell or sound like a cat.
When information from different channels agrees, things "click" into place, and we feel comfortable with our knowledge. When information disagrees, we feel uneasy or even sick. (People get seasick in part because the information they receive from their eyes conflicts with that from their inner ears.)
So which is the "best" approach? Competition or cooperation? Protons or electrons? Nationalism versus globalization?
All these pairs, of course, are themselves complementary. Each has its place. Choosing one is not only impossible but also inappropriate.
Or as Born put it, borrowing an idea from physics for his own metaphysical conclusion: "The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all the evil that is in the world."