“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed in contemplating science, religion, and our conquest of truth at the end of the nineteenth century. “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Carl Sagan wrote a century later in his exquisite meditation on science and spirituality. And yet the longing for stable answers and thorough understanding — or, as Hannah Arendt memorably framed it, the propensity for asking unanswerable questions — might be one of the hallmarks of our species. After all, for as long as modern science has existed, scientists have attempted to answer such unanswerable questions by trying to either reconcile science and religion, like Galileo did in defending his theories against the Inquisition and Ada Lovelace did in considering the interconnectedness of the universe, or at least to relegate them to different realms of inquiry.
Adding to the canon of these meditations is the celebrated English cosmologist and astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees — the last European court astronomer in his position as Astronomer Royal to the House of Windsor and science adviser to the Queen of England.
In We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence (public library) — Austrian physicist, essayist, and science journalist Stefan Klein’s fantastic compendium of interviews, which also gave us Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg on simplicity, complexity, and the unity of the universe — Rees reflects on his rather unusual entry point into the question of science and spirituality:
I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and simply follow the customs…
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