Our seas have been mapped. The planets in our sky have been named and catalogued. The urge to voyage into unknown waters has largely dissipated from the popular imagination. We may think ourselves accomplished – even the minutest details of our world can be accessed by the computers in our pockets, and our astronomers have drawn the map of the universe when it was only 380,000 years old.
But there is so much left to explore, so much left to understand. Though we may know the map of heaven and earth, we do not know how the map was drawn. There are still burning questions to be answered: how did energy give rise to matter, matter to chemistry, chemistry to life, life to consciousness, and consciousness to art, morality, and meaning? The answers to these questions cannot be put on a map, but the endeavor to answer them is no less thrilling a voyage as were the famed expeditions of Magellan or Cook.
Many still heed the clarion call of discovery, but follow it to the laboratory rather than the open seas. I am speaking, of course, of scientists. It is inherent to the practice of science to feel that there are vast continents yet to be mapped in the machinery of physics, chemistry, life, and cognition. These maps are far more mysterious, far more complex, and far more fundamental than the maps we can draw on a page or view on the computers in our pockets.
But the work of scientists risks being curtailed by those who do not understand that science is, at its very heart, a process of discovery. Scientists are routinely tasked with justifying their research, to explain how their work will directly benefit the taxpayers who fund it. The result is that politicians frequently cut funding to research they deem useless. But the very point of basic research is that we often cannot know in advance what we will find. And that is because scientists are, in a very real sense, explorers charting unknown territories. We may find troves of gold or the Fountain of Youth in our wanderings, or we may not. But that’s not the point of discovery. The point of discovery is, by definition, the pursuit of the unknown.
Scientists pursue the unknown because of a burning conviction that across our untraveled seas, there are whole continents of knowledge waiting to mapped. And this fact should have all of us – and not only scientists – in the grip of euphoria, because it means that the corpus of human knowledge is still being written. Our Age of Discovery is far from over; it has only scarcely begun.