2016 Honorable Mention – Lillian Huang
Within all branches of science, the biggest motivating principle is the search for absolute truth. The nature of science is that it is fact; the scientific process, with its emphasis on careful, unbiased experimentation and the reproducibility of results, is designed such that there can be no question that scientists’ findings are true. Science prides itself on being totally dependent on cold logic and direct observation, things that in our world are indisputably correct.
And yet, there are some objections to this, going as far back as the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In his Allegory of the Cave, he says that people are bound in chains to forever stare at a wall of shadows inside a cave and never know the true world outside. He means that humans are held back by their senses to see only shadows of reality and that we must eschew those earthly senses to stumble our way into the sunlight of genuine truth. Thus, according to Plato, as long as scientists study the world with observation, we can never see the absolute truth.
Other, more modern ideas seem to back this up. Scientists once thought Newtonian mechanics were absolutely correct, but those results were found from a very limited scope of experimentation and were later proven incomplete. People now accept relativistic mechanics as true. And yet, the theory of special relativity itself shows that even concepts that seem as eternal and constant as time and space are mutable from different frames of reference. We can see that no matter what we observe ourselves, we only get a small inkling of the whole picture. We operate only in the world whose mysteries we are trying to solve; every theory or law we try to find applies to us as well, and this makes an “absolute” truth difficult for us to grasp. We can only look for those rules and patterns we can manage to find in our small range of observation, and form our scientific concepts from what little bit we can see.
But we should not despair. Scientists, represented in this painting by the pair of human hands, may be shackled by their senses, and the truth they seek is infinite, shown here by a band of pure white light stretching vertically across the canvas. The hands themselves are dissipating vertically as well, as if hurtling through space with the light. This illustrates how we ourselves are subjected to the laws of physics and other sciences. The beam of luminescence cannot be caught, but they shed light on the hands all the same. Although we cannot hope to take in all of it, if we as scientists try hard enough, we can still gather a touch of the truth.