Hilton RatcliffeOne of the most compelling aspects of astronomy for me is getting to know

that the stars don’t care.

In the big scheme, I am nearly nothing; so close to infinitely trivial as makes no difference. I can try to be a big fish in a small pond and bask in the applause, but I should know that the stars are not going to blink. They have much more important things to attend to, and that’s good to know. We strut our stuff amongst the biological diversity of our lonely blue planet as it speeds towards an unseen destiny, proclaiming ourselves advanced merely because we have the faculty of abstract thought; the singular privilege of being able to think about thought, to juggle between the senses and a self-centred theory of mind, and to furiously engage in sharing our imaginations with anyone who dares to listen.

Science progresses by exploring the unknown, finding the unexpected, and being challenged by sceptics. The quest for knowledge is a search for things we don’t already know. It is, when all is said and done, an exploration of our ignorance. In the unforgiving post-graduate world where I was expected to apply my knowledge usefully to the satisfaction of my benefactors, I slowly came to realise that education was a form of classical conditioning in the Pavlovian mode; we were its dogs, and both the tricks we were to perform and the rewards we would consequently receive were made abundantly clear to us. It is a principle of democratic governance that the effectiveness of the process depends critically upon the vibrancy of opposition. If in parliament there is no effective opposition, then government tends towards virtual dictatorship, no matter that members were democratically elected in the first place. There is no doubt that science is governed. There are rules, and the rules are enforced.

Scientists are above all human beings, with all the foibles and limitations that their species generally expresses. Scientists are neither superhuman nor divinely privileged. Scientists, let me tell you right now, are simply plodding bricklayers in the wall of knowledge. The kings of knowledge are all-powerful in the realm they administer, and it has surely corrupted them. Like despots anywhere, they should (figuratively speaking, of course) be put to the sword, and let the next king ascend to start the whole caboodle all over again. It is my contention that there is a viable remedy for our ills, but in order to consider my proposal we are going to have to suspend, temporarily at least, that most precious and jealously guarded of all our possessions—our beliefs.

We test the principles of democracy against beliefs most commonly held in the tribe; we validate the tenets of science against reality itself. No matter what we believe about gravitation, quite irrespective of the words we use in describing it, and taking no account at all of what we would like gravitation to be, we can test it, all of us, by jumping off the garden shed. Gravitation is impartial and pays no heed to our philosophical persuasion. We hit the ground equally, and that’s what we urgently need to take note of before we get lost in a maze of dreams.

I do not question Islam because I am a Christian; I do not critique Christianity because I am a Jew; I do not deny Mayan Doomsday ideas because they conflict with my belief in Nostradamus; I do not challenge Greenpeace because I am a member of the National Rifle Association; and I do not attack the 9/11 conspiracy theories because I am a Republican. In every case, I assess those belief systems using the objective scientific method, and in every case they are found wanting. And I remain in all cases an agnostic.

Belief belongs in religion; there, it enjoys a welcoming, compatible environment in which to flourish. It is where we can find prime examples to illustrate the driving principles. Religionists are charmingly open about their propensity for belief, and seem proud of it. Scientists are quite the opposite. Imprisoned by a twisted, broken body, and communicating by nothing more than the movement of his eyes, Dr Stephen Hawking has only his desperately lonely mind left to offer. In our compassion and our wonder, we have taken that tortured imagination as holy sacrament, and now we must pay the price.