Are the knowledge-exploders going modest?
An astronomer we know lives on a hill down a dirt road in New Hampshire. What between his remote location on planet Earth and his telescopic perspective on the rest of the universe, he takes a long view on human existence.
Naturally, he was just the man we wanted to talk to after reading K. C. Cole's piece in Discover magazine on ''Right and Wrong.''
Cole started off with a neat little bombshell. ''Einstein,'' the essayist assumed, ''will almost certainly be proved wrong in the long run. Or, at least wrong in the sense that he himself proved Newton wrong.''
The floor in our study shook, as Cole doubtless intended it should. All those novels and books of poetry shivered against one another's spines. For we must make it clear that, where the ''two cultures'' of C. P. Snow are concerned, we and our study are definitely from the wrong side of the tracks.
Once the shock effect had registered upon us science illiterates, Cole took pity and kindly went on to explain that both Newton and Einstein would always be ''right,'' too - in another sense. The point is that each ''truth'' constitutes only a partial bit of knowledge, to be enlarged by the next piece of information , rather like a map being extended by each new voyager who goes to the last known point on the chart, and then explores beyond.
When we summarized the Cole observation to our astronomer friend for agreement or rebuttal, as usual he stared off into the middle distance, slowly working his way into that long view for which he is famous.
We took his silence - as we take most silences - as
an invitation to continue talking. We fed our friend a further quote, this time from the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who has concluded, ''The world remains too complex'' for any single ''right'' explanation. Gould, sounding very much like Cole, protests against the ''conventional model of scientific 'progress' '' that assumes ''we begin in superstitious ignorance and move toward final truth by successive accumulation of facts.''
We spoke too of ''The Tangled Wing,'' a book by the biologist and anthropologist Melvin Konner, who suggests that his ambition is not to be ''right'' but to whittle away just one cubic millimeter of ignorance.
When our astronomer friend still remained silent, we cleared our throats to deliver what we took to be the punch line. You have to be careful, dealing with astronomer friends. They can think you're dumb for blurting out the wrong question, to say nothing of the wrong answer.
''Does one detect here,'' we began primly and cautiously, ''a new modesty among scientists? Are they signaling to the lay person, Don't make us high priests or wizards or all-knowing wise men - we don't have the answers eitherm?''
''Oh boy!'' our friend snorted. ''You English majors sure like to generalize, don't you?''
At the word ''generalize,'' his hands flew apart slowly, as if trying to contain without success the expansion of a balloon full of very hot air.
Well, at least we got him started, and what he said, if we heard him correctly, was this:
''We're dealing in orders of approximation. We've only begun to understand how approximate our answers are. The more information you get, the less simple your answers are. The more information you get, the less simple your answer can be. And we've been building some very sophisticated instruments that collect very sophisticated information.
''Take the universe itself. Astronomers 'see' a universe radically different from the one you see with the naked eye. They see a universe revealed by X-ray photographs and radio-wave photographs. It's a whole other cosmos - as novel and astonishing as a drop of water seen for the first time under a microscope.
''And even then we're seeing only in part. How can we say we've got it 'right' when we don't know what we're still leaving out? In order to set up the simplest theory, we have to block out a lot of variables. We have to say, 'Everything else being equal. . .' But it never is.
''So, as soon as the theorist posits something, the experimentalist finds a hole in the theory - proves it's 'wrong,' or only partly 'right.' If you want me to say it, I'll say it. Back and forth, back and forth - there's no end to the self-correcting.''
Our friend fell silent, and we seized the occasion to repeat our question. ''For at least 200 years, you scientists have made everybody else feel very modest about what they know - theologians, philosophers, English majors. Am I right? Does all this mean that you fellows are feeling modest now too?''
''Only an English-major type would ask such a question,'' our friend grumbled.
We took that answer as a yes, but we may be ''wrong.''