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Are 'Big' Truths Better Than 'Small' Truths?


There is a TV show dedicated to big ideas. There is a website just for big thinking and another for big questions. The search for "big truths" seems pretty popular right now.

People want to know the true nature of space. They want to know how time began. They want to understand the roots of the mind and the place of life in the cosmos. Even our culture's endless argument over the existence of God is really nothing more than a debate over which direction to face as we ask our big questions and search for our big truths.

Human beings, with our finite lives, are naturally drawn to these grand questions and their grand answers. Big truths are important, right? They are earth-shaking and paradigm-breaking. Who wouldn't want to be there when a big truth is revealed?

But where does that leave life's little truths?

What about the kind of truths that don't embrace the entire cosmos, but simply capture some sharp, undeniable essence of our own frail experience? How about the weight of heartbreak or the strange wonder of a city at 3 a.m.? What about the uninvited sense of dread that can appear from nowhere, or the uninvited sense of calm and peace that appears just as unexpectedly? And then, of course, there is the fathomless love we feel for our children — or the potent sting of an unkind word from a parent remembered even long after they are gone.

These are not the stuff of timeless eternal principles echoing across distant corners of the universe. The experiences I'm talking about all carry the burden of something undeniably deep and powerful into our lives, but they remain stubbornly proximate. More importantly, these are not truths requiring explanation. They are not seeking a scientific accounting. Instead, they are whispers of something different, something rooted and time-bound in our being.

So, dear Cosmos And Culture readers, here is my question for you today: Are these essentially human truths really of lesser import than the "big ideas" of science, philosophy and even theology? Do they count for less?

As an entry into the question, let me leave you with a fine poem — Living in the Body by Minnesota's poet laureate Joyce Sutphen — that exemplifies what I'm pondering:

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.