Science: A tale of 1,001 stories

11/Jan/2017

By Martin Vetterli

(From "Horizons" no. 111 December 2016)​​​

When Shahryar, the Persian king from the legendary Arabian Nights, discovers that his wife has betrayed him, he kills her and decides to marry a virgin every day and decapitate her the next morning. But after having killed 1,000 women, he meets the legendary Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter. During their first night together she tells him a story, which she interrupts right before the climax. Since the king wants to hear the end of it, he spares her life for that night, telling her to come back the next day and finish the story. But Scheherazade begins another tale on the second night, which she again stops halfway through, and again the king spares her life. And while the king waits endlessly for new resolutions to new stories, Scheherazade ultimately finds a way to survive …

The Arabian Nights remind me of another grand human tale: science. Research also narrates a never-ending story – that of knowledge – in the form of ever new hypotheses. And since we're able to test them empirically, these individual 'stories' of science endlessly confirm, extend or negate the ones that came before.

Many of these findings are just as fascinating as the stories of the Arabian Nights. In the four years when I was president of the SNSF, some 400 new animal species were discovered, mostly in the Amazon. And some of them are truly incredible, like the 'walking' fishes or the never-before photographed Asian bicorn! Research on our human body recently described a new form of ligament found in the knee, as well as a new type of lymph vessel that goes directly into our brain. Our own past has also been shaken up by science. The oldest cultural paintings seem to come from Indonesia, not from Europe as was previously assumed. Not to mention the extinct Neanderthals, who were so promiscuous that they apparently even had sex with us modern-day humans. The realm of the macrocosm has also offered many new tales recently, the most fascinating being probably those about exoplanets. From the general disbelief of a few decades ago, via the first discovery in the 1990s by Swiss astronomers in Geneva, to the very recent detection of an Earth-like planet not too far away, these planets have reinvigorated ancient human dreams of putative extra-terrestrial life forms.

Taken together, the big story that science is telling us every day, and that we thought we knew so well, is also being retold continuously. And each resolution is just the beginning of another story. Will it ever end? I don't think so, since scientific stories are probably also always told only halfway through, like the stories of Scheherazade, who studied philosophy, the sciences and the arts. And while we, like the king, endlessly wait for the next resolution to come, we may, like the princess, ultimately find a way to survive as a human species, too.

To be continued ...

Martin Vetterli is president of the National Research Council until the end of December 2016 and a computer scientist at EPFL.