The more the universe seems comprehensible," the physicist Steven Weinberg once wrote, "the more it seems pointless." It is said that many of his colleagues were dismayed, not by the assertion that the universe was pointless, but over the implication that it could even have a point. But then, retorts Paul Davies, the scientist and author of more than 20 books on cosmology, what's the point of science itself?
Davies, who has spent his career asking variations on this question, will now be in a position to look for answers as the head of a new cosmology think tank, provisionally named Beyond, at Arizona State University. The outfit, part of an ambitious effort by ASU president Michael Crow to stake out new intellectual territory for his young institution, will ask no easy questions, only deep ones like "Why are the laws of nature mathematical?"--something that's been gnawing at scientists for about 2,500 years. Davies says he wants to look into "the origin of the universe, life, consciousness and the emergence of humanity." Its first conference, later this month, will focus on what Davies calls "looking for life on Earth as we don't know it." Is our kind of DNA-based life the only kind there is? How could we tell? Where should we look for other examples? The idea that life might have evolved more than once is the central premise of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and thus of special interest to Davies, who heads SETI's "post-detection" committee--the best committee to be on, he says, since it never meets.
But it's also of special interest to him because he occupies an increasingly isolated position among top physicists, neither conventionally religious nor as ruthlessly skeptical as Weinberg. Davies has devoted his career to searching for the equation that will reveal what he calls "the mind of God," the metaphysical foundation for everything there is. "Scientists proceed on the assumption that there is a coherent scheme to the universe to be uncovered," he said last month at a conference on belief and reason at the Salk Institute that brought together many prominent atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. "That's also an act of faith." Davies then gave his own version of Weinberg's formula. "The more the universe seems pointless," he said, staring down his audience of hardened skeptics, "the more it is incomprehensible."