Study the world to know man

Address of Pope John Paul II to participants in a conference organized by the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia on "The problem of the cosmos " in honor of Albert Einstein on the first centenary of his birth, September 28, 1979
I am particularly happy to receive today the organizers, rapporteurs and participants in the international conference on The Problem of the Cosmos. The authority of the institute that promoted it, the competence of the illustrious rapporteurs, the interest of the subject for discussion, have rightly drawn the attention of a vast public, and also mine, to this important scientific initiative.

The Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia has, in fact, won wide esteem among men of culture of the whole world owing to its tradition of research, for more than fifty years now, in the most varied fields of culture. Solid and serious research, which aims at truth, animated by the moral incentive of an objectivity which will not let itself be deflected by passing fashions or party interests, and yet research which is quite aware of the continual progress of scientific knowledge, and present at frontiers of the fascinating adventure of 20th-century man, who is almost on the threshold of a new millennium.


Now this new fruit of the work of the Institute, the Enciclopedia del Novecento (Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century), already expresses a program in its very title. In these two words there are conveyed, in fact, the determination to forge and express a culture present in our time and at the same time the inner tension towards the unity of this culture. Since in a work of such vast scope, attentive to all the ways through which man sincerely seeks the truth, there cannot be lacking space and an adequate prominence for religious subjects, I am happy in particular at the importance that has been given to these subjects, an eloquent sign of the depth and seriousness of the approach.

It was precisely from the wide research program that converges on this Encyclopedia, and then starts out from it again, that there arose, in the centenary year of the birth of Albert Einstein, your meeting on The Problem of the Cosmos. A subject rich in immense fascination for present-day man, as for the man of the past, for the man of always.

Science of totality

What a stupendous science is yours, which, in the field of researches on nature, takes its place in a certain way at the summit of all the others, since its inquiry does not refer to a particular field of nature itself and its phenomena, but with a magnificent drive, which exalts and ennobles man's mind, even tries to embrace the immensity of the universe, to penetrate its structure and follow its evolution. Cosmology, a science of the totality of what exists as experimentally observable being, is therefore endowed with a special epistemological status of its own, which sets it more than any other, perhaps, at the borders with philosophy and with religion, since the science of totality leads spontaneously to the question about totality itself, a question which does not find its answers within this totality.

Highway to wonder

It is with deep emotion that I speak to you today, students of such a vast science, which unfolds before you the whole of creation. Your science is for man a highway to wonder. The contemplation of the firmament has always been for man a source of absolute amazement, from the most ancient times; but today you guide us, men of the 20th century, along the ways of a new wonder. They are ways that pass through the laborious and patient advance of reason, which has studied nature with wisdom and constancy, with an austere discipline which, in a certain way, has set aside delight in contemplation of the beauty of the sky in order to sound its abysses more and more deeply and systematically.

More and more powerful and ingenious instruments -telescopes, radiotelescopes, space probes- have made it possible to reveal to our astonished minds and eyes objects and phenomena that our imagination would never have dared to conceive -star-clusters, galaxies and groups of galaxies, quasars and pulsars.... They have expanded the frontiers of our knowledge to distances of milliards of light years; they have made it possible for us to go back in time to the most remote past, almost to the origins of that process of expansion of the universe which is one of the most extraordinary and unexpected discoveries of our time.

"Gratuitous" science

So scientific reason, after a long journey makes us discover things again with new wonder. It induces us to raise again with renewed intensity some of the great questions man always asks: where do we come from? where are we going? It leads us to pit ourselves once more against the frontiers of mystery, that mystery of which Einstein said that it is "the fundamental feeling, which is at the side of the cradle of true art and of true science" and, we add, of true metaphysics and true religion.

But I appreciate your science particularly also for another reason. Unlike so many other sciences of nature, which are cultivated and developed with particular solicitude today because they put in man's hands the power to change the world in which he lives, your science is, in a certain sense, a "gratuitous" science. It does not give man power to construct or to destroy, but it satisfies the pure desire, the deep ideal of knowing. And this, in a world strongly tempted by utilitarianism and thirst for command, is a value to bear witness to and to guard. I acknowledge that to you.

But, actually, to get to know the world is not a gratuitous or useless thing; on the contrary, it is supremely necessary in order to know who man is. Not for nothing has the view of the cosmos in different periods and different cultures always been closely connected with, and had a strong influence on, the view that the cultures themselves had of man. Now, if knowledge of the boundless dimensions of the cosmos has cancelled the illusion that our planet or our solar system is the physical center of the universe, not for this reason has man been diminished in his dignity. On the contrary, the adventure of science has made us discover and experience with new vividness the immensity and transcendence of man's spirit, capable of penetrating the abysses of the universe, of delving into its laws, of tracing its history, rising to a level incomparably higher than the other creatures that surround him.

Mystery of man

So the words of the ancient Psalmist spring spontaneously again to the lips of the 20th century believer: "O Lord, our Lord.... When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels..." (Ps. 8:2, 4-5, 6a). As already before the sublimity of creation, so also before man, searching the universe and its laws, our spirit starts with amazement and wonder, since here, too, it touches the mystery.

Is it not a question, fundamentally, of one great mystery: the one that is at the root of all things, of the cosmos and its origin, as well as of man who is capable of studying it and understanding it? If the universe is, as it were, an immense word which, though with difficulty and slowly, can at last be deciphered and understood, who is it who says this word to man? The believer's voice and even his thought tremble after You have led him along the ways and into the depths of immensity, and yet I, a witness of the faith at the threshold of the third millennium, utter once more with fear and joy the blessed name: God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose love is revealed to us in Christ the Lord.

With these sentiments, I encourage you all to continue your austere studies, while I invoke on you, on your scientific labors, and on your dear ones, the riches of the gifts of the Pantocrator, the Lord of heaven and of earth.

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