Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), the talented astronomer whose work paved the way for Newton’s Law of Gravity, ate pomegranates with curiosity. Rather than simply eating the fruit mindlessly—as an animal might—Kepler was drawn to the shape of its seeds. He was intrigued by the fact that they tended to have 12 flat faces and wondered what the cause might be.
Is curiosity such as Kepler’s an essential ingredient of the human experience? Is there a longing for knowledge somehow hard-wired into us?
Aristotle might think so. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described a clear distinction between humans and animals. We are, he says, unique when it comes to thinking about things—only humanity has any real “connected experience.”
As insightful as he undoubtedly was, Aristotle was beaten to the punch here. We can find the same assertion in a far earlier document—the biblical book of Job. In chapter 28, Job turns his thoughts to mining, and the search for treasures. Here, Job claims that the invention, insight, and curiosity of the human miners outshines that of the animal kingdom completely. When animals dig, it is pure survivalist instinct; when people dig, they “put an end to the darkness” and “bring hidden things to light.”
The Astronomer and the Seeds
Kepler’s interest in pomegranate seeds led him to some mathematical analysis. He decided that each individual seed would rather be a sphere, but that it was constrained and flattened by its neighbours as it the pomegranate grew. Twelve flat faces suggested a very particular configuration of seeds, and Kepler became convinced this was the most efficient way of getting spheres close together: “(This) packing will be the tightest possible, so that in no other arrangement could more pellets be stuffed into the same container.”
Nearly 400 years later, Kepler’s conjecture—which had become known as the “sphere packing problem”—was shown to be correct. In 1998, Thomas Hales of the University of Michigan used a computer to prove it. His program searched exhaustively through every conceivable arrangement, and it turned out that the pomegranate won. As remarkable as this story is in isolation, Kepler’s work has had far greater impact on humanity than just its beauty—in fact, you happen to be using it yourself, right now.
In the early days of computer science, a serious problem surfaced—that of misread information. Computers had been designed to speak to each other in words made entirely of 1s and 0s. If a 1 was read as a 0 or a 0 as a 1, the result would be nonsense. Could there be a way of teaching a computer to autocorrect any errors?
This seemingly impossible task was taken on by Richard Hamming of Bell Laboratories in 1950. As he played around with the maths of computer communication, he was led to a stunning realisation: The equations involved turned out to be identical to those in the sphere packing problem. Reimagining the 1-and-0 words as tightly packed seeds, Hamming could show that the solution already existed. Computers could indeed be taught to efficiently self-correct—by using Kepler’s pomegranate formulas.
Knowing God Through Science
This fascinating tale of interconnectedness in science, maths, nature, and technology is all well and good, but what deeper truth is there about who we are and who God is? Does God, for some special reason, want us to be scientific?