Porter: What Prince Tells Us About Science

Ours is an age in which science has come up with a lot of answers to the questions that have vexed us for centuries. We have a great understanding of the workings of the human body, including a full map of the human genome, and can do amazing things to prevent and treat a variety of ailments—treatments which 100 years ago would have been almost considered magical. Babies are surviving at 21 weeks of gestation, largely because of advanced technology.

Butch Porter
Butch Porter

We have explored the reaches of the universe with increasingly accurate instruments. We have peered back in time (so to speak) and detected gravity waves from colliding black holes, a century after they were predicted by Albert Einstein. We’re “going small” too, detecting the Higgs Boson particle, an elementary particle, again predicted to exist based on sound theory, but only recently confirmed.

As a young reader and watcher of science fiction, I dreamed of a day when the advances imagined by writers would come to reality, allowing us to explore the universe, bend space and time, expand our reach. As an adult, I’ve begun to dread the day when the darker implications of what science can do become a reality. No one with a brain can watch GATTACA and not ask themselves really tough questions about the wisdom of using science to solve all woes, and what it implies.

And science has a few notable limitations. First, a lot of science, simply isn’t good science. John Ionnidis, a renowned medical researcher at Stanford, more than a decade ago wrote about the phenomenon of confirmation bias in published science. The reality is that something showing a “connection’ between one thing and another is much more likely to be published than studies that found no connections. That increases the risk of false positives appearing in the literature.

Second, although science gives us the knowledge and ability to do many wondrous things, it lacks the wisdom required in determining how to use that knowledge and ability. Einstein was once asked “why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?” Einstein answered, “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.”

But lastly, and just as critically, science doesn’t answer, nor is it capable of even asking, the really important things in life. And no, I’m not talking about what the best Prince song is. The answer to that is either irrelevant, or obvious, depending on what you think the answer is. The real question is: Why was (is) his music, truly, good, and beautiful? And not just to some people, not just as a good representative of a genre (whatever genre his music is in), but objectively wholly fantastic. It is hard to find anyone who is more universally accepted as a real talent than Prince. There are few of even the most cynical who can say, with a straight face, “Well, he was OK…”

But why? What makes it so? Why does it move us, affect us, when an art form is so clearly and emphatically embraced and improved as it was in the case of Prince? We will not find the answers in science. We will not find it in even the most fundamental of particles, or the most massive and powerful of black holes. A kid from Minneapolis who composed his first song on his dad’s piano at the age of 7 would grow to become a producer of phenomenal and consequential art. It didn’t take two facilities thousands of miles apart or enough power to run a small city for a year to detect the significance of Purple Rain or When Doves Cry. It took a radio and working ears. No knowledge of music was required. No degrees or publications or critiques make any difference. It is art in its purest, true, beautiful form.

No amount of experimentation, genetic splicing, central planning, arts zones, schools, or festivals, nothing of this world can spit out a Prince on purpose. He just was, and still is. To explain him, it’s best to just leave it to him:

Youʼve gotta have belief. Itʼs the only way to make it through this maze. And God is here, Heʼs everywhere, He ainʼt dead, contrary to popular opinion. And He will come again and it will be the most beautiful, powerful, electric moment, the skyʼs gonna go all purple and red.

Say what you want about him. He is no more perfect than many of the poets, priests, and politicians which litter our landscape with word, sound, and spectacle. But he had a point of view, and he was seeking something that science simply cannot deliver for us. And it is the constant and diligent search, not the answers, which we should celebrate, in our art, and in our science.


Butch Porter is a Leesburg business owner and local commentator.


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