This is a story about science, nature, and wonder. The experiences I’ve had, and the people that help keep the fires stoked.
It is a long post. And it does contain some rewarding links.
In high school, my favourite classes and best marks (give or take) were chemistry, physics and, in particular, biology. However, young and impressionable as I was, I abandoned my unnecessarily thorough and detailed diagrams of plant cells to study business. My older brother had done so, and, unsure about where I wanted to go in life, I thought that a business degree would give me “options.” The reality was that I did not know myself well, nor did I give the decision the consideration it deserved.
A decade later, I’m looking back on what I’ve learned about science and nature anyway. There is so much that I’m blown away by – I could write pages just listing things that, upon learning about them, made my eyes go wide.
A tweet from Commander Chris Hadfield this morning catalyzed this post, and I deem it appropriate to tell this story primarily through people like him, whose sense of wonder permeates what they do, and causes me to reflect upon mine.
If you’ve been following Hadfield, which you should, you may notice that he’s still very much in awe of what he’s seeing from the windows of the International Space Station. He is frequently moved to poetic language and art metaphors, captioning his photos of earth:
“Deserts appear as brushstrokes of art. Even as I click the shutter it’s hard to believe what I see.”
“If you lightly dust farmers’ fields with snow, they somehow become a papier-mâché artwork.”
“So, whatcha doing today?
Forget I asked, because after you click on this link, your day will be gone. Poof! Vanished, since you will find yourself buried in a magnificent, massive of the center of the Milky Way galaxy.”
His awe is obvious and his enthusiasm, infectious. Reading Plait calls memories:
Growing up, we tend to equate day with the sun, and night with the moon. And the sun, moon, and earth seem fundamentally different than any other bodies in space. I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember an exact moment one afternoon when both the sun and moon were visible in the afternoon. I had noticed this before, I knew from school how the solar system worked, but it had never really hit me. I was astonished by this sense of perspective – like I had stepped out of my body and could see myself, standing on the edge of a planet, spinning and moving amongst other bodies in space. I stood there for a long time. To the universe, the earth wasn’t anywhere special. I was humbled, and amazed, and infinitesimally small. Full of wonder.
I can list of litany of scientists and writers who seem to share Plait’s and Hadfield’s poetic, artistic, wondrous views of science and nature. Jerry Coyne (geneticist) and PZ Myers (biologist) both blog, and between posts on politics and religion they enthusiastically and expertly write about evolution and science. Coyne posts zoomed-in photos that amaze him (in this case, of butterfly scales and sunset moth wings, respectively).
Myers is so enamoured with cephalopods that Cuttlefish are talking restraining orders. His photo posts, without words, effectively say “Just look at how f**king beautiful nature is!”
These creatures – and evolutionary biology – only make sense on a very old earth. In fourth year university, I took, amidst my business degree, Geology 101 – otherwise known as Rocks for Jocks. My roommate was taking it, I liked science, and I needed another elective. Miles from the ridiculous debate over the age of the earth, I spent time with a well-informed professor and a well-researched book. I stared at, and considered, plate tectonics, the shuffling and reshuffling of the continents, and the various forces that shaped our planet. Eventually, I had a dawning. I gained perspective, and, although I’d known it since junior high, I truly realized the incredibly, ridiculously, seemingly preposterously long timeline of the earth and of the universe. When I considered the universe, I felt small. When I considered the age of the earth, I felt temporary. But humbled, amazed, and, once again, full of wonder.
Richard Dawkins seems to be best known as a militant atheist and the author of The God Delusion – literally captioned, when a guest on television, as “Atheist”!
This is such a bizarre perception, considering that his career is zoologist, and of the approximately dozen books he has written, most are straight science (although a few wander into territory that cannot help but be at odds with some religious). Read The Ancestor’s Tale. Here, Dawkins just writes science beautifully, patiently explaining the relationship between all living things on earth, highlighting amazing features of the natural world. Like a man in love, he just wants to share the news with the world. The book is peppered with exclamations marks; Dawkins gets excited about Star-nosed Mole Rats. And like for Hadfield, the beauty of the natural world frequently blurs into poetry: Yeats’ “Out of the murderous innocence of the sea…” reminds Dawkins of sharks.
While I knew that human ancestors were very different, having this book and this line of thinking on my mind for a while led to another sense of perspective. I started seeing the long, unbroken line from me, to mom, to a creature resembling a fish 185 million generations ago.
I know that my ancestors, far enough back, were ocean-bound. Once again, temporary, and small.
“When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”
I happen to feel small.
But let me be clear: It’s in a good way. It does nothing to diminish my sense of self, or my perception of my, say, more recent ancestors. Or, the importance of living life well and doing good things. It does make me think hard about what my life means to other people, and about what is truly important.
But that’s not the point, not today. It’s that the world, its inhabitants, and the universe are eyepopping, and the impact on me is frequently like that of great art. I can see why people like those I’ve mentioned are so full of wonder, and why they frequently turn to poetic language to describe what they are seeing.
One final note: If you start clicking through some of the above scientists’ websites, many (if not all) are atheists. I’m not trying to make a point.
Except for that the universe that we live in is absolutely f**king amazing.
Bonus: Artists, loving science.
Rudyard Kipling’s How The Beetle Got Its Handles