Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mystery and Awe

If you give me the right man in any field, I can talk to him, I know what the condition is. That he did whatever he did as far as he can go. That he studied every aspect of it as far as he could stretch himself. He is not a dilettante in any way. And so he talked deep, as far as he can go, and therefore he is up against mysteries all the way around the edge, and awe. And we can talk about mystery and awe. That is what we have in common.
That's Richard Feynman, in a Yorkshire Television interview in 1973. It has struck me recently that this is the kind of thing that religion is supposed to have over science, and I just don't believe that for a second. From that same interview:
It is very much more exciting to discover that we are on a ball, half of us sticking upside down and spinning around in space. It is a mysterious force which holds us on. It's going around a great big glob of gas that is fed by a fire that is completely different from any fire that we can make (but now we can make that fire – nuclear fire.)
That is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales that other people used to make up about the universe – that we were living on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. So what's the pleasure in physics for me is that it is revealed that the truth is so remarkable, so amazing, and I have this disease – like many other people who have studied far enough to begin to understand a little of how things work. They are fascinated by it, and this fascination drives them on to such an extent that they have been able to convince governments and so on to keep supporting them in this investigation.
Of course, another of my heroes is Carl Sagan.  The idea of approaching mystery and awe, the balance between the two key elements of skepticism and wonder, were a constant theme in his work.  I of course recommend Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, but he reached perhaps his greatest crescendo on this topic in Pale Blue Dot.  
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. 
Indeed, this seems to be a common theme among scientists.  Here's Lawrence Krauss:
The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today. 
I could go on for days, finding expression after expression of just how amazing and wonderful the universe is, how much finding things out brings us right up against the mystery and awe that mark the best in "spirituality".  The Symphony of Science series presents this wonderfully, and the latest video speaks to just the most astounding thing about our origins that I think it's possible to say: We Are Stardust.
I think we can all agree on the importance of mystery and awe. No matter what your religious beliefs, odds are that such things are an inextricable part of them. But why, if it's eminently possible to achieve such things through contemplation of the universe through the methods of science, should we cling to religion so fiercely? I simply don't understand it. The discoveries made in the search for our actual circumstances are readily available to the general public, and I also don't buy the idea that some people "just can't live without religion", that they're somehow not able to "get" science; I have more respect for their intellect than that. Isn't it time we just let go?

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