by Shane L. Larson
These are the days of miracle and wonder…Paul Simon was wirelessly streaming onto the stereo in my living room from my computer. As I stepped out on my back porch, I used my iPhone to remotely pump the volume up — “Boy in the Bubble” is one of my favorite songs, and I didn’t want to miss any of it! A hop and a skip down the steps into the yard. A casual glance to the west treated me to one of the most awesome spectacles in Nature — a springtime sunset over the Wellsville Mountains, ten miles to my west. The colors and hues were brilliant shades of red, orange and pink, painting the roiling clouds of spring and kissing the snow-capped summits in a display of color that takes your breath away.
I just about killed myself sprinting around to the front of the house, fumbling to get my iPhone out of my pocket, racing to the front porch to get a clear and unobstructed picture before the spectacle faded to the dulcet greys of plain, ordinary clouds. Sunsets do that to you. Most of us learn early on that sunsets are quick and fluid, every thirty seconds different than the last thirty seconds; sunsets drape the world in color for a few evanescent moments, and then in a heartbeat are gone. Sunsets triumphantly return, but never repeat in quite the same way ever again; each performance is a chromic concerto of singular and unique genius.
As I walked back around the house into the sphere of music I had left behind, I looked over the picture I had captured. It wasn’t exactly what I remembered from a few seconds before. On the one hand, it was a miracle that I had any approximate record of the event at all. My phone, and the camera technology it carries, would have astonished my grandmother who showed me so much of her life in black and white photographs but retold the stories in the vivid color of memory only she could see. Modern digital photographs are a special kind of magic, a consequence of humanity’s apparently unique ability to create technology; this device is truly a product of the days of miracle and wonder. But on the other hand, the image is not exactly what I remember. In many ways it is muted and less vibrant, only a stilted effigy of what I remembered. I show the image to friends and family, and they are all suitably amazed. Not, I think, because they are looking closely at the image, but because we each reach back into our memories, and paint on top of the image our rememberances of beauty and awe. We have all of us experienced the miracle and wonder of the sunset, and it is that collective memory that makes the sunset great; it is that collective memory that binds us together; is is that binding that makes us great.
The ability to capture and share an image of the sunset is only the tip of the iceberg in these days of miracle and wonder. Technology is only one facet of the infinite power bound up in the collective intellect of our species; it is a facet cut by our curiosity to explore the world around us. The avatar of our curiosity is science, and it has many agents. Some of those agents have not seen even ten revolutions of Earth around the Sun, but they are crawling around suburban backyards and playgrounds all across this magnificent planet, diligently discovering centipedes and worms, discovering the inexorable pull of the Earth’s gravity in one direction, and experimenting in pools with fluid dynamics in ways that you and I quite frankly have forgotten. Some of those agents are your neighbors, who quietly set up small telescopes at night and capture light from distant galaxies that started the long journey to Earth when dinosaurs still ruled this world. Some of those agents are people engaged in taking a census of life on this planet, both on land and in the sea, and discovering that we really don’t have a clue about all the lifeforms we share this planet with (like this chameleon or this creature of the deep, the enigmatic deep-sea jellyfish). Some of those agents are engaged in transforming microscopic machines into drug delivery systems that can be injected into your bloodstream and sent on search and destroy missions for cancer cells. Some of those agents work at your local university, studying how clouds form or how lightning is created, information someday destined to help us understand and predict the emergence of violent storms. And the list goes on.
The subtle truth of this is that these are the days of miracle and wonder. These are the days when we are discovering the secrets of Nature by asking astonishing questions and then, sometimes, finding out the answers. What is the Cosmos composed of? Apparently it is 96% of something; we don’t know what the something is (though we call it “dark matter” and “dark energy”, just so we know how to talk about our ignorance with each other). Why do humans age when an oak tree does not? We don’t know, but it has something to do with a part of your chromosome sequence known as telomeres, discovered about 30 years ago. The telomeres are repeating sequences near the end of your chromosomes that act as a buffer during replication, but get shorter and shorter as we age. What is intelligence, and can machines think like us? We don’t know, but some of them (like AARON) can do amazingly human things.
These are times of wonder, when astonishing things are being discovered, when awesome technologies are being created, and when important and awe-inspiring questions are being asked. Now is the time when we as a species became cognizant and aware enough not only to ask incredible questions, but to be aware that we can answer such questions.
It would be a shame to live our lives in a stupor. Of course we are all aware of how science and technology shapes our lives — we have digital devices in our pockets linking us to the rest of humanity around the globe; we have awesome technology that allows us all to experience exotic and fresh food whose origins are far from our homes; we are all aware of the power of medicine to lower our blood pressure and save our mothers, wives, and daughters from breast cancer; and most of us have tried to capture a spectacular sunset with our cameras. But we take this for granted and sometimes forget to take the time to reflect on the awesome power of the intellect of the human species. It is remarkable and uplifting that we have created a tool– science — that lets us not only improve our lives, but to approach the grandest of mysteries in the Universe and bask in the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the grand Cosmic design.
Einstein once remarked that the most astonishing thing about the Universe was that it is knowable, that it can be understood. That simple fact never ceases to amaze us, as Paul Simon so eloquently reminds us: these are the days of miracle and wonder.
Go out and enjoy the sunset, and enjoy every thirty seconds when it is different, and remember the moment is fleeting, evanescent. Go to the Large Hadron Collider website and read the latest news about the search for the Higgs boson, and feel the wonder. Twenty years from now, you’ll look back on this day and you remember that today was before, before we knew. You’ll tell your kids about it, the way my parents tell me about the moon landing and the way my grandparents tell me about the news of the atomic bomb. Your kids will shake their heads and smile, because they won’t be able to understand what it was like before. But you will remember. We forget that those memories, and shared memories in particular, are important because they remind us of what we as a species are capable of.
Go read some science news in the paper (if you can find any!) or on the web (much easier, so try these: Science Now, Science Daily, and Science News). Enjoy the moment, the way you enjoy the sunset. These days of miracle and wonder are precious. Cherish them now, and later, when they are only memories.