by Shane L. Larson
I have wide ranging and eclectic musical tastes. My iPod spins up Chris LeDoux, AC/DC, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dead Milkmen, Lisa Hannigan, The Clumsy Lovers, Usher, and Mojo Nixon in rapid succession and with reckless abandon. Every now and then, there are some gravitational waveform sounds that spin through too (hear gravitational wave sounds at LIGO; be sure to click “Listen” on each of the pages!). Among my favorite tunes is a song by the indefatigable Faith Hill, called “The Secret of Life.” The point in the song is that there is no secret to life, but my favorite part of the song is that “the secret to life is in Sam’s martinis.” I’ve never had one of Sam’s martinis; for that matter, I don’t even know who Sam the Bartender is. But I can imagine the diaphanous joy that Sam’s special flair with the gin and twist must bring to one’s palette. Mostly because I too have had special moments where the simple sensory interface of taste has produced a moment of pure joy (you should try my wife’s Kale Soup).
As a scientist, I am often prone to holding the viewpoint that there is no question that science cannot answer — it is an awesome tool for exploring our connection to the Cosmos. And so, with the dulcet tones of Faith Hill ringing in my ears, I find myself pondering: what is the secret of life? Can science tell us what the secret of life is? This is a brilliant question that a large fraction of the human race would like to know the answer to! But it illustrates one of the most important points about science: you have to know what the question means! What are you really interested in when you ask a question, and does that question reflect that innermost desire of your curiosity?
“What is the secret of life?” could mean many things. Maybe the question is about the origin of life. Imagine a collection of atoms, derived from the primordial hydrogen that formed in the Big Bang, reprocessed through the ravenous nuclear appetite of stars. At what moment do those atoms come together and suddenly become aware? This is a question that science does not have an answer for, but there are tantalizing suggestions from a famous investigation called the Miller-Urey Experiment, conducted at the University of Chicago in 1952. The gases of the primordial Earth’s atmosphere were sparked with lightning, just as in the early days of of our planet. The result is the easy production of amino acids, the building blocks of all the proteins that make up all the living organisms on Earth. It is not life itself, but it is the stuff of life.
“What is the secret of life?” could be asking how is it that life sustains itself. This was once a great mystery, but it is a secret science has wrested from Nature. In the fine details of different organisms, the exact process is different, but the mechanism and outcome is the same. Large complex molecules (like sugars and carbohydrates) are broken by chemical processes in your body. The breaking of chemical bonds, breaking big molecules down into smaller molecules, releases energy. This entire process is generically called cellular respiration, and it is what makes living organisms go.
More often than not when people ask “what is the secret of life?” they are asking “what can I do to be happy?” Interestingly, this is almost a question that science can answer. To put a finer point on the question, one could ask “under what conditions do people think they are happy?” Dan Gilbert and his colleagues at Harvard have studied this extensively (watch his great TED lecture on this), and the answer seems to be that your brain is a fantastic machine for synthesizing happiness. Take his advice seriously: do not ever become a drummer for the Beatles.
As a university professor, I often suggest to my students that the secret to life is to do what makes you happy. They sit down in my office, earnest in their uncertainty, desperate to please their parents, desperate to do well in school, and desperate to make a good life for themselves. I tell them, “Do what makes you happy.” Whatever you decide to do, pick something that makes you want to jump out of bed and live your life every day. Don’t just have a job to go to work. You don’t want to be Elton John’s Rocketman, where all that science you don’t understand is just your job five days a week. Have a job that gives you joy, so when you close your eyes at night you don’t dwell on being downtrodden. When you decide how to live your life, you have to decide what the secret of life for you will be. And it will be different for everyone!
What is the secret of life for me? I wake up every morning wanting to be stupefied with awe. That’s why I’m a scientist, because every day the Cosmos stupefies me with awe — awe at its simplicity, at its mystery, and its unending delight in being knowable and unknowable all wrapped up in one package. My days are filled with playful riddling, noodling my brain around puzzlers that Nature has happily created and left for some random atoms called humans to figure out. Our playful game of confusion, discovery, elation, and renewed mystery fires me every day.
Why do I look through telescopes? Why do I keep building bigger telescopes? Because I am stupefied with awe every time I gaze deep into the sky at the faint glow of the Veil Nebula. Stupefied with awe at the fact that I am staring at the echo of a star’s death, light that began its journey toward Earth more than 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of recorded human history.
The power of the Cosmos to move people in this way is nothing new. There are likely thousands of stories about people moved in their cores by deep contemplations of the Universe and our place in it. Let me tell you one story, about a retired Sears Roebuck executive-turned-philanthropist named Max Adler. When he retired, Adler had heard of a new device, built by the Carl Zeiss Company in Germany, that could project a realization of the night sky on the interior of a darkened dome. In 1928, he made a trip to see the device in action. The visions of the night sky beguiled Adler, and he made a dedicated effort to construct the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. In May of 1930, the Adler Planetarium was opened in Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan. For Adler, the planetarium was a symbol to remind us that we are all part of one Universe. He said, “In our reflections, we dwell too little upon the concept that the world and all human endeavor within it are governed by established order and too infrequently upon the truth that under the heavens everything is interrelated, even as each of us to the other.” A different, and profound secret of life — we are the Cosmos, and the Cosmos is us.The Adler Planetarium is one of the oldest and most venerable institutions for connecting people to the Cosmos in the world. Every day, you can walk its halls and be stupefied with awe. This week, in Chicago, they named a new president for the Adler, the ninth in an unbroken chain of leaders dedicated to beguiling people with the wonders of the Cosmos. I’ve had the chance to talk with the new President, Michelle Beauvais Larson (President’s Page at the Adler), and must say I am beguiled by her optimism and passion for the future. For her, the secret of life, her passion, is to do great good, and the way to do great good is to encourage people to think big thoughts. “The future of society lies in the education and imagination of its people,” she says. Astronomy is a vehicle to inspire deep thinking; it is difficult to look deep into the Cosmos and not be struck by a sense of looking into the grandest of secrets.
So rejoice in the simple pleasure of seeing the world around you — sunlight sparkling through the drip of rain off your eaves, a cat’s instinctive passion for slaughtering shoelaces, the disconcerting mystery of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a child’s innocent delight with coins spinning on the floor, the full Moon rising over the city as everyone bustles home to their lives and families. The secret of life is that we are self-aware and curious. As collections of sentient atoms, as the Cosmos made self-aware, we can take in the world around us and revel in the simple joy of awareness and discovery, but indulge our passions and strive to comprehend. It happens to every one of us; if it didn’t there wouldn’t be libraries, or Wikipedia, or museums and planetaria, or magazines devoted to cross stitching, or kits for building your own guitar, or telescopes you can own and set up in your own backyard. We are wired to see and think about and rejoice in life.
In the end, I think the secret of life is not “nothing at all,” as Faith Hill concludes. The secret of life is everything around you. Close your laptop, turn up the music, look around, and indulge yourself.