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Personal Reflections on the Inscrutable Exhortations of the Soul

by Shane L. Larson

I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes.  The adventures of the boy who never lost his imagination, and the gentle practical wisdom of tigers appealed deeply to me.  It still resonates with me today.  I have an enlargement of a single strip framed and hanging over my desk.  Hobbes strolls up to Calvin who is cavorting on the side of a stream and says, “Whatcha doin’?”  “Looking for frogs,” replies Calvin.  “How come?” asks Hobbes, getting down and starting the search himself.  Calvin proclaims, “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.”  “Ah. But of course,” says Hobbes.

The inscrutable exhortations of the soul are those things that give unreasoned joy to our meager existence, giving our lives depth and dimension.  To those of us lucky enough to have listened to our elementary school teachers who told us we could be anything we wanted, lucky enough to have ignored the naysayers and sidestepped around the cynics and obstructionists, we have found careers that allow us to follow the pathways of our deepest desires.

People often ask me why I’m a physicist, and I almost always reply, “Because it was the easiest science I could do.”  They usually look at me like I’ve grown a second head.  But it is true.  Have you ever sat through a biology class?  There are estimated to plausibly be 100 million different species of life on our planet, and we don’t even know most of them –– millions of insects and bacteria have yet to be discovered, classified and understood.  And on top of that there is cellular structure and genetics and anaerobic glycolysis.  It hurts my head to think about how hard biology is.  What about chemistry?  Chemistry sounds simple because there are only 92 naturally occurring elements.  But everything we know of –– Chiclets, Yugos, platypuses, diamond engagement rings, boogers, Flintstones vitamins, Chicago Cubs fans, and even mysterious looking cafeteria food –– everything is made from those elements.  There are so many uncountable ways to put those 92 elements together that it hurts my head.

Physics, by contrast, is easy.  All of the most basic laws of physics are encompassed by fewer than 20 mathematical equations, simple enough that I can write them all on a bar napkin.  Don’t be fooled by fat physics books.  That bar napkin and that tiny set of physical laws describe everything that we see happening in the world around us, from the scale of the atom to the scales of galaxies.  That range of applicability is mind-boggling, but not as mind-boggling as the fact that we know what they are!  This is the appeal of physics to me; the inscrutable exhortations of my soul have always reflected a deep desire to know things, to find answers to whatever interesting question flits through my brain.

My life is not my career as a physicist, but those deepest desires of my soul are in the driver’s seat.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to feel wonder.  I am an amateur astronomer, and spend many long nights in my backyard, plying the skies with a telescope of my own craftsmanship.  My eyes have soaked up the light that left a distant galaxy 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth.  Nothing impresses on me the smallness of our world and the vastness of the Cosmos more than this.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to know more.  Have you ever noticed after a long summer of driving how the bugs have caked on your car’s antenna?  Me too –– an antenna is pretty small and narrow, so there must be a lot of bugs.  How many?  I taped a swatch of bug paper to the front of my car to find out, and now I can tell you how many bugs you will encounter driving across the state of Nebraska.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to experience the unfathomable.  One of the sad realities of my life is that I will never be able to dive to the bottom of the Laurentian Abyss, nor travel to the edge of space –– both experiences well beyond the Earthbound expectations of our deep brains that have been bred into our psyches since our ancestors descended from the trees to walk the savannah.  But I have constructed emissaries to make the journeys for me.  I have sent a small robot beneath the waves, and I have on many occasions sent cameras and videocams aloft to capture the bright curved limb of Earth against the blackness of space.  It’s as close as I am likely to get to those realms where I cannot traverse.

None of these outcomes is going to appear in a scientific journal, nor win me a Nobel Prize.  They are simple reflections of my own personal joy in doing them, the way knitting extravagant sweaters is for my grandmother-in-law.  Science is a tool for me to explore the world around me.  It is a pathway to enlightenment, as much as literature and philosophy and music can be.  Can science answer all the inscrutable questions of the Cosmos?  Probably not. I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why I love kale and white bean soup but hate black licorice (contrary to most of the rest of the human race).  I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why I get so much contentment walking to school with my daughter while she prattles on incessantly about the important things to 5 year olds.  I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why Bill Bryson makes me laugh out loud (I’m forbidden from reading his books on airplanes).  But science, and the process of science, can help me nurture a grove of corn from seedlings in June to cobs on my barbeque plate in September.  Science can help me understand why the drops on that leaky faucet are always the same size.  Science can help me use a laser pointer to figure out the spacing of DVD tracks on days when Wikipedia is blacked out.  Science can help me understand how to make a paper airplane fly farther than anyone else’s (winning me the adulations of nerds everywhere).

So often science gets the bad rap of removing the mystery and passion from life.  I think nothing could be further from the truth.  Science is an aperture to reveal the wonder and mystery of the world –– it only strengthens the depth of our understanding of the intimate connection we have with the Cosmos.  I love the appearance of rainbows after the rage of a thunderstorm, and am enthralled by the majesty and color –– I take my cell phone and shoot panoramas that I painstakingly try to stitch together into giant mosaics in a vain attempt to capture the beauty that my eye saw.  But I also understand the basic physics of how small droplets of water take a seemingly innocuous parcel of light from the distant Sun and explode it into one of the most dazzling displays in the natural world.  Far from keeping me from appreciating the rainbow, it deepens my sense of amazement that the Universe can create such wonders from such simple laws of Nature.

This is the nature of science –– to illuminate the mystery and wonder of the world around us.  By this definition, I think all of us have science in the driver’s seat of our souls when we are young; I only have to watch my 5-year-old daughter to convince myself of this.  By the time we are old enough to have mortgages and SUVs, other passions have asserted themselves.  But for a lucky few of us, myself included, our spirits have held onto a vision of the world reflected so eloquently in the stories of a boy and his tiger.  Have you ever wondered how wasps survive through a northern Utah winter?  Me too; I think there is a nest outside in my porch light.  I’m off to obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.