Tag Archives: wonder

#AdlerWall 00: Engage!

by Shane L. Larson

One of the sad truths of the modern world is that many of us have unpleasant memories of school. Indeed, students of all ages, from elementary school through college, often regard the entire educational endeavour as a long and arduous battle, and have no greater ambition other than to survive.

Sometimes, we don't let people learn by preventing them from responding to their passions [Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson]

Sometimes, we don’t let people learn because we don’t let them build on their passions [Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson]

But there is another great truth in the modern world: we live in an age where your education need not be confined to a small room with rows of desks. Virtually everything our species knows about the Cosmos has been written down, and is available to the masses. Long after most of us have walked out of the murky hallways of our schools, almost all of us rediscover the joy of engaging with the world. We rediscover what learning is about.

Some of us cook. Some of us dance. Some of us paint or craft. Some of us write apps. Some of us write fiction. Some of us read about history. Some of us learn guitar. Some of us garden. Some of us birdwatch or stargaze.


We are engaged and learning about the world through all the myriad of things that we “do for fun.” We are learning for learning’s sake because it tickles some long forgotten corner of our minds, and brings out a bit of the wonder and joy we experienced when everything in the world was new and every adventure was an experiment.

Somewhere in the process of “growing up,” that simple wonder and joy gets weeded out of our souls, ostensibly to make room for “being responsible” and “acting grown up.” But our brains do not forget — that’s why people learn to love learning again on their own terms.

Can you learn to re-engage with the world, to reclaim the carefree sense of exploration you had as a child?

Of course you can! But like all skills in life, it takes practice. You have to break down your old habits, and connect new neural pathways in your brain so your natural behaviour tends toward being an explorer, not a Walter Mitty.

At the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, there are two giant explorer walls. Each one is covered with ideas, suggestions, and encouragement to go out and engage with the world. People I talk with often say, “These will be great to do with the kids.”

The "Explorer Walls" at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, located in our stairwells. [click to enlarge!]

The “Explorer Walls” at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, located in our stairwells. [click to enlarge!]

Of course your kids will love doing this stuff. But these activities are also for you. Simple activities like these awaken corners of your mind that you may have forgotten, or that you don’t exercise nearly enough. Not all of the activities will be interesting to everyone; perhaps none of them seem interesting to you. They are provided as guides, as impetus to look at the world somewhat differently than you do every day.

I’m a teacher by trade, so I often think about what it takes to get people to do something new. I just imagine the little secret voices in your mind that are throwing rocks of doubt that keep you from learning. There are insipid little notes tied to all of those rocks.

This will be scary. This is intimidating. It might be boring. What if I do something wrong? I don’t know how to do this!

My job is to take all of those little notes and burn them. My job is to show you the path, provide an example or two, and give you a little nudge out the door.

The Cosmos is all around you, all the time, constantly clamoring for your attention, if you can train yourself to notice! It's funny, it's awe inspiring, it's mystifying.

The Cosmos is all around you, all the time, constantly clamoring for your attention, if you can train yourself to notice! It’s funny, it’s awe inspiring, it’s mystifying.

This is as easy as walking out your front door. The world is there, right out there, within reach. You don’t need a big trip to find your place in the Cosmos. It’s easy to start, and you can’t screw it up! Voltaire’s aphorism applies here: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Exploration is dirty, not perfect. Let it happen, and the Cosmos will let you peek behind the curtain of wonders.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to follow my very advice to you. I’ll embark on a journey to do everything (and maybe then some) on the Adler walls. I’ll head out into the world, I’ll peer into my life and surroundings, I’ll wander and wonder. I’ll document what I find and discover right here, and as I often do, I’ll ramble on about what it means about us and our place in the Cosmos. So come… take a walk with me.


PS: As you follow along, post some pictures or stories for your friends and family to see on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  When you do, include the hashtag #AdlerWall, so we can share in the joy of discovery with you.

PPS: One of the things on the #AdlerWall says “Take a photo everyday.” This hardly seems necessary that this should be a thing in the modern age, where smartphones are taking pictures of every latte and kitten on the planet. Never-the-less, let me exhort you to take a picture every day, but make it of something new — something you’ve never noticed before, something you don’t understand, a single moment of majesty and grandeur in life or nature. Whatever it is, make it a new one for you. I’ll do the same, and we’ll come back to this at the end.


This is the introductory post in an entire series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series of posts is as follows:


A Personal Voyage

by Shane L. Larson

Today would have been Carl Sagan’s 78th birthday.  This December, it will have been sixteen years since he left us, returned to the star stuff from whence we all came. I was first exposed to Carl in the fall of 1980, a few weeks after my eleventh birthday.  Cosmos was broadcast for the first time that fall, and my parents somehow had known to sit me down in front of our boxy television set and let me be enchanted by Carl’s poetic rapture with everything that is, or was, or ever will be.

Cosmos was not full of the dry, pithy rigidity most of us remember from our science classes.  Carl was a master of exposing the magic of science, seemingly unafraid of voicing the inner wonder that the beauty of the natural world inspires, carrying us along on his personal voyage with flair and poetic majesty.  Many of my scientific colleagues find the lyrical narrative of Cosmos annoying and disingenuous.  They feel like it belittles science, taking away some of the deep meaning of our quest to understand the secrets of Nature. But for myself, I find it exhilarating and uplifting; to this day it has the power to enchant me.  Language, like science, is one portal into the human spirit, and it is the only way by which we can communicate the wonder and mystery of the Cosmos from one person to another. It’s not grandiloquence; it’s a passionate attempt to express the deep inspiration and magic of Nature that moves us as scientists.

If there is any essential consequence of my exposure to Cosmos, it is that Carl’s voice is the voice that rings in my head when I read almost anything about science. When my profession has been boxing me soundly about the ears, or I get depressed about the state of science literacy in modern America, or I need some simple soul massage, I always turn to Cosmos.  It lifts my spirits, it reminds me of why I do this — why I do science — in the first place. In many ways, Cosmos is why I write for this blog every month.  I aspire (perhaps foolishly) to provide a mechanism for someone else to discover science, the way Carl helped me discover science.

So, in honor of Carl’s birthday, let me tell you about one small weave from the tapestry science. This is a story that evokes in me a little bit of wonder about the natural world, and astonishes me with the ingenuity of our curious young species. This is a story about how we have come to understand the bejeweled structure of matter.

One of the great wonders of modern science is that we have extended our ability to see far beyond the reach of the senses that Nature provided us through a billion years of biological evolution.  There are many places our curiosity leads us to where our biological sensors are simply not designed to work. This is the case when we peer deep into the vast reaches of the Cosmos, and it is the also the case when we peer inward to see the microstructure of the world.  In both cases, we have invented technology that allows us to see.

Suppose we look inward.  What is the matter around us made from?  How is it put together?  Are the micro properties of matter connected to the things that I can see on the scale of fuzzy bunny slippers and wine glasses and fly swatters?  Most of us at some point early in our education learn that the world is made of atoms, and learn to draw the classic picture of atoms as a dot (the nucleus) ringed by a set of ellipses threading other beady little dots (electrons).  Another axiom that we learn is that the stuff of the world is actually made from connected groups of atoms, called molecules.  How do we know that?

Crystals of table salt showing cubic symmetry (left), and snowflakes showing hexagonal symmetry (right).

That matter has underlying structure seems almost obvious when you look at some objects.  A single crystal of table salt has spectacular cubelike symmetry; snowflakes unerringly show hexagonal symmetry.  Many states of matter form themselves into regular structures that physicists call a lattice.  The exact shape and layout of the lattice depends on the properties of the atoms that make it up.  Salt crystals are made up of an alternating array of sodium and chlorine atoms.  Atoms use electrons as hooks to link themselves together (something our friends in chemistry call “valence bonds”), and where those hooks are in the atom affects the shape of molecules that include the atom.  Sodium and chlorine can link together in straight lines, and so naturally settle into a rectangular form when piled together.

A model of the lattice of table salt (sodium chloride, left) and of a water molecule (right).

By contrast, snowflakes are made from water molecules, which are comprised of a single oxygen atom bound to two hydrogen atoms.  The structure of the hooks on the oxygen atom keeps the hydrogen atoms from lying in a straight line, so the molecule ends up being bent at an angle of 120 degrees. That angle is one of the symmetry angles of a hexagon!  When you lay water molecules down together to form the ice crystal of the snowflake, they naturally take on the famous hexagonal symmetry because that is the easiest way to lay side by side.

It sounds plausible and reasonable, but how do we know this? Atoms and molecules are far too small to be seen by human eyes, but being clever students of the natural world we have learned how to use other physical phenomena as probes that are capable of teasing out mysteries that our eye cannot discern. One such phenomenon that can be exploited for this purpose is light, particularly light that we cannot see with our eyes, like x-ray light.  X-ray light is very energetic, and it can fit into very small areas (like the spaces between atoms!).  If one illuminates a material, like a salt crystal, with x-ray light, the light worms its way into the spaces between the atoms then bounces out of the crystal where it combines with x-ray light that bounces out of other parts of the crystal.  The result is a dizzying array of bright dots whose spacing and geometry are a representation of the structure of the crystal.

A single salt crystal (left) will, when illuminated with xrays, create a geometric pattern representative of the underlying crystal structure.

You can do a similar experiment at home with a CD and a laser pointer. If you shine the laser pointer on the surface of a CD and look at the reflection on the wall, you’ll see an array of dots — the spacing of those dots depends on the structure of the tracks on the CD that encode the music you listen too.

You can probe the structure of a CD using a laser pointer at home. The pattern is called a diffraction pattern.

Perhaps the most famous and inspiring picture taken of matter by this technique is an image known as “Photo 51.” It was taken in 1952 by a young scientist named Rosalind Franklin and her research student, Raymond Gosling. It is the first picture ever taken of DNA, the master molecule of all life on Earth.  Before Franklin’s work, the double helix structure of DNA was unknown.

Rosalind Franklin (left) and the famous Photo 51 (right) that revealed the double helix structure of DNA.

The structure of DNA had been hinted at, but the geometry and shape were confused.  Franklin had been the first person to understand that the nucleotide bases pointed inward from the double helix spine, a fact that she had personally relayed to Francis Crick and James Watson.  Unknown to Franklin, Photo 51 had been shown to Watson, a turning point event that helped inform Watson and Crick’s  ultimate deduction of the double helix structure.  Franklin and Gosling’s paper on the structure of DNA was one of three that were published simultaneously in the journal Nature in 1953.  Franklin went on to continue her work in imaging, notably working on the characterization of the polio virus.  Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer in 1958, at the age of 37.  Watson and Crick, together with their colleague Maurice Wilkinson, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Franklin’s story, like so many tales of scientific discovery, is now lost to us, taken when she died. We can’t know the wonder she and Gosling must have felt when the shadows of the double helix first emerged from their film, but we can imagine.  It is that imagining that is important now, long after the glow of discovery has faded. Imagining the simple joy of discovery after a long personal voyage; imagining those few moments when you and no one else knows some deep secret wrested from Nature.  Those are altogether human moments, when our scientific minds are flooded with endorphins and overwhelmed by the joy of discovery.  Those are the moments that we live for.

Fleeting Moments in the Days of Miracle and Wonder

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.

Wellsvilles Sunset

Spring sunset over the Wellsville Mountains, Cache Valley, Utah.

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.

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.