After watching this week’s episode of Darkwood Brew I realized that my head can only hold so much information and still feel the magnitude of it all. Eric spoke of demonstrating how many stars exist by using containers of Morton’s salt. If each grain represents a star, seeing just one container poured out is impressive but that is just a part of the picture. He used to pour out one container and call on the audience to imagine 76,000 containers emptied to grasp the whole. After tonight’s episode he realized that new findings mean that he needs to double that number. But so what if that number needs to be tripled or even raised to a power of ten, if the mind is numbed by the magnitude then it misses the mark of inspiring awe. Until something hits us in a way that we can wrap our mind around it we lack that moment of spiritual spark that scientific inquiry can bring. Carl Sagan summed it up when he said “understanding is a form of ecstasy.”
If this episode whetted your appetite for more mining of the mind-expanding findings of astrophysics, I commend to you the current episode of On Being. Krista Tippet interviews Natalie Batalha, a scientist working on the NASA Kepler Project, searching for earth-like planets, which is what Grace and Eric discussed this week. Batalha tells how she finds wonder in this exploration. She marvels that each of us is literally the universe since we are made up of the same stuff as everything else. In expanding our understanding of the universe we are expanding our senses and in the connectedness of all things we have the potential of extending love out into the universe. Yes, those are the thoughts of a scientist! Or consider this other thought from Carl Sagan, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Another takeaway from the episode that is a takeoff point for me is the whole concept of citizen science. The Kepler Project offers the opportunity for the average person to participate in scientific discovery through Zooniverse.org. Eric said he found a giant giraffe not a planet, perhaps you can do better. I’ve done a good deal of citizen science in the field of ornithology. I’ve participated in many Christmas Bird Counts, censused a number of blocks for the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, and done a number of marsh surveys and various reporting of rare bird species. If bird watching happens to be your thing, at minimum you should be reporting your sightings to eBird to contribute to the ever expanding database of avian records that gets used regularly by professional ornithologists. Birds are one of those “don’t get me started” topics, definitely a real passion…OK, an addiction. Of course it isn’t simply the science of observing and studying birds that gets my juices flowing, it is the wonder and beauty and diversity of these winged marvels that draws me (and thousands of others). The more I learn about these creatures, particularly about their amazing survival skills, the more I realize that, like them, I have a particular, peculiar place in creation. So whether it is looking into the nearly space of the sky or the deep space of the universe, there is an inescapable lesson of connectedness. Sadly, it is a lesson not well known and too rarely learned. Observing the natural world helps me to remain humble realizing how much better the creatures around me seem to fit their habitats and the exceptional skills they have for survival. Somewhere along the way in our cultural evolution we seem to have lost touch with those basic skills, exchanging them for collective assistance. As good as it is to care for each other, too much of the developed world has in the process lost touch with our connection with creation and thus our duty to care for it.
I came across a song by the band Wookiefoot that captures my concerns and hopes wonderfully. It combines thoughts of connection with this world with thoughts of foreign worlds. It encourages rethinking “earthling” as a term applying not just to all of humanity, but all creatures on earth. And the alien nation to be resisted is alienation. Check out these lyrics:
An alien is just a human being alienated
With their hearts and mind separated
And their nature devastated
Coming with a planetary invasion
Earthlings rise against the alien-nation
Everybody that you see is an Earthling
And all the animals and trees are Earthlings
And even though that we know that they can’t speak
Make a choice for the voiceless, everybody sing…
Great advice, let’s find a place of connection and path to awe and wonder and sing! You can sing along with Wookiefoot here: http://music.wookiefoot.com/track/earthling
Great Blog! You quote Natalie Batalha, and then say – Yes, those are the thoughts of a scientist! One of my favorite quotes is from Michael Faraday – “Nothing is too wonderful to be true!” Faraday was a leading 19th century physicist, one of the scientists Einstein most admired. So many people are surprised to hear that a physicist would say that, but it is even engraved over the entrance of the Physics Building at UCLA.
Great song! Thanks for intro’ing me to Wookie Foot!