MYSTERY, AWE AND WONDER IN SCIENCE

 

ARMSTRONG, NEIL

 

  Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.  Quoted in The Magnificent Desolation, IMAX.

 

BOHR, NIELS

 

  Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.  Quoted by N.C. Panda, Maya in Physics, p. 73.

 

 

CHARGAFF, ERWIN

 

  It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly.  If [the scientist] has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist.  “Engineering a Molecular Nightmare.” Nature 327 (May 21, 1987), p. 199.

 

 

de DUVE, CHRISTIAN

 

  The advances of biology have revolutionized the view we have of ourselves and our significance in the world.  Many myths have had to be abandoned.  But mystery remains, more profound and more beautiful than ever before, a reality almost inaccessible to our feeble human means. Many Worlds: Life’s Lessons

 

 

EINSTEIN, ALBERT

 

  The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.  It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science ... He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind.  The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as feeble reflection, this is religiousness.  In this sense I am religious.  To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.  "My Credo" 1932.

 

 

  The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.  Quoted by Michael Reagan in The Hand of God, p. 92.

 

 

  The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe.  We are like a little child entering a huge library.  The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues.  The child knows that someone must have written these books.  It does not know who or how.  It does not understand the languages in which they are written.  But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books.....a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. ibid. p. 124.

 

 

EISELEY, LOREN

 

  I have come to suspect that this long descent down the ladder of life, beautiful and instructive though it may be, will not lead us to the final secret.  In fact I have ceased to believe in the final brew or the ultimate chemical.  There is, I know, a kind of heresy, a shocking negation of confidence in blue-steel microtomes and men in white in making such a statement.  I would not be understood to speak ill of scientific effort, for in simple truth I would not be alive today except for the microscopes and the blue steel.  It is only that somewhere among the seeds and beetle shells and abandoned grasshopper legs I find something that is not accounted for very clearly in the dissections to the ultimate virus or crystal or protein particle.  Even if the secret is sontained in these things, in other words, I do not think it will yield to the kind of analysis our science is capable of making.  The Immense Journey, p. 202.

 

  I do not think, if someone finally twists the key successfully in the tiniest and most humble house of life, that many of these questions will be answered, or that the dark forces which create lights in the deep sea and living batteries in the waters of the tropical swamps, or the dread cycles of parasites, or the most noble workings of the human brain, will be much if at all revealed.  Rather, I would say that if “dead” matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, “but one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind.”  ibid., p. 210.

 

  I have come to believe that in the world there is nothing to explain the world.  Nothing in nature can separate the existent from the potential.  All the Strange Hours, p. 238.

 

  There is a persistent adage in science that one must not multiply hypotheses unduly and without reason.  I grant its usefulness.  Nevertheless it can sometimes lead to the assumption that science finds nature simple and that someday all will be known.  Vain delusion, incredible folly, I thought, brooding there at sundown over the sleeping surgeons known as Sphex.  We, our species, will be gone before we know.  ibid., p. 245.

 

  All this is part of the human inheritance, the wonder of the world, and nowhere does that wonder press closer to us than in the guise of animals which, whether supernaturally as in the caves of our origins or, as in Darwin’s sudden illumination, are perceived to be, at heart, one form, one awe-inspiring mystery, seemingly diverse and apart but derived from the same genetic source.  Thus the mysterium arose not by primitive campfires alone.  Skins may still prickle in a modern classroom 

  In the end, science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners.  One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in a snail’s eye or within the light that impinges on that delicate organ.  The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one’s head about.  “Science and the Sense of the Holy,” in The Star Thrower, p. 151.

 

  One can only assert that in science, as in religion, when one has destroyed human wonder and compassion, one has killed man, even if the man in question continues to go about his laboratory tasks.  ibid., pp. 158-159.

 

 

FARADAY, MICHAEL

 

Nothing is too wonderful to be true.  (Engraved on the Physics Building, UCLA) Quoted by Philip Morrison in Nothing is Too Wonderful to be True, p. ix.

 

 

FEYNMAN, RICHARD

 

  I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.  Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain”, into a blind alley from which no one has yet escaped.  Nobody knows how it can be like that.  The Character of Physical Law, p. 129.

 

FLEXNER, ABRAHAM

 

  We have become increasingly and painfully aware of our abysmal ignorance. No scientist, fifty years ago, could have realized that he was as ignorant as all first-rate scientists now know themselves to be. It was but recently that we believed that Newton had arrived at rock-bottom. Universities: American, English, German (Oxford University Press, 1930) pp. 17-18.

             

GLEISER, MARCELO

 

  The second reason to start this discussion with creation myths is more subtle.  These myths are essentially religious, an expression of awe as different cultures face the mystery of Creation.  It is this very same awe that motivates much of the scientific creative process.  My point is that this awe itself is more primitive than the particular way by which we choose to express it, be it in terms of organized religion or science. 

  Mysticism, if understood as the embodiment of our irresistible attraction to the unknown, plays a fundamental role in the scientific creative process of many physicists, past and present.  Neglecting this fact is closing our eyes to history and overlooking an essential aspect of science.  In order to understand the roots of what might be called rational mysticism, we now turn our attention to the creation myths of prescientific civilizations.  The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang, page 4.

           

           

  The science-religion debate is usually restricted to how compatible the two are: Can a person approach the world scientifically and still be religious?  I think the answer is an obvious yes, as long as the inquiries don’t interfere with each other the wrong way.  Scientists should not apply science abusively to situations where it is still clearly speculative, and claim they understand questions of theological nature.  Religious people should not try to interpret religious texts scientifically, as they were not written for that purpose.  To me, what is truly fascinating is that both science and religion express our reverence for nature.  Their complementarity is manifest in the essentially religious motivation of many of the scientific heroes of every era.  The awe that moved them, and that moves me into being a scientist today, is in essence the same awe that moved the mythmakers of times past.  As we, in the silent confines of our offices, address the most fundamental questions about the Universe scientifically, we can hear, under the monotonous humming of our computers, the chants of our ancestors echoing through time, inviting us to sing along. ibid. pp. 21-22

           

           

  The more I learned about relativity, quantum mechanics, and how they are applied to the study of cosmology, the more I wanted to learn.  And as usual, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know, how limited we are when facing the infinite creative power of nature.  Science is a process, it has often been said.  I would add that science is an endless process, that we will never reach an end, simply because there is no end.  Whenever I hear pronouncements claiming “the end of science,” asserting that all great discoveries that should have been made have already been made, I shudder with disbelief.  Can people be so blind to history and to our vast ignorance?  Just think of Laplace’s supermind,” or the state of confidence of many late-nineteenth-century physicists, and how completely wrong and taken aback they were in their illusions.  I wonder how much of this confidence of having reached an end is an expression of unrealized dreams and fantasies.

  Nature will never cease to surprise and to amaze us.  Our theories of today, of which we are justifiably proud, will be child’s play for future generations of scientists. Our models of today will be poor approximations to future models.  And yet, the work of future scientists will not be possible without ours, just as ours would not have been possible without Kepler’s or Galileo’s or Newton’s.  Science is never completely “right”, scientific theories are never the final truth.  They evolve and change, get corrected and more efficient, but are never finished.  Strange new phenomena will always defy our imagination, those we weren’t expecting or couldn’t have predicted.  We will scramble to understand the new, just as we have ever done.  And through this endless pursuit, we will continue to make sense of ourselves and of the world around us, just as we have ever done.

  To a smaller or larger extent, we all take part in this adventure; we all share in the rapture of discovery, if not by being directly involved in research, then at least by understanding the ideas of those who expand our human boundaries through their creativity.  In this sense, you, me, Heraclitus, Copernicus, and Einstein are all partners in the rhythmic dance of the Universe.  It is the persistence of the mysterious that moves us on. ibid. pp. 311-312.

 

 

GOODALL, JANE

 

  How sad it would be, I thought, if we humans ultimately were to lose all sense of mystery, all sense of awe, if our left brains were utterly to dominate the right so that logic and reason triumphed over intuition and alienated us absolutely from our innermost being, from our hearts, from our souls. A Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey

 

 

GOODENOUGH, URSALA

 

  Now, with our understanding of Nature arguably better than our understanding of persons, Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.

  The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany.  I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me.  I assimilate the vastness of the distances, in impermanence, the fact of it all.  I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures.  I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.

  Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe.  The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.  As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what the called the Divine, and I pulse with the spirit, if no the words, of my favorite hymn:

            Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

            In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.

           

            All laud we would render: O help us to see

            ‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

The Sacred Depths of Nature, pp. 12-14.

 

 

HAWKING, STEPHEN

 

  What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?  Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? A Brief History of Time, p. 174.

 

LIGHTMAN, ALAN

 

 A long time later, after I became a novelist, I realized that the ambiguities and complexities of the human mind are what give fiction and perhaps all art its power. A good novel gets under our skin, provokes us and haunts us long after the first reading, because we never fully understand the characters. We sweep through the narrative over and over again, searching for meaning.  Good characters must retain a certain mystery and unfathomable depth, even for the author. Once we see to the bottom of their hearts, the novel is dead for us.

  Eventually, I learned to appreciate both certainty and uncertainty. Both are necessary in the world.  Both are part of being human.  A Sense of the Mysterious, pp. 10-11.

 

  I have since come to understand that there are many interesting problems that are not well posed in the Popper or Thorne sense. For example: Does God exist? Or, What is love? Or, Would we be happier if we lived a thousand years? These questions are terribly interesting, but they lie outside the domain of science. Never will a physics student receive his or her degree working on such a question. One cannot falsify the statement that God exists (or does not exist). One cannot falsify the statement that we would be happier (or not happier) if we lived longer. Yet these are fascinating questions, questions that provoke us and bring forth all kinds of creative thought and invention. For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. One of my favorite passages from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet is this: “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.” Science is powerful, but it has limitations. Just as the world needs both certainty and uncertainty, the world needs questions with answers and questions without answers. ibid. p. 20.

 

  Then I felt a sense of mystery. I had shed light on a small corner of nature. Other scientists had illuminated larger corners. But there were almost certainly vast chambers and ballrooms that remained in the dark. So many beautiful and strange things as yet unknown. In an article published in Forum and Century magazine in 1931, Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” What did Einstein mean by “the mysterious”? I don’t think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I believe that he meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened. Just as Einstein suggested, I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery. ibid. pp. 41-42

 

MIDGLEY, MARY

 

  What is not generally appreciated is that serious scientists experience a sense of awe.  They are usually drawn to ask questions about a particular thing in the natural world.  It may be flowers or stars, or it may be something that other people do not care for at all – toads, beetles, tapeworms.  Whatever it might be, the study of this thing moves them to reverence.  And make no mistake, this sense of reverence is real.  Scientists can sense the vastness of even the smallest things.  They know that these things have unending connections with the rest of life.  For that reason, their experience of wonder does not vanish when the questions have been answered.  To the real scientist, a question that has been answered becomes not less wonderful, but more so.  Increased understanding increases scientific awe.  And most great scientists have named awe of this kind as their deepest reason for pursuing science at all.  “The Need for Wonder” in God for the 21st Century, Russell Stannard, ed.  Pp. 186-187.

 

 

NEWTON, ISAAC

 

   I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.  World of Mathematics, Vol. I, p. 271.

 

 

PRESTON, RICHARD

 

            Science at the cutting edge, conducted by sharp minds probing deep into nature, is not about self-evident facts.  It is about mystery and not knowing.  It is about taking huge risks.  It is about wasting time, getting burned, and failing.  It is like trying to crack a monstrous safe that has a complicated, secret lock designed by God.  Quoted by Michael Reagan in The Hand of God, p. 42.

 

 

POLKINGHORNE, JOHN

 

  Our account of the world must be rich enough – have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality – to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality.  The procrustean oversimplification of a fundamentalist reductionism will not begin to suffice.  In fact, it cannot even embrace the practice of science itself, which calls for judgements of value (we seek elegant and economic theories) and whose chief reward is the experience of wonder at the rational beauty of the world.  Beyond Science, p. 2.

 

  In science the beautiful is the good because it has proved to be the fertile.  Dirac’s lifetime search for beautiful equations is an object lesson that this is so, as is Einstein’s discovery of general relativity through a similar eight-year quest.  Such uncovenanted  fruitfulness impels the conviction that scientific theory is on to something, that these beautiful equations do indeed describe a true aspect of reality.  Their existence corresponds to another value–laden aspect of the scientific life, the experience of wonder at the deeply satisfying structures of the physical world revealed to our inquiry.  Here is the reward for all our weariness and frustration that are inescapable components of any serious scientific investigation, as in any other kind of worthwhile activity.  In our human nature, not only has the universe become aware of itself, it rejoices in that awareness.  ibid. p. 105.

 

  A word that is commonly used among scientists is wonder, though you won’t often see that word used in their scientific papers. Doing research is laborious, and often the reward for all that is the sense of wonder that people get from time to time. Scientists’ experience of wonder is, in a sense, an act of worship.  Interview with Daniel Burke, April 15, 2009.

 

POLLARD, W.G.

 

  J. Robert Oppenheimer (in Science and the Common Understanding) has likened all of science to a vast underground palace with an unending series of interconnected rooms.  At first as we began to explore the antechambers near the entrance, it seemed a familiar building of limited size much like other buildings we were familiar with.  But as this century has advanced, unsuspected rooms have been entered and surprising interconnecting passageways discovered.  Each new room or suite of rooms has been full of surprises, strange new beauties, and unsuspected wonders.  Yet each time we began to think that we had reached the palace boundary and were in the innermost rooms, hidden doorways have been stumbled upon, which have led us into still deeper and more amazing sections of the palace.  Transcendence and Providence, pp. 244-245.

 

 

POWER, RICHARD

 

  Science is not about control.  It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it.  It is about reverence, not mastery.  Dialogue from The Goldberg Variations

 

 

RAYMO, CHET

 

  It is the nature of God to reside in mystery – ineluctable, inexhaustible mystery.  We do not need to understand the cabala of mathematical physics to apprehend the mysterium tremendum. We need only look out the window.  Skeptic and True Believers, p. 202.

           

  No theory conceived by the human mind will ever be final.  The universe is vast, marvelous, and deep beyond our knowing; its horizons will always recede before our advance.  All dreams of finality are (probably) futile.  ibid. p. 207.

 

  The God of the spiraling powers resides in nature beyond all metaphors, beyond all scriptures, beyond all ‘final theories.’  It is the ground and source of our sense of wonderment, of power, of powerlessness, of light, of dark, of meaning, and of bafflement.  It is the God whose history began with the first human who experienced awe, contingency, fear.  It is the God of mystics of all cultures and creeds.  We stand on the shore of knowledge and look out into the sea of mystery and speak his name.  His name eludes all creeds and all theories of science.  He is indeed the ‘dread essence beyond logic.’ Science extends the shore along which we are able to perceive the mystery, but it does not deplete the mystery.  As knowledge deepens, so does wonder.  ibid.  p. 214

 

The poet Mary Oliver writes: Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.  I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery”.  Oliver does not denigrate facts.  Her poetry is filled with precise observations of the natural world that match in their exactitude those of any scientist; this is one reason I find her work so attractive.  Her exact knowledge of nature is the springboard from which she dives into the white fire of mystery.  She asks to be willing to be dazzled.  She asks for more than the weight of facts.  ibid., pp. 230-231.

 

  Even today, in our technically sophisticated times, a view of the night sky from a dark place – Hyakutake on its westward arch, Venus among the Pleiades, the Moon rising in eclipse – cannot fail to inspire dreams of a grandeur and a meaning greater than ourselves.  But there is more, much more.. (Raymo goes on to describe various remarkable astronomical images including the Hubble Deep Field and concludes)  Who can look at these images and not be transformed?  The heavens declare God’s glory. “The work of the eyes is done, now/go and do heart-work,” says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. ibid., pp. 247-249

 

  Knowledge is an island.  The larger we make that island, the longer becomes the shore where knowledge is lapped by mystery.  It is the most common of all misconceptions about science that it is somehow inimical to mystery, that it grows at the expense of mystery and intrudes with its brash certitudes upon the space of God.  Aristarchus and Galileo felt the harsh consequences of that misconception.  But in a world described by science, mystery abides, in the space between the stars and in the interstices of snow.  The extension of knowledge is the extension of mystery.  It is as Bernard says: “As a bee bears both honey and wax, so he has in himself both that which ignites the light of knowledge and that which infuses the taste of grace.”  Honey from Stone, p. 66.

 

 

SAGAN, CARL quoted by Richard Dawkins

 

            “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, This is better than we thought!  The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?  Instead they say, No, no, no!  My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.  A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”   quoted by Richard Dawkins in Science & Spirit Magazine July/August, 1999, page 25.

 

 

TEILHARD de CHARDIN, PIERRE

 

Less and less do I see any difference now between research and adoration.  Quoted by Chet Raymo, Skeptics and True Believers, p. 264.

 

 

THOMAS, LEWIS

 

  It is the very strangeness of nature that makes science engrossing.  That ought to be at the center of science teaching…Science, especially twentieth-century science, has provided us with a glimpse of something we never really knew before, the revelation of human ignorance.  We have been used to the belief, down one century after another, that we more or less comprehend everything, bar one or two mysteries, like the mental processes of our gods.  Every age, not just the eighteenth century, regarded itself as the Age of Reason, and we have never lacked for explanations of the world and its ways.  Now, we are being brought up short, and this has been the work of science.  We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries ahead, and we will need science for this, but not science alone…

  I suggest that the introductory courses in science, at all levels from grade school through college, be radically revised.  Leave the fundamentals, the so-called basics, aside for a while, and concentrate the attention of the students on the things that are not known.  You cannot possible teach quantum mechanics without mathematics, to be sure, but you can describe the strangeness of the world opened up by quantum theory.  Let it be known, early on, that there are deep mysteries and profound paradoxes, revealed in their distant outlines, by the quantum.  Let it be known that these can be approached more closely, and puzzled over, once the language of mathematics has been sufficiently mastered.

  Teach at the outset, before any of the fundamentals, the still imponderable puzzles of cosmology.  Let it be known, as clearly as possible, by the youngest minds, that there are some things going on in the universe that lie beyond comprehension, and make it plain how little is known….

  The worst thing that has happened to science education is that the great fun has gone out of it…. Very few see science for the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever undertaken by human beings, the chance to catch close views of things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works.  Instead, they become baffled early on, and they are misled into thinking that bafflement is simply the result of not having learned all the facts.  They are not told, as they should be told, that everyone else – from the professor in his endowed chair down to the platoons of postdoctoral students in the laboratory all night – is baffled as well.  Every important scientific advance that has come looking like and answer has turned, sooner or later – usually sooner – into a question.  And the game is just beginning…. Part of the intellectual equipment of an educated person, however his or her time is to be spent, ought to be a feel for the queerness of nature, the inexplicable things.  “Humanities and Science,” in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, pp. 150-155.

 

 

What we have been learning in our time is that we really do not understand this place or how it works, and we comprehend our selves least of all.  And the more we learn, the more we are - or ought to be - dumbfounded. “ On Matters of Doubt,” in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, p. 157.

 

           

WILSON, E. O.

 

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery.”  Biophilia, p. 10.