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The Universe's Material Soul

Perhaps this is a reinforcement of what I wrote in “Nerdom is Sexy” or perhaps its merely a personal reflection… All I know is that these words should have been screaming to pour out of me a long time ago.

Through the wonders of wireless Internet I sit here, under a tree in my backyard, blogging of all things.

That’s not to say I’m not taking in my surroundings. The moist grass which I wiggle my toes in may not be a part of the natural dessert grassland environment of Colorado, nor the lush tree that sprouts clouds of white blossoms in late spring, and I do have my doubts about how native be the birds, currently chirping their songs, creating a natural symphony of clear music around me. Insects hover lazily above the grass, choosing me as a landing spot more often than I would like. Over my shoulder the sky is a soft rose colour as the sun drifts below the mountainous backdrop us Coloradoans take so much pride in.

It is here in this pseudo-natural environment, but lively all the same, where I come to write on science, anti-science, and how annoyed I am at Phil Plait, PZ Myers, and ARealGirl for continually rubbing in the fact that they got to go to the Galapagos Islands on Twitter (jk, that last part isn’t actually what this is about).

In my school’s writing club, I once took up the responsibility of making three writing prompts. One involved the Spanish Inquisition coming after you for not following the prompt, another one I can’t quite recall, and another saying “you see a turtle lying on its back dying. Do you turn it back over to save it? What happens next?”

When it came time to share our pieces from half an hour or so of furious scribbling, one girl raised her hand to share her piece based on the turtle prompt.

It was written from the perspective of the turtle who had been sadly ignored by the passing humans. It shared how angered it felt that nobody had even noticed it, a lowly piece of nature. I can’t recall the full text of the writing but I believe it must have ended in something like…

See what your precious science and technology has brought you to? You disrespect nature for your distractions of science and technology.

Of course, I paraphrased that much more than it should have been so in the eventuality that I share a link to this blog with that member of the writing club I appologize for misquoting you so badly as I have inevitably done. However, I believe I have gotten the gist of what you said if not as eloquently.

As much as I respected the writer’s work, I, as an avid science nerd, had to restrain myself from openly expressing how absurd I felt her theme was. The accusation that science leads people to ignore the world around us I found to be as worthy of giving me an excuse to bang my head into a wall as the time members of the same writing club had told me that the reason why I write well is because I’m a Pisces.

Science has not caused me to disrespect nature at all and if anything has caused me to gain respect and love for it. Science has given me awe and generous helpings of humility in the face of the natural beauty of this universe we sail in on this lonely, living planet.

Charles Darwin once wrote,

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I’ve known this quote since the 8th grade. I understood that it was referring to how evolution had shown that we all had a common ancestor… but it wasn’t until last spring when I was sitting in the same spot in my backyard reading a book on evolution that I understood what it meant.

Darwin did not know it at the time and we may never know exactly how life began but it probably happened with a single molecule, forming in the primordial soup, which had the ability to make copies of itself (like RNA). Shortly thereafter it may have taken advantage of the abundant supply of lipids (fat molecules which form bi-lipid cell membranes) to form a cell and the pressure of natural selection ensued from there.

It took billions of years for complex, multi-cellular life to arise and when it did there was a sudden and great diversity of life known as the “Cambrian Explosion” in which the predecessors to what would become the major animal groupings today (phyla) came about. Life progressed to diversify even more, and soon there were land creatures who would evolve into our mammal ancestors and the mighty dinosaurs. Once the dinosaurs were gone, the stage was set in this drama of evolution for our species to make our slow, yet grand entrance.

I have, of course, left out many of the steps in this story so I hope it’s not too choppy. But, having enveloped this story within my heart I took a look around at my surroundings again and realized that every living thing, every towering tree with their budding leaves, every blade of grass beneath by bare feet, every cricket singing its courtship song, every bee expertly buzzing by, every bunny rabbit hopping through, and every living thing on the entire planet ultimately came from the same place as I.

My mouth dropped open for a good few minutes as I watched the breeze playfully brush through those branches stretching to the sky. Finally I regained control of my lips and whispered “wow” to the world.

My Lakotan college composition teacher once drew a pyramid next to a circle on the chalk board during class. She explained that the pyramid represented a hierarchy which was credited as having either originated with Plato or with the part of Genesis which said,

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

(Genesis 1:26, KJV)

Whatever the origin she said that it had given Christian theology a hierarchy with man at the top, women just below that, followed by the rest of creation, and with snakes and daemons at the very bottom.

She then moved to the circle and drew little lines around the edge. She explained “mitakuye oyasin”, a native american belief that everything was a part of a circle of life. Everything was equal, including us humans. Aside from the part where inanimate objects (rocks) are considered alive, it is the closest religious (spiritual?) belief I have found which would describe the evolutionary understanding of the nature of modern life. We have all been evolving here for the same amount of time, diversifying toward no particular end other than the continuance of life, no real finish line in sight.

But even though some religions, like the Buddhists, aspire to achieve a feeling of “oneness” with the universe, nothing makes me feel more like I’m “one” with everything than revelations brought about by science, not mysticism.

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the mists of mysteries to science drifting above our mountains of scientific knowledge, those peaks still reach high to the sky, and from what we know, nothing makes the universe feel like a vast, grand place quite the same way that scientific knowledge does.

Not everybody feels quite the same way, of course, as my esteemed fellow writing club member has already shown.

In his essay, A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover“, D. H. Lawrence remarked on how “The Gospel” had saved humanity and yet there are so many of us who seem unhappy, who don’t take any joy out of the world, who ignore it. Though I did not agree with what he eventually determined the source of this condition was, I do agree that there are so many people who have lost the vitality within them to be inspired by our splendid world.

Oh, and what did he determine the source of this condition was?

“Knowledge” has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots; “knowledge” has killed the moon, it is a dead little earth pitted with extinct craters as with small-pox…

The world of reason and science, the moon a dead lump of earth, the sun, so much gas with spots, this is the dry and sterile world the abstracted mind inhabits.

Because of this, he concludes, our souls need to reject this view in order to enjoy the world.

Perhaps the sun is no longer thought to be the almighty Ra or Apollo or whatever sun gods there may have been, but it is still almighty and powerful, if not as personified.

That ball Lawrence spake of is 1,300,000 times larger than our humble home called Earth, and has been shining its starlight for five billion years.

That gas Lawrence spake of is mostly made of hydrogen atoms under so much pressure that they fuse together to form new elements deep within, the resulting nuclear fusion reaction producing more energy in a second than we have in all our history of civilization, and heating that gas to over 15 million degrees celsius.

Those spots Lawrence spake of are larger than our homeworld still. Sunspots always have a partner spot and the two dance around the revolving fireball together. The two spots create a magnetic field, forming delicate looping arcs of matter from the sun caught by the magnetic attraction.

The Earth’s constant companion may indeed be dead, but it is the furthest our species (as well as some bacteria) have been able to reach beyond our cradle into the heavens, touching its soft dusty surface.

It may be pitted, but if you swing a telescope around at it with a simple low-powered eyepiece the remarkable, clear detail of its cratered face is breathtaking. The moon is like a guardian angel, with its face constantly turned toward us it catches meteors in its gravity that may not be welcome in our realm of existence, and keeps our velvety oceans constantly in tidal motion with its pull.

Dry and sterile?

Would life really be this way through that dreaded scientific materialist view?

As Cassie has so eloquently said,

Nothing to live for!?! My posterior!

No, perhaps science won’t bring us the same comfort as, say, believing in an afterlife would, but knowledge revealed from it and understanding what it means will cause us to make our time in this life most worthwhile.

The universe is abundant with wonderous things and we are so very priviledged to be here to enjoy them. And, I think, in its own little way, the universe is privledged to have us here so that some sentient beings (whether they reside on Earth or elsewhere in this vast sea of stars and galaxies) can gaze deep into its material soul and take awe in its true form… for who else can do it through the lens of truth?

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  1. Ross
    August 18, 2008 at 4:58 am —

    “My mouth dropped open for a good few minutes as I watched the breeze playfully brush through those branches stretching to the sky. Finally I regained control of my lips and whispered “wow” to the world.”

    This is awe, more true and profound than anything that one can experience from stories rooted in metaphysics. That we can feel this without needing any mystic explanation seems evidence to me that the religious experience is universal in humans. We have this innate capacity for awe, and to understand the universe more fully through science can only deepen that sense of wonder at it all.

  2. sporefrog
    August 18, 2008 at 5:23 am —

    Wonderful post! I’ll be sharing it with all of my friends.

  3. August 18, 2008 at 6:31 am —

    Perhaps the writer girl was commenting on consumer-driven obsession with techy gadgetry, and not so much science or science-lovers themselves.

    I do notice that so many people have a phone glued to their ear, or their eyes glued to a notebook screen, that they are unable to see the natural world for the artificial.

    But since it lead to you writing such an eloquent and readable post I’m glad she wrote it. I would not have ventured to comment on the teen website otherwise!

  4. August 18, 2008 at 6:53 am —

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a great, long while. Thank you.

  5. Amanda
    August 18, 2008 at 8:05 am —

    What a beautiful post, Elles.

    I’ve been having “wow” moments reading Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm. It’s practically like reading a drama, seeing how at every twist and turn E. coli changes itself in order to keep surviving.

    My religion professor (an atheist, btw) used to say that the two main purposes of religion are to “take us to the mountain top” and reveal wonder and to “tuck us in at night” and comfort us. The world itself does both of those things for me. He, a non-scientist atheist, saw wonder in the world everywhere he looked and it was a joy to hear him wax poetic about simple things like flowers, the rain, and the basic shared human experience.

  6. August 18, 2008 at 3:25 pm —

    You’re an eloquent writer, Splendid. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  7. aeryn987
    August 18, 2008 at 3:56 pm —

    Beautiful sentiment. It’s this state of informed wonder that makes the pursuit of science so special.

  8. August 18, 2008 at 11:32 pm —

    Beautifully Written.

    Thank you for sharing it with us.

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