Thoughts on wonder

I looked out of the window this morning. The sun was just rising into a cloudless sky. It was cold. Yesterday had finished with a fine drizzle. During the night the drizzle stopped, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. I walked outside to see what needed to be done to get the car ready for driving. What I saw was magical. The sun was shining almost horizontally along the road, highlighting what had happened to the car. Steep or vertical surfaces had coalesced the rain droplets into blobs of water then they had frozen but the roof was different. It was covered with a mass of sub vertical ice crystals 4 – 5 mm long, 0.5 – 1 mm in section.  Just like freshly mown grass except that it was frozen water that the laws of science had formed into crystals that were square in cross section.

My neighbour was engaged in scraping the frost and ice off his car so that he could use it to go shopping. We started chatting, enjoying the increasing warmth of the early morning sun. We started talking, as we often do and I showed him the spectacle on my car roof. We both got involved in trying to work out what had happened to create this wonderful, beautiful effect. I got my camera and took several photos. We both enjoyed this wonder and, we think, worked out how nature had performed this miracle.

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OK, you’re bored now. My first point is that these events help us to start to understand phrases such as,’ All of the world in a grain of sand.’ Wonder can be found wherever you are prepared to look and put aside your refusal to see things through a child’s eyes. By the way, if you look at any grain of sand, you can tell if it got where it is by wind or water.

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There are so many wonderful things to experience in this wonderful universe that there is never any need for boredom – or any excuse to indulge in it.

Secondly, I think that we need some  understanding of science to appreciate and increase our sense of wonder in this world. People complained bitterly when Newton explained how a rainbow is formed, because, ‘ he had taken away the magic.’ I disagree vehemently. How much more wonderful it is to look at a rainbow and have some understanding of the different wavelengths of different colour light. How the electromagnetic spectrum is formed and how we can only see a minute fraction of that spectrum. How white light is made up of all the colours, how white light can be split into its constituent colours by passing it through a prism. To prove that the prism didn’t produce the colours, he then passed the coloured light through another prism and produced white light. Darwin said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.’

The same thing happens these days when biologists experiment to find out how a flower works, its cells, genes and how they work together to produce seeds that contain the design of the future generation. Nothing is taken away from the flower, it is still beautiful but how much more beautiful it is when you have some understanding of the processes that demand and make that flower beautiful. I agree with Richard Feynman that science adds to the beauty of the flower – in fact science adds to the beauty of the universe.

He said,’I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.’

Why are we so blasé in the face of such wonder all around us? Shall I give a couple of examples? Yes please, I nearly hear you say.

I roam the local area trying to look at thing with a geologist’s eye so that I can peer down into deep time. This is my fascination with geology – time. Two sayings sum up geology for me. ‘ We see no sign of a beginning, no vestige of an end.’ James Hutton is reputed to have said this – at a time when a lot of people thought the Earth was a little over 14,000 years old – when he saw the unconformity at Siccar Point and realised that what he was seeing proved that the Earth had to be very old to allow nature’s forces to produce what he saw in front of him. The Earth is now known to be about 4.56 billion years old. The other saying is, ‘Given all this time, anything is possible.’ I don’t know who said this but it should have been someone.

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This is Siccar Point. The 400million year old horizontal sandstones have been laid down over the  near vertical, tipped up older Silurian Greywackes. This is an example of an angular unconformity. It is thought that it may have taken a little more time than 14,000 years to form as we see it today.

On one of my roamings, I was looking at a ridge. This ridge was formed from the Carboniferous  limestone series on top of Devonian Sandstones. Looking at a field full of grazing sheep, I could see a break in the smooth surface of the field as it swooped down to the valley floor. There was a small ridge across the field. This ridge could have been the remains of a hedge that has been destroyed but in fact it is the break of slope caused by the differential erosion between the softer and harder rocks. I was allowed to see this and partially understand it because of my rudimentary understanding of geology and the information gleaned from maps and papers written by ‘the giants who came before me and on whose shoulders I stand’ Newton again .

Holiday in the North West Scottish Highlands. Based at Inchnadamph – where Peach and Horne stayed. A day out to climb Ben More Assynt. Then the following day to Unapool. Look across Loch Glencoul at the thrust faults where rocks have been pushed – older over younger – what magnificent time and forces were required to do this. Cross Kylesku bridge. Stop at the roadside where the rocks have been carved and blasted away to make room for the road. Wonder at the pink / grey Lewisian Gneiss exposed there. It is some 3 billion years old! Can you process that time in your brain when we live for such a piffling time? These rocks have been deep in the Earth, changed, tilted, moved across the surface of the planet. Doesn’t it stir wonder within you?

See this web site for more on this wonderful place:-

http://www.nwhgeopark.com/landscape/the-geology-of-nw-highlands-geopark/

The other end of the country. – a day out on the Jurassic coast. I was wandering along when I saw tip of something poking up out of the boring, monotonous mud. I dug it out and found it to be an ammonite fossil about 95mm across, still partially entombed in the glutinous mud. I carefully packed it up and took it home for cleaning and identification. I started to clean it up but when I turned it over, there was another, smaller ammonite stuck to the back of it by the drying, now encapsulating, mud. I stopped cleaning it, thinking that these animals had been together in death for  some 189 million years. Who was I to separate them – the first human ever to have seen them.

I used a book, “Fossils from the Lower Lias of the Dorst Coast. Lord. R.A. & Davis.P.G. 2010” to identify the fossil ammonite as a Androgynoceras capricornus. What a wonderful find.

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They are both beautiful in their own right but how much more wonderful that many people over the years have found and classified these fossils, what strata they came from, the cause of their death and their age, worked out how they were preserved in spite of the vast odds against it.

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Have I convinced you of the wonder there is in this world if you have eyes to see it and are prepared to open your mind to the wonder of it all and why it is worth studying at least enough science to start to understand it?

To learn is to live.’ Who said that? I did, amongst many others. I am convinced that you die when you stop learning. ‘So much to learn, so little time.

If I have not convinced you, then take the time to look at some the photos of distant galaxies taken by the Hubble telescope. Look for them on the web – they are all there. My favourite is the “Pillars of Creation”  in the Eagle nebula. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the photos from the James Webb! I hope I live to see them as the telescope looks backward to the edge of the visible universe, to the dawn of creation.

If you look at these photos and do some research into the times and distances involved and then you do not become enthralled by the wonder of it all – think of all the wonder that you are missing.

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A question. Are you an artist or a scientist? Why not be both and enjoy all that this world has to offer from a science and arts point of view. It is not a binary decision. You can enjoy the wondrous complexity of quantum mechanics as well as the sublime noise of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Why do people take pride in saying that they don’t understand science? Why take pride in ignorance? Science is just an attempt to see and understand the world. Surely everyone wants to be like a child and ask ‘Why’ when they see the wonder surrounding them.

Here’s a test. Next Autumn take a walk in the country on a misty morning as the sun is rising. Look at the myriad spider’s webs strung between the grass stalks in the meadow. Look at the droplets of waters on them that have condensed from the enfolding mist, see millions of them sparkle with the many colours, like diamonds, as the warming sun enraptures them.

Does your heart not lift and sing with the wonder of it all?

© Richard Kefford                                                                                                        Eorðdraca

*****

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