Science as a Conveyor of Wonder
As humanity has progressed over the millennia, more and more of the world we live in and the nature of our existence has become comprehensible to us thanks to leaps in science and technology. The mythology that was once used to explain events such as sunrises and earthquakes has given way to knowledge about planetary orbits and tectonic plates, and in some ways the mystery that once accompanied such events is gone. However, scientific progress does not always make life duller; in many ways real life can be more shocking than any story man could contrive. Two texts which illustrate how science actually advances and perpetuates human wonderment are “Running is Always Blind” by Sam Schramski and “The Fermi Paradox” by Tim Urban.
An example of progress in scientific knowledge. 2,000 years ago it was believed that the sun god Apollo rode a horse drawn carriage across the sky to cause the sunrise and sunset.
Schramski and Urban cover entirely different topics, but both texts illustrate how scientific fact can also be awe inspiring. Schramski discusses how the human brain and body deal with the task of running on uneven surfaces. A seemingly mundane topic becomes amazing when one learns the various functions that must occur in infinitesimal amounts of time in order to allow the body to traverse such terrain. A combination of unconscious reflexive action, conscious movement, and automatic adjustments by muscles and tendons in the leg combine to produce an action that seems commonplace. “Never mind trail running: even walking is a minor miracle”, Schramski argues. The word choice here is indicative of his attempt to convey how improbable our ability to run is, and instill a sense of wonder in the reader. The inclusion of the section on robotics serves the same purpose. We have today machines that can outwit grandmasters in games of chess or solve complex math problems, but the act of walking can be done by many two year olds better than our best robots. The gap is made even clearer when one compares the awkward, jerky motions of the robot in the video to the ease with which Scott Jurek, a professional trail runner interviewed for the article, claims to run. ‘“Well, you just do it,’” Jurek is quoted as saying when asked how he runs so effortlessly on rocky trails. The robot, however shows us that there is a lot more to it than just doing it; when attempted by a machine it necessitates the use of complex coding algorithms and cutting edge modern technology. This shows what uniquely powerful and speedy machines the human brain and nervous system are, especially as used in the act of running. Running is a perfect illustration, then, of how scientific progress can reveal wondrous things all around us. What was taken for granted for thousands of years can suddenly become an incomprehensible feat when its difficulty is quantified and explored.
Urban explores an area much more known for inciting a sense of reverence, outer space. “The Fermi Paradox” deals with the age old question of whether or not humans are alone in their existence as an intelligent species. It opens by acknowledging the existential questions that pondering the vastness of the universe can raise, then proceeds to quantify what this vastness means: there should be someone else out there. While many might think of the night sky as containing an infinite number of stars, Urban points out that, as small as we can feel when we look up at the stars, what we are seeing is only a miniscule fraction of what is out there. We see about 2,500 stars on a clear night, but there are according to our best estimates, “between 10^22, and 10^24 total stars” in the universe according to Urban.
A visual portrayal of what a small portion of our own galaxy we see in the night sky.
This means that “for every grain of sand on earth, there are 10,000 stars out there”. So while looking at the night sky was cool even for our ancestors when they thought that they were looking at a celestial sphere which contained the entire universe, how much more amazing is it to know that what we can see right now is negligible compared to what we have yet to see? Additionally, given what we know about the frequency with which earth like planets occur, there should be roughly 100 earth-like planets for every grain of sand. Given these odds, it is highly probable that somewhere out there, there are other intelligent life forms. This is the paradox that gave its name to the article; the enormous likelihood that there is intelligent life (or at least life of some form) elsewhere, and the complete lack of evidence that we have of such beings. As Urban succinctly puts it, the question raised by the Fermi Paradox is “Where is everybody?”.
Confirmation of either the lack or presence of other intelligent life will have enormous implications for what our future as a species may hold, and such revered thinkers as Carl Sagan and Elon Musk have weighed in on the topic. The potential answers are explained in the original article in depth, but are too numerous and lengthy to be worth reproducing here. More important to this piece is the fact that because of new information brought to us by science, we are left with even weightier questions than before. Our own advancement has not left us with a bleaker, duller view of existence, but instead “opens the door just a crack that maybe, maybe, there’s a whole lot more to this story than what we realize.”
Both of my texts approached their topics in an analytical manner that allows the reader to appreciate the sheer impressiveness of their subject matter. Schramski, however, took a subject that is not normally thought of as awe inspiring and made the reader see that it was by breaking down what is occurring when we run. Urban tackled a topic that many people already find inspiration in, and by further exploring it, made it even more stunning. While an article on running has to prove that running is worth the readers wonder, an article on outer space starts with the reader’s sense of wonder already engaged. So while Schramski set out to earn running our respect, Urban did not have to exert as much effort in that direction, instead focusing on why the new information available to us about space is even more exciting than what we already knew. By presenting these two texts together, I hoped to prove that no matter the topic, and how common, or how breathtaking it may be, scientific progress and exploration can always increase our sense of wonder in it.
In class presentation: https://prezi.com/embed/9wjfnd0iye4u/?bgcolor=ffffff&lock_to_path=1&autoplay=0&autohide_ctrls=0&landing_data=bHVZZmNaNDBIWnNjdEVENDRhZDFNZGNIUE43MHdLNWpsdFJLb2ZHanI0c3ExTDRaaS9vd1JOYnU1Q2VuNTZ3Y2dnPT0&landing_sign=DVz6XZUQQYcqfta_FQiDAlP6DrwYsyJ_i2i0UZgimtU
1 Schramski, Sam. “Running Is Always Blind.” Nautilus. N.p., 7 July 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016
2 Urban, Tim. “The Fermi Paradox.” Wait But Why. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
3 Quintin, Walter Plitt. Apollo’s Chariot. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
4 Author Unknown. Earth’s Orbit. N.p.: n.p., n.d. JPG. http://pics-about-space.com/earth-sun-orbit-seasons?p=5
5 Risinger, Nick. Milky Way Galaxy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. JPG.
6 Atlas, The Next Generation. YouTube. Boston Dynamics, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.