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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

Your comments please: Does inquisition extinguish wonder or illuminate beauty?

I often think about the stone I stole from the beach in Greece as a child that glowed bright orange in the sand. When I arrived back home, excitedly pulling it from the suitcase, it had lost its colour. It now sits in a box, a grey and sullen shadow of its former self. My mother told me it was because it grew sad, longing for its home. Years later, sitting in the sun on the coast of Buzios with fellow heavy-ion physicists, I relayed this story in the hope of a better answer and was asked, “Why would you want to know the truth, with a story like that? Don’t you want to keep the magic?”

If made to think of a magical story in my life, this is one of the few that hasn’t yet had its illusion broken. In truth, I haven’t tried very hard. My boyfriend is a chemist, I know he has access to equipment that would allow him to analyze the stone, tell me what’s in it. One day I will ask him to.

Most of the mysteries I came up against as a child instantly became challenges – understanding them was the primary goal. Just like magic tricks, once you have seen how they are done, you see them differently, but often the truth makes the phenomena in question all the more beautiful. I noticed last night during an advertisement for “Genius of Britain” on Channel 4 (starting this Sunday), Sir David Attenborough echoed this idea:

“The world is full of wonders, but they become more wonderful (not less) when science looks at them.” (See the full clip here)

Of the genuinely wondrous elements of nature this is surely true. However, we have all been disenchanted by the truth. I was very proud to have fathomed that my parents were responsible for the festive man in red, but that didn’t stop it hurting. That magic is gone forever.

I want to know your views. I know many of you don’t comment on here but please make an exception and let me know what you think:

Are answers snuffers or blowers of wonder?

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5 Responses to “Your comments please: Does inquisition extinguish wonder or illuminate beauty?”

  1. Penny says:

    I think science makes thing far more magical. Knowing how something works can sometimes mean you know it’s incredible rather than it being curious but assuming a dull explanation, science sometimes provides explanations far weirder than expected.

    Also in answering questions far more always get raised. Whether you prefer questions or answers, science provides far more of both than no science. It’s a win-win situation!

  2. Frank Simon says:

    I think answers make things better, but I guess as a scientist you’d expect me to say that. I think answers and understanding really make you appreciate the wonder of it all. Consider this: When you look up at the night sky, at the center of the Milky Way from the southern hemisphere… Isn’t it great to know that there is a gigantic black hole in the center, that you see billions of gas balls that produce light and warmth by complex nuclear processes in their center, that there are planets orbiting those gas balls, planets that might be not so different from our own? Sure, sparkling lights in the sky are cute, but knowing what it all is, how it all works, makes it truly wonderful.

  3. Sarah McGovern says:

    Oh, such a good question. From my perspective, there is nothing more mysterious, magical and ironic than seeing the answers before us, and yet still not grasping, nor being able to grasp, the full scope of their significance. The fact that there are more than 6,823,400,000 perspectives, (world population estimate as of May 27, 2010), is, in itself, magical. The fact that a reality exists in which such a variety of relative truths can coexist, yet which all share the same basic parameters for propagation, absolutely blew my mind for years.

    I study physics, but that is only a small part of who I am. I like nothing more than to connect the dots, with scientific reality providing many, though not nearly all of them. I am not religious, I am not an atheist, I prefer no name or label, not even agnostic. But, Zoe, there is magic here, and I’ll admit to being convinced of that. The fact that we can wonder at all is beyond mysterious, despite current neurological science, with its findings of why and what and how. The fact that we can wonder about being able to wonder…. well…. this in itself is enough to propel someone into a mystical trance, should their reality permit such a thing.

    With all that scientific exploration can achieve, and all the hidden truths it can make plain, it only sees the parts that are in view, the pieces of the puzzle it can quantify and classify. But why, and, fundamentally, what things are, remains to be known. We can name them, we can measure them, we can even convince ourselves that we know what they are by harnessing their power. This is the sweet naivety of humanity, the irony of us. What a classical farce it all is. We humans are here for little more than an instant, yet we are compelled toward an understanding of the profundity around us, via perspectives we adopt. We are compelled to know a truth that is just out of reach given the limits of perspective.

    Plato, was deeply invested in explaining the mystery of existence. In Timaeus he wrote, “… we must distinguish two forms of cause, the divine and the necessary. First, the divine, for which we must search in all things if we are to gain a life of happiness to the extent that our nature allows, and second, the necessary, for which we must search for the sake of the divine. Our reason is that without the necessary, those other objects, about which we are serious, cannot on their own be discerned, and hence cannot be comprehended or partaken of in any other way.”
    Albert Einstein further graced us with this, “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear, is a dead man.”

    Do not give that rock to your boyfriend. Know it for what it really is, a nugget of a memory of the mystical reality in you.

  4. Spoiler says:

    Phosphorescence. C’mon, gotta know that.

  5. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    Sorry “spoiler”, it certainly wasn’t that!

    My boyfriend has a theory and we will probably end up testing it. If I find out, I will definitely post.

    In the meantime, thanks everyone for your comments on here/facebook – not everyone thinks the same way on this and it was very interesting to see what people thought.