Lost in Wonder
I came to an enjoyment of science late. My grades in junior high and senior high school science classes were mediocre at best, and if there had been an emphasis on STEM during those years, none of my teachers would have put my name forward as a good candidate. Many of my friends found math and science classes to be a breeze. My wife and sons certainly did. I found those same classes to be dense fog.
Instead, I gravitated toward history and literature classes. In college, I took the absolute minimum of science and math while I loaded up on religion, literature, history, and political science. And no, political science isn’t the kind of science that counts as one of the STEM disciplines.
It was the psychoanalyst Carl Jung who commented that in mid-life, the submerged or neglected parts of a person’s psyche begin to surface. It took longer for my submerged interest in science to emerge, but in the last decade, especially with the help of the internet, I’ve enjoyed numerous programs on paleontology, the oceans, our universe, and even quantum physics. Do I understand everything I’ve watched? Not by a long shot, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
One of the most satisfying discoveries I’ve made in my newfound interest in science is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’ve read the book not once, not twice, but am now on my third reading. As the book’s title suggests, Bryson writes about everything from the Big Bang to the smallest subatomic particles that scientists speculate make up reality.
If I were called upon to explain why I, as a religious studies professor, am on my third reading of this lengthy book, I would say one reason is that Bryson is a very entertaining writer, using humor and historical anecdotes (it turns out scientists are often quirky) to illumine the most difficult concepts.
But there is another reason why I appreciate Bryson. His descriptions of the farthest reaches of the cosmos and the tiniest subatomic particles leave me with feelings of awe and wonder that seem, in the end, religious.
One of my favorite chapters in Bryson’s book is the one pertaining to the moon. I hadn’t really thought much about the moon other than enjoying the beauty of a full moon rising or the sliver of a new moon. Bryson gave me a new appreciation of the biggest thing in our night sky, first establishing that the moon was born out of debris that flew out into space when a meteor crashed into our earth. But the capper of the chapter for me was Bryson’s evidence of our moon being responsible for our earth’s precise and regular rotation and orbit. Without the moon, the earth as we know it doesn’t exist.
The overwhelming feeling that Bryson’s book raises for me is wonder. With each chapter, Bryson makes it clear that the odds of life existing, at least the life that is all around us on this planet, are extremely small. And the odds of intelligent life existing on this planet, life forms such as you and me, are even smaller.
Although he doesn’t belabor the point, Bryson gives no credit for this wondrous universe to a Creator God. My difference with Bryson on that point doesn’t trouble me. We are linked, brothers in a way, as we both look up on a clear night to the millions of stars—suns, really—in just our own galaxy and find ourselves lost in wonder.