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10 Sublime Wonders of Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Science just gives facts. Our sense of meaning, in the big-picture, must derive from elsewhere. Right?

Wrong.

Below are 10 sublime wonders of science, to make your mind reel and your emotions swell. Scientific wonders about our world provide meaning in the same way that grand narratives and religious cosmologies have traditionally presented a big-picture vision of how the world came to be, our connection to what exists, and awe.

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1. The universe contains physical laws and naturalistic processes that allow complexity to emerge. Without this feature, then nothing.

2.There are more stars in the universe than words ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.

3. As Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “Out of the Big Bang, the stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the Earth, single-celled living creatures; out of evolutionary life and death of these creatures, human beings with a consciousness and freedom.” Seen in this way, science can help us feel connected to the world. We did not come into the world from the outside, we grew out of it.

4. Every individual bacterium, cockroach, and sparrow that ever existed—every person, frog, and cucumber — owes its existence to a completely unbroken stream of DNA stemming from the earliest replicators through every creature that lives today. When fully felt, the power and the wonder of evolution, with its extraordinary diversity and complexity, hits us profoundly.

5. Science, as Loyal Rue wrote, “documents our essential kinship as no other story can do—fashioned from the same stellar dust, energized by the same star, nourished by the same planet, endowed with the same genetic code, and threatened by the same evils.” We are not separate from nature or each other in some transcendent, essentialist sense. This can be a ground for a sense of belonging.

6. Conscious experience, along with existence itself, is the greatest scientific wonder of all. We are a part of nature that can know and experience truth, invent, love, be moral, feel indescribable emotion, and consciously plan for the future. Ideas and passion can now transform the world. As far as we know, this level of cosmic self-awareness is being realized in only one tiny fragment of the universe—in us.

7. The findings of modern science are mind-boggling: matter is energy, space itself can bend, time slows down at great speeds, great energies can be released from tiny nuclei, the universe is expanding and the rate of expansion is accelerating, we can communicate almost instantaneously across the planet, we travel through air and space in flying machines, and we can even turn the spotlight of discovery around towards our own minds and behavior.

8. The benefits of modern science to our well-being and comfort are extraordinary. Thanks to scientific medicine and public health human life expectancy has nearly doubled since our great-grandparents day.

9. Science in the future, if applied with wisdom, may be valued not just for its fantastic technological uses and discovery of facts, but also, as Rene Dubos put it “to understand as well as possible the nature of life and of man in order to give more meaning and value to human existence.”

10. And here is a scientific astonishment that should hit home deeply for every one of us: The odds of a “specific me” coming into existence are so statistically and incalculably improbable, it is, quite bluntly, a deep wonder and privilege just to be alive.

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But wait, some critics may respond, these scientific wonders cannot fulfill personal spiritual meanings. What about an afterlife? What about a deity or power who loves and cares about me, for whom I have a specific purpose?

Well, no, science cannot directly provide for these specific longings, but then here is what matters. There are sources of genuine personal meaning. There is passionate engagement. There is human goodness. And there is love. From these, belonging and purpose and legacy spring. These come from us. And we are part of the universe. In that profound sense, then, there is meaning in the universe after all.

 

Image: sektordua on Flickr.

Lawrence Rifkin About the Author: Lawrence Rifkin is a physician and a writer. Links to his writings on science, meaning, humanism, and medicine are at lawrencerifkin.wordpress.com. Follow on Twitter @LSRifkin.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 8:12 pm 10/8/2013

    “What about an afterlife? What about a deity or power who loves and cares about me, for whom I have a specific purpose?” what about my desire to be a Jedi Knight? You don’t look to science to fulfill your fantasies, you look to fiction, and that’s what the faithful have done, they just don’t realize it yet.

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  2. 2. cardcolm 11:38 pm 10/8/2013

    “2.There are more stars in the universe than words ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.”

    How true… the number of ways to shuffle an ordinary deck of cards is 52! which is about 8×10^67. In the great scheme of things isn’t so far from 10^80, the current estimate for the number of atoms in the universe. http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=number+of+atoms+in+the+universe Please see http://aperiodical.com/2012/05/like-everybody-else-you-too-can-be-unique-just-keep-shuffling/

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  3. 3. HeavenlySpawn12 9:38 am 10/9/2013

    Science is SO great, but ya’ll need to re-LAX with the belief in it as a replacement for God. It does not have to be one or the other.

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  4. 4. KJ000 4:34 am 10/15/2013

    Sorry, but this is a load of deluded Pollyanna nonsense. Is it so remarkably wonderful that we live on a planet where 25,000 die of hunger every day? Where wars rage incessantly? Where adults and children are murdered, raped, starved and tortured?

    As for No.10, over a million people commit suicide every year and that figure is rising continuously. Is it so wonderful they came into existence?

    Science is neutral and value free. Sadly the human animal who uses it will always remain a warped and tormented creature. I suggest the author of this piece lifts his head from the microscope and starts observing the human world.

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  5. 5. Dr. Strangelove 11:36 pm 10/15/2013

    @cardcom
    Shuffling cards and speaking words are entirely different things. Estimated number of humans who ever lived is 100 billion. If each one speak one word per second, non-stop 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 100 years, they would have spoken 3.15 x 10^20 words. Estimated number of stars in visible universe is 10^21. So it’s true there are more stars than spoken words.

    For me the greatest wonder is how the unintelligent universe created intelligent life. If you say there must be an intelligent creator, then who created the creator? You need another intelligent creator. Infinite regression. Circular reasoning. Reduction to absurdity. Therefore the premise must be wrong.

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