On Science

On Science

IMG_7944-1Yesterday I woke up to a bear in the yard.

He wasn’t doing anything really, just milling about. I watched him through the window, basked in orange sunlight as he snooped. Then I packed my things to go swimming.

I’m not much of a swimmer. I did a lap across the lake, pausing in the middle to lie on my back, float and stare upwards. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I let my wetsuit suspend me, limbs dangling in the water. When I exhaled I sunk. When I inhaled I rose. I watched clouds track overhead, felt the ripples as they brushed my face, then closed my eyes, floating. I stayed like that, motionless, just breathing, for what felt like hours. It may have only been a minute; I lost track of time. Then I turned into the water and aimed for the near shore.

Driving home my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. “Hi, this is Erik.”

On the other end was Gene Likens, the scientist who 50 years ago discovered acid rain. An ecologist and former Dartmouth College professor, his most recognized work took place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a site an hour drive from where I spent my swim. Likens co-wrote a book on the forest, and I thought it might be worthy of a story. We spent 20 minutes talking. He described the surprise of discovering acid rain.

“Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said, but “the very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” up to 100 times the normal levels.

What got them to look at rainwater? Curiosity.

“It was purely serendipity,” he said. “So much of science is this way.”

“We didn’t set out to discover acid rain,” he said. “It was there and we ran with it.”

A quote has sat on my desktop for several years:

The beauty of science is not in the answers it provides, but in the act of questioning. And each question leads to more questions. There are no answers, only infinite questions.”

It’s not a quote from some book or from anybody famous. It’s mine, just some musings I scribbled. I jotted it down one day when it popped into my head, something I didn’t want to forget, even though I’ve now forgotten the context it came from.

But yesterday I heard echoes of it in Likens. He was not studying stream water to prove some point. He was there to learn, driven by curiosity. It was a search of wonder, devoid of ego, even though it eventually made a name for Likens.

Science is built on such wonder. It is the act of questioning, of exploration and answers so tenuous they are subject to constant revision. But through the soft passage of time, through the constant brushstrokes of curiosity, a truth emerges. What emerges is the heart, the soul of our world, something foundational. But no part is so sacred it cannot be discarded, slain. Everything is open to more questions. There is something beautiful in that.

I can’t help but wonder if religion is born from the same roots, if at one point humans looked at the majesty of the universe and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Who could have made such a beautiful thing?!” and the answer they came up with was God.

That question is a perfect one. Who could have made such a beautiful thing? What could have led to this, to this world and this life? They echo the question scientists ask today. Look into the heart of the world. Whether your launch point is science or religion it is impossible not to be overcome by wonder, by beauty and grace and the perfect harmony of things larger than ourselves. How does the Earth spin around the Sun? How did life come into being? How did so much order grow out of seemingly infinite chaos?

Those questions were with me too. They were in the bear sitting outside the window yesterday morning, in the beat of my heart in my head, in the caress of the water and the color of the sky. They are questions I asked the lake lying on prone in the water, buoyed up by a force I will never fully understand, asked the sky gazing at clouds dotting a blue so striking it felt like more water. Neither revealed their secrets, but they shared gifts just the same.

Wonder. Beauty. Grace. These are both the heart of science and the heart of religion. Indeed, they are perhaps the heart of everything. The magic of creation is captured in a piece of music, a Van Gogh painting, in Shakespeare and Hemingway. In the movie that speaks to our hearts, in the play that touches our souls, in the book that we come back to and back to. Science, religion, music, art—it is all the same. It is all one thing, different versions of the same dance.

And that dance can take place in the world, with the Earth as your partner: the perfect wave to the surfer, the long winding trail to the runner, the sweep of immaculate stone to the climber. The friend that stands opposite you in dark times. The lover who shares your bed. Creations all. Art, science, religion, beauty all. Questions, infinite questions, too big to ever contain in something so small as an answer, all.

I wrote the piece on Likens today. It will never do justice to his story. But his answers are not the point. He is a scientist; the point is always the questions.

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