Question of the Week 02-24-16

Feb 23, 2016

Renowned physicist Lawrence Krauss eloquently describes the beauty and wonder of pure science in almost poetic terms. Share with us an incident in your life that both illuminated the natural world and inspired awe. How might we better imbue this sense of the ordinary as extraordinary in others?


Be sure to also check out Lawrence’s piece about why now is the time to put an open atheist on the Supreme Court!

First time winners will receive a copy of Richard’s book “An Appetite for Wonder”!

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? Email submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

22 comments on “Question of the Week 02-24-16

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    . . . How might we better imbue this sense of the ordinary as extraordinary in others?

    Sorry, but this sentence is gibberish. Perhaps the author of it means this:

    How might we better imbue others with this sense of the ordinary as extraordinary?

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  • Imbue is superficial, originally “to give an appearance of”, being to wet or paint from its etymology, so to “imbue in” is a preposition too far.

    Instill is the word we really want, implying to drop in little by little. Now the preposition is conventionally used.

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  • How might we better instill in others this sense of the ordinary as extra-ordinary?

    I regard religion, at base, once all dogma is stripped away, as representing the aesthetic take on the world of the chronically fearful. These are the folk who need to cast bounds around the possible, to live in a world that comes with some safety approved stamp of its suitability for us, the need to limit our liability, the need to retain some of the boons and protections of childhood.

    Not being falsely promised an eternity of life when very young, and so not then being made fearful of death by the inevitable learning this may not be true after all or not true for sinful you leads to braver grown ups in my experience. Adventurers, with only one life to spend are more amazed at how far we have come and how far we can see by our own unassisted hand and eye. Such folk are made of braver people. You aren’t peering into God’s back garden, this is an Eden of your own nor will you be kicked out of it..

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  • A golden light.

    I think it must of been Autum. We have large trees just over the back of our garden which border a school field. They are very tall, and at that time of year have beautiful yellow and golden brown leaves.

    I think the sun must of been at a low angle, and perhaps the composition of the air was also a factor. I happened to look out of the bedroom window, and there was a beautiful golden light shining through the trees and, the leaves. It had a mystical quality to it, if I can call it that. As if it was a special effect in a film. I dont think the leaves are completely opaque, and must of acted like a filter to the light.

    It made me pause, and think how beautiful nature is, and how much I must miss with the to and fro of life. To think that the photons of light from our star the sun, had given life to the very trees that the golden light was now shining through.

    A simple natural event, a free gift from nature. I will look out this autum to see if it happens again.

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  • Start reading some really wonderful books, such as The selfish gene, or Genome; the wonderful complexity of biology and DNA will unfold before your eyes; you will be truly awed. And it’s an awe that does not go away; suddenly you’ll find that you want know more and more, and that is the true fascination of science. Whatever the imaginary hole of saying goodbye to religion left you with, will be filled over before you know it, and make you (If not a better person) a much better informed human whose eyes are open to the everyday wonders of complexities, and that fascination can last a lifetime. This happened to me after reading The god delusion, and it was the elegance of arguments that won me over to start reading more, and become more interested in DNA. genetics and biology. (I’ve always been a science junky :))
    A couple of books to whet your appetite for amazement:
    A brief history of time Hawkins
    Infidel Hirsi Ali
    The portable atheist Hitchens
    Godel Escher Bach Hofstadter
    Lowly origin Kingdon
    Summer for the gods Larson
    Atheist universe Mills
    The naked ape Morris
    Genome Ridley
    The red queeen Ridley
    The satanic verses Rushdie
    Before the dawn Wade
    The first three minutes Weinberg
    One renegade cell Weinberg
    The beak of the finch Weiner

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  • I was four years old when I caught my first caterpillar. I named him Pongo and placed him carefully in a critter container for observation. I loved that caterpillar. He was beautiful–vivid greens and yellows, strong black lines. I spent great amounts of time watching him crawl over the leaves and sticks I lovingly placed in the container. I wasn’t sure what he liked to eat, so I put a little bit of every plant I could find. I’ve seen a great many beautiful caterpillars since then, but there was never one that I loved so much or thought so beautiful as Pongo.

    Now that I’m grown, I have moved away from the religion I grew up with, and embraced the wonder of science. Just think of all the processes that had to happen to get us to the point we are today! I think the ordinary will become extraordinary for anyone who takes the time to learn about all of the situations, systems, processes, and events that had to happen to get us to this present, this now, where we can pick up something very normal (such as a caterpillar) and know that its existence has balanced on the edge of knife for billions of years, and yet is here. And you can touch it.

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  • Collapsing Waves

    One warm September afternoon while staying in Newquay, Cornwall, UK, I took my surfboard to Fistral beach. It was a calm, sunny day with a 2 to 3 foot swell and gentle offshore breeze.

    I hadn’t been surfing very long at that time, maybe a couple of seasons whenever I could get to the coast but I became aware that much of what I’d learned as a surfer had become ingrained. I would notice the breeze, the types of clouds in the sky, the temperature and humidity of the air and make predictions about what the conditions would be like, for example seeing a ridge of cloud that marks a weather front, would tell me roughly the direction of the centre of the weather system (where the swell would come from) and the direction of the wind depending on which bit of coast I went to.

    Anyway, I got to the beach, which was crowded and noisy. children squealing, the constant murmur of thousands of conversations and shouts of beach games, gulls calling, cars arriving and leaving the car park, all merging in a discordant cacophony with the regular crash and hiss of waves breaking and sucking back out.

    As I walked out into the sea, the sounds from the beach were swallowed up by the surf breaking, only the highest pitched cries breaking through. Paddling out only the surf could be heard, every now and then becoming an almost deafening roar then suddenly cut off in a muffled low frequency boom as the waves washed over filling my pointy ears before surfacing to the sound of my own gasp and a much quieter hiss as the broken wave continued past me to the beach.

    Eventually I reached the break line, exhausted from the paddle out (not very fit) and sat up watching the horizon in the glare of dappled sunlight hardly aware of how “aware” I was of everything; every rise and fall of the silent rolling waves lifting me and dropping me as they passed under, and the myriad physical adjustments I was making to keep balance while feeling totally relaxed, trying to imagine the forces pushing and pulling me under the surface, as I imagined them as fractal vortices giving me little nudges in all directions as they pass by me, themselves becoming broken up into smaller whorls as they hit my legs. The changes in temperature as rolls of warm and cool water teased my feet, the cool breeze and the cold spray of the top of each breaking wave as the offshore wind took it to me, the heat of the sun on my drying upper wetsuit, and just relaxing as part of all of this. Helpless against even the slightest forces if I resisted, but supported by them as I submitted.

    Panning round I could see all of Fistral Bay blazing in the sunlight, the crowd of humans looked tiny but I noticed something else. From this position, the sounds had completely changed. The breaking waves no longer deafening as their shape directed the sound to the beach and I was now behind them. Now each breaking wave started as a trickle from the start of the curl to my left as I sat looking towards the beach, growing as it crossed in front of me to my right but more like a gentle low-pitched sigh. Listening for a while I was reminded of the sound of a heartbeat picked up by ultrasound scanners but slowed right down so each beat lasted 20 seconds (I think it was 20, not sure now but I often glanced at my watch’s second hand timing them and trying to “feel” the rhythm of each set). The angry waves that tried to push me back to the beach were now gently guarding me from those noisy little humans.

    The noisy humans themselves had changed too. No longer a cacophony of competing shouts, but conversations. So far away I couldn’t distinguish between them looking but I could actually make out individual conversations from people just talking. Must have been something to do with the topography of the beach helping the sound carry out to sea, although under the constant pulse of waves hissing, they sounded distant and band-pass filtered like listening on a poor telephone line. With a slight turn of the head or maybe just thinking about it, I could tune out one conversation and listen to another.

    For a few moments that day I experienced all these things while looking at some of the most beautiful coastline in the UK from the ocean, listening to one of nature’s many rhythms feeling waves of temperature changes and under a deluge of electromagnetic waves of all frequencies from the lowest warming me to the highest turning my face brown with white crow’s feet from squinting, and all the dazzling frequencies between; whites blues and greens dancing off the surface ripples, gold glaring from the sand and green of the distant hills wriggling as it passes through the rising heat haze of the beach all under a clear blue dome, with a few white clouds hinting at the subtle gradations of temperature, pressure and humidity in the troposphere.

    This was probably 25 years ago now and to this day I couldn’t tell you if I caught one decent wave or not. But I was brought up in a religious background. Taken to church and dragged to shrines surrounded by people apparently experiencing awe and wonder in these draughty, damp barns surrounded by pictures and statues and other man-made artefacts that were supposed to do something magical to me just by being there, and only ever felt the desire to be outside in the sunshine or rain or snow away from that dreadful singing, stifling Sunday clothes (or worse, alter-boy garbs) and smell of burning wax, incense and damp old hassocks. Never once did I get a hint of what I was supposed to feel.

    However, that lonely afternoon with just me, a few other wave-worshipers on the line up offering no more than the occasional silent nod and smile, and my Chris Jones 7’2 F-nose, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life, and all of it thanks to natural phenomena and my little brain asking “what might be going on here?” over and over.

    Now I’m old and mangy and cynical, I tell myself much of this experience must have become coloured by nostalgia and maybe what seemed like a long lazy time bobbing on waves contemplating reality was actually just a micro-second of self-delusion reconstructed after the event to rationalise why that brief moment stuck with me.

    I’m sure it’s not the case but even if it is, aren’t neurons amazing when they get together?

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  • 8
    fadeordraw says:

    For the “sharing” part of the question of the week:

    1stly, I’ll offer a very mundane miracle which was nevertheless a foundation for my atheism. My childhood was in a loving practicing RC family; I was an alter boy… (grade school and HS were in the secular system). I think I was embarrassing old, like 11, when I adopted the practice that lost things had to be somewhere; that there was no invisible realm that had claimed them (though years later with the evidence of lost laundry socks, I had my doubts about its validity). Removing the mythical from possible understandings of what’s going on and incorporating it into my way of being, was indeed a milestone for me, though rather obvious, hardly awe-inspiring.

    2ndly, many, many moons later, something that attempts the inspiring (from my Lac Simon Sonnets):

    Why could atheist I cry, “Oh my God”?
    Swimming naked in the warm night lake, I
    Float on my back and gaze at the broad
    Infinite expanse of the star-filled sky.
    My awe-struck exultation seems so odd,
    Coming from one who insists that we deny
    His very existence. Am I a fraud?
    When I preach we must deny, do I lie?
    But I don’t doubt the truth about God,
    For there he is in my honouring cry!
    In our histories and cultures there is God
    And I can’t deny that He’ll ever die.
    So beneath the starry heavens we find
    What exists and what exists in the mind.

    As for the, “How might we better imbue this sense of the ordinary as extraordinary in others?” part of the question:

    1stly (as others noted), I’m weary of “we” and “imbue”, as well as “this sense” (the feeling thing from the awe inspiration sharing?), “ordinary…extraordinary” and “others”. Is the questioner getting at “as extraordinary and awe inspiring as Heaven”? Are “we” inducing the “they” with examples of wondrous breakthroughs and “better” living?

    2ndly, having said that: sharing works.

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  • I’m in my 60’s now but my mum still tells the story that the first word I spoke as a child was “Why”. I’ve had the luck (?? genes??) of being born curious. So the “Beauty and Wonder” were minute by minute, day by day occurrences. In my eyes, this was just “Normal”. I couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to put a snail on a window, then run inside and watch the ripples of the snails foot move it along. Under every rock was a menagerie of beasts. Just to look up at the blazing night school during an Australian winter.

    I don’t have one single major event that I can point to. I have a lifetime of events, some small, some larger, that when combined, are a MAJOR event that took a lifetime to acquire. Touring the Large Hadron Collider. Big. Standing in the control room of the Parkes Radio Telescope, the one that brought the moon landing to your television and more recently, looked right through the Milky Way to find a cluster of around 100 galaxies nearby that explain the motion of our galaxy. Something they now call the Great Attractor. How good is that. To lie in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine and picture all my water molecules lining up and flicking back, emitting a tiny flash of energy. My gut bacteria working their way through that bucket of high fibre muesli I had for breakfast and converting some of that to methane, which can amuse the grand children.

    I put a nesting box in the 30 metre gum tree in my back yard. I’ve had a nesting pair of Australian Eastern Rosellas every year. They visit my tree a few times a day and declare their territory. An absolute privilege to witness. Come sit with me and enjoy a cup of tea and watch the Rosellas.

    As to how others can feel this… I don’t know. My instinct is that it is a “Gift” (I can’t think of a non religious word). When I move around the current circle of my friends and acquaintances, most are still the people who wouldn’t be amazed to watch a snail slide up a window. I think its the human condition. For most of humanity, just living occupies most of the life. Did their sports team win. Office politics. Getting shit faced at the office christmas party. Fast food. Going to a shopping mall is a family outing. WTF. Watching unreality TV. I think this might be the human baseline. So thank you genes for my curiosity.

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  • 10
    Iskinder says:

    Born, raised and educated in Ethiopia, (with thankfully an amazing secular constitution but with an almost entire population of 90 million unable to differentiate between religiosity, and morality and goodness), I believe I have something to say here. My previous assertion might have you taken off guard but it sure would seem very plausible if you, like me, find yourself inundated with local magazines and other outlets that loudly, enthusiastically, and unilaterally reject and demonize homosexuality, unbelief in the Christian or Muslim God, or any critical views of faith-based claims. Now, imagine the friction of core values and the suffocation an openly secular person like myself would feel to find himself in a place where not only faith and religion have free passes to almost anything but also when friends, family and virtually everybody you know do not find anything wrong with the mentioned state of affairs. My growing understanding of science in general, and a deeper enthusiasm and awe and inspiration by the science of evolution in particular, came to my rescue and made me make an important decision in my life: to pursue a polymer science graduate degree in the US almost horizontally drifting from my undergraduate training in civil engineering. I am now able to do fundamental reading and research in diverse areas from the origins of life, to mimicking billions-of-years-old evolutionary perfection of biological structures with polymeric materials, to lots of other exciting areas that do nothing but quench my thirst for fundamental science originally triggered by knowing and learning about evolution. There is really no one specific incident that I would pick over others that just automatically makes me in awe about evolution in my day to day life. I am enthralled by contemplating my protective instinct refined and passed down to me from perhaps thousands of ancestors when I find myself helpless but have the urge to pay on a first date and make my feminist-oriented date slightly uncomfortable by instinctively assuming such a position. But so am I in awe when I read and learn about how evolution shaped the incredibly strong spider webs, or the unique smelling capabilities of dogs, or even when I don’t take for granted the precision of my hand and fingers to put pen to paper. And there is a chilling, but exciting feeling I get when I think about how much of my DNA is also the DNA of the banana I had after lunch and how long ago I had a common ancestor with it. As to how we can instill this inspiration in others, I would say talk, discuss, teach, encourage, invite to online lectures or documentaries, lead to a popular science book, or do whatever is within your means to help the people around you grasp the simplicity yet immense explanatory power of our evolutionary understanding. Then, I am sure more and more of us will realize that the ordinary around us is indeed extraordinary if only we put our evolutionary glasses on.

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  • I am a social studies teacher. It’s amazing how little thought we give to common occurrences in the world around us, and I decided one day to introduce the unit on the Scientific Revolution by using Galileo’s experiment to show that falling objects fall at the same speed regardless of their mass. Many of my students guess correctly, but it is still exciting to see the look on their faces when I drop a baseball and a tiny rubber ball and they hit the floor at the same time. We repeat the experiment and my students try it as well, dropping the balls from different heights, and using balls of different sizes and weights. It leads to great discussions and additional experiments (dropping a ball and a flat piece of paper, crumpling up the paper, watching Apollo astronaut David Scott drop a feather and a hammer, etc.). It’s a great way to bridge disciplines!

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  • 13
    fadeordraw says:

    re: # 8

    “1stly (as others noted), I’m weary of “we” and “imbue”…” Should read, “I’m wary …”. My smell-check missed a worm.

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  • When I was very young, maybe about 4 or 5, I can remember being in our front garden with my Mum. She pointed out some little plants called Lily of the Valley and said they smell lovely. I fought my way through the jungle of plants and bent over the little cream coloured flowers and was totally in awe of the scent. I could hardly believe that such a small tiny plant could have such a strong and beautiful scent. In my mind, the little flowers filled the whole garden with perfume and I thought I had discovered the best thing in the world, and right there in the garden under my nose. From then on I was fascinated with all the different scents, flowers and seed pods…and still am!

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  • The Permian Extinction, Thrinaxodon and a chink in a Christian’s armor conspired to pierce my faith bubble and reveal true wonder and awe. In the Summer of 2015 a ‘dawn of the dinosaurs’ program briefly presented the mammal-like reptiles that suffered and survived the Great Dying. One stood out. Thrinaxodon was cute and dog-like enough to move me with compassion and spark curiosity in its ancient past and distant future. Research took me back to the Cambrian and forward to today. The academic presentation of vertebrate evolution was replaced with the deep realization that I owe my existence to early notochord animals of that early world and to those that preceded it. All the way back to bacteria. All the way up to bipedal hominids leaving Africa.

    The idea that Thrinaxodon was merely a cog in the clockwork creation of a Creator who had mankind as His goal was suddenly obscene. No intelligent design argument sufficed. My life is the result of a spectacular convergence of physical events, not the will of the divine. My previously strong faith then tenuously stood on creation itself. Enter the late, great Christopher Hitchens who in Youtube debates pointed me to the work of Lawrence Krauss and his theoretical work on the emergence of something from nothing. And to the realization that whether what Lawrence posited was correct or not, the actual answer will certainly be natural and physical. Full stop. Whatever fear I had of meaninglessness and hopelessness, I had to accept the fact that there is no creator. As I turned to face existence without god, I did not see oblivion. I saw the magnificent triumph of life; an vast epic of which I am a part. The stardust mentioned by Segan seemed to glow within me, and wonder and awe have attended my journey ever since.

    Previously a Southern Baptist deacon from Texas, I am now among the ranks of positive atheists who stand gape-jawed at the mystic house of cards that once seemed so very sturdy to me. Feynman spoke of the pleasure of seeing life from a new perspective; truer words escape me. The wonder of all around us is seen by the faithful, but it is a kaleidoscopic version that disjoints reality. But the suffering and triumph of the faintly familiar dog-like Thrinaxodon is an avenue to the hearts of well-meaning but hopelessly deluded theists. And once there is purchase in that point of leverage, the full weight of Dawkins, Harris and Krauss can move mountains, as they have with me. I owe a deep dept of gratitude to my kind fellow rationalists, and am glad to take my place among the curious and compassionate.

    Truett Byrom
    Overgaard, Arizona

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  • Driving [at 0230] to a mine-site in the Pilbara, Western Australia I came upon a ‘lookout’ or small hill near the Tropic of Capricorn. Stopping for a break and walking a few metres from the car I was struck forcibly by the utter silence, realizing I had never experienced it in my entire 60 years of life.
    Not only that but the the frigid glittering blaze of starlight from the Milky Way
    stunned my visual apparatus, lighting up the landscape.
    No vehicles, no aircraft, no moon; all I heard was the pulsing of blood and my own breathing.
    A truly chilling feeling… Insignificant? Utterly! Awestruck- oh, YES!

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  • 20
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    How might we better imbue this sense of the ordinary as extraordinary in others?

    Sam Harris might suggest MDMA, but he always adds many caveats and disclaimers realizing open public advocacy would be irresponsible.

    In a related approach there is the classic scene where the stoners consider the analogy between solar system structure and atomic structure, but I suppose that is not ready for prime time either.

    I found the “Our Solar System: Scale Model in a City | Brain Candy TV” animation exceptionally effective. Of course, we have all heard the analogies about the coin a thousand miles away but I found the contrast between the golf ball and the buildings to provide a visceral sense of scale.

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  • Just noticed the rest of the question! Ordinariness in nature becomes extraordinary when we can relate more easily to it and see it for what it is. The solar system video mentioned is excellent. In Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow he describes the make up of the cell in such a way, by comparing it to a farm, it becomes easier to comprehend. Simply by using a magnifying glass to look at ordinary garden plants and insects, nature becomes very special. Based on my own memory of the wonderful flower scent, I would say nature is extra ordinary when you get in close either with your eyes or your nose!

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