I can vividly remember the first time I experienced awe. I was probably about six years old and my dad had taken me to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. At some point during the afternoon, we attended a show at their planetarium — the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Seated halfway toward the back and near the left side, I began to feel excitement bubble through me as the lights dimmed. I don’t remember much after this point until The Moment arrived, about ten minutes later. As a scientist, I am frequently asked where my interest in science came from, and without hesitation, I describe to them The Moment. It is a core element of my identity. It represents, for me, the beginning of a lifelong journey of knowledge and of incomprehension, of excitement and of frustration, of love and of loss.
As The Moment begins, I am surrounded by the low hum of electronics and by a darkness so dense it’s as if I could reach out and grab it. There must have been narration through The Moment, but I don’t remember its contents — only the presence of a soothing male voice with a tone like honey. An image appears on the screen — a blue star with swirling seas of gas and a surface the color of the Caribbean. As it voyages through space and across the screen, it begins to spiral. Its outer layers are pulled off and consumed by a void in the center of the screen, and it orbits faster and faster, entering into what I soon realized was to become a deadly cosmic dance with a ravenous black hole. The star grows smaller and smaller as it nears the void, its Caribbean-blue layers trying desperately and in futility to avoid their inevitable fate. The electronic humming reached a crescendo and then… nothing. The star is gone. The Moment lasts for several more seconds, as I let that image — that violent and beautiful image — fade from my mind.
As scientific knowledge has advanced, its critics have often railed against its ability to undermine man’s place in the universe. Knowledge of science, they say, can cause some people to feel insignificant in a massive and indifferent universe. Enlightenment has dislodged our view of the Earth as the center of the universe and has allowed people to begin to grasp just how vast our universe is; a logical thought that follows for many is that in such an immense space, we are mere specks of dust — insubstantial and fleeting. Furthermore, with our ability to describe our universe almost entirely through quantitative terms, many feel that qualitative description has lost its place in the world — that numbers have replaced wonder and equations have replaced awe.
When I think back to my own journey toward scientific knowledge, this seems essentially true, at least on the surface. After The Moment, my appetite for science — especially astronomy — became insatiable. For years, I read anything I could get my hands on. My parents drove me to the library on more days than not, and my dad frequently picked up science books for me on his way home from work. I consumed magazines and newspaper articles. I sat for entire afternoons with a book in my hands and a dictionary open on my lap. My teachers let me skip lessons to read science books or to help our school librarian organize the card catalog (I’m not that old, but my tiny elementary school was rather technologically backward).
The years went by and I entered college, bright-eyed and bushy-haired. I quickly declared an astrophysics major and loaded my schedule with classes in that realm. I sat through Intro to Astrophysics, Modern Physics, Observational Methods, Physics of the Interstellar Medium, and even Extraterrestrial Life in the Galaxy. And I found that the more I learned, the less I wondered. The more adept I became at calculating the orbit of a planet or determining the lifetime of a star based on its mass, the less beautiful and more technical the universe became. The image of a wild and violent and untamed black hole was replaced by one of an entity that simply behaves in the manner that gravity prescribes. While I had consumed a great deal of science material as a child, this material was different in nature than what I learned in college. As a child, I learned about physical descriptions of objects; as a college student, I learned about mathematical ones. As a ten-year-old, I might tell someone that a single spoonful of a neutron star can weigh a billion tons; as a college student, I might tell someone that neutron stars are formed when neutron degeneracy pressure becomes the only force with the ability to counteract a dying star’s inward gravitational collapse, and I might tell them how to calculate the mass of a neutron star given the mass of its parent star.
It’s no wonder then that midway through my junior year, I dropped the astrophysics major in favor of chemistry. It seemed to me that in the world of professional astrophysics that I had entered, there was no room for The Moment. In that world, The Moment — and other moments like it — were strangled by logic and held hostage by reason. My increased knowledge of science had made the universe feel like a cold and uncaring place, rather than the bright and awe-inspiring place of my childhood. But is this an inherent consequence of scientific enlightenment? Despite my experience with this exact phenomenon, I would answer “no”.
It is in our nature to categorize. Good or bad, safe or dangerous, beautiful or ugly, pleasant or painful, exciting or boring, black or white. While this tendency allows humans to make important snap decisions based on past experience, it can also lead us to see things in a single color, when in reality, a whole rainbow is present. In pigeonholing science into a single category — be it rigid, colorless, dull, or monotonous — we inadvertently discount the possibility that science can be both a bastion of objectivity and a haven for beauty and wonder. This dialectic is, for me, the key. The way I experienced science in college does not need to displace the way I experienced it in my childhood. These two experiences can both exist together, not fighting against each other, but rather acting in harmonic complement. The knowledge that a neutron star is supported by neutron degeneracy pressure does not make false the fact that a teaspoon of it weighs over a billion tons. The understanding of the way a black hole distorts spacetime does not negate the image of a beautiful Caribbean blue star being inexorably pulled apart. Within this dualistic view of science, The Moment can coexist with Maxwell’s Equations and with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Within this view of science, The Moment is safe.