The fear and awe of unknowing

July 14, 2014

By Tom Burns

Americans are, if nothing else, well entertained. We gorge ourselves on light and sound generated by high-tech gadgets, but we are never satisfied. Our bellies are full, but we are still hungry.

Our stomachs are filled with air because our emotional response to the high-tech banquet lacks one critical component. We have lost our sense of awe, of slack-jawed wonder spiced with a gentle tinge of terror.

A sprinkle of fear makes the experience truly satisfying. We must know in our guts that the universe is infinitely more powerful than anything that mere humans can produce. We must, in short, stand in awe of a greater world.

In the sky, no constellation is quite so awful (in the best sense of the word) as Scorpius, the Scorpion. Go to some dark, rural location and feel the Scorpion’s sting. Before you go, look at a scorpion on the Web. Read about that tiny, bug-like creature. Learn about its deadly, poisonous barb.

Pick a crystal-clear, moonless night. Look south, low on the horizon, around midnight after the sky has gotten completely dark. Look for the fishhook-shaped collection of stars.

Scorpius is the Godzilla of scorpions, a gigantic, rapacious beast with a deadly sting. At its center, you will see the bright star Antares, red and flickering, the Scorpion’s beating heart.

Look to the left of Scorpius, and you will see the beginning of the northern Milky Way, that great, unresolved river of hundreds of billions of stars. It starts there on the southern horizon and stretches like the backbone of God across the entire sky.

Perhaps then you will feel the awe. You will see our natural world for what it really is — enormous and often inexplicable, beautiful beyond words and sometimes deadly beyond terror.

If you’re lucky, perhaps it will knock you right back on your gluteals, and you will be changed in a way that no human creation — no special-effects spectacular — can ever accomplish.

And maybe you will realize this:

As a culture, we are worried that our children are obsessed with simple sensory experience. We tell them not to do drugs, to forgo computer games, to turn off the TV. Yet we deal with the devil by making learning as cute and “spectacular” as its competition. We add lasers to our planetarium shows. We build giant scale models of dinosaurs. We blow up giant asteroids on giant movie screens.

It won’t work. We’re trying to prove that knowledge is as good as Xbox by making it look as good as Xbox, but we are lying to our children. Knowledge is much better than that.

Have you ever wondered why some people brave the math and sleepless nights to pursue the rigors of the intellectual life? You’ll know only if you have seen the Milky Way from a dark, rural site or if you have examined the subtle mysteries of a garden-variety rock.

Most “intellectuals” had some great moment of revelation, usually as a child, often unremembered. Perhaps they saw the beautiful symmetry in the subtle structure of a leaf. Perhaps it was the ineffable expression on a baby’s face. Or it might have been that indescribable moment when they stood with their parents on a rocky point and saw the universe spread so beautifully — and terribly — around them. Perhaps in one of those experiences they felt the joy of raw experience tinged with the awfulness, the sweet desolation, the divine melancholy of unknowing.

Their insatiable hunger to know does not rise from a fireworks display or a laser light show. It does not come from a desire for money, fame, or a comfortable life. Deep in their hearts, in some secret place where even they cannot find it, is that unquenchable desire to experience for a single moment that child-like awe they felt so long ago.

Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at