TLV Deep Dive: Losing and Finding a Sense of Wonder«Back
TLV Deep Dive: Losing and Finding a Sense of Wonder
March 31, 2017
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
It has sure been an interesting few months after a quite an election year. The news—fake, real, biased, slanted or otherwise (who knows anymore)—is coming at us like bullets from a machine gun. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s confusing.
And it’s taking its toll. Of a survey of 500 American adults employed full-time, a third reported that they have been less productive since the election, thanks to the distraction of political news. Twenty-one percent said they read more than 20 political posts per day, which amounts to two hours of lost productivity. Nearly 75 percent said they had discussed politics with coworkers, and half said they have witnessed a political conversation at work turn into an all out argument.
For ten years, the American Psychological Association has been doing a “Stress in America” survey. Last October, half of respondents noted stress and cited the election as a major cause. By January, 57 percent claimed stress, a number that broke the survey’s records.
Therapists across the country are reporting that huge numbers of patients are obsessed by the election results. Several say not since 9/11 have this many patients been so consumed by a public event. Some therapists are so distraught themselves that they admit to struggling to stay neutral, as they are trained to do.
Then there is the matter of acute tension in the country, disdain for the other side, and sometimes violent protests. It’s fair to say that our polarization is now outright vitriol. Could this lead to, gulp, civil war? Are we already fighting the Second Civil War?
No matter your feelings about the outcome of the election and our new president…it’s rough out there right now.
For a good while, we’ve been tossing around ideas for our next TLV Deep Dive. At one point, we were considering a close look at what has been going on in rural America, those counties that played a critical role in electing Donald Trump. Then we pondered the history of globalization and what its origin and past might mean for its future. We might get to both of these topics soon enough, or not.
Our gut read was that now is not the time to contribute to the political noise, stress, and confusion, if even in a tangential way. Now is the time to help create space.
A while back, we began to consider if living in a constantly interconnected, information-overloaded world has caused us to lose our sense of wonder. It was an article about how the night sky is vanishing that prompted the thought.
An international team of scientists determined that the Milky Way is no longer visible to one-third of humanity. This is because of light pollution or “skyglow” created by artificial light. A stunning 80% of Americans and 60% of Europeans can no longer see the Milky Way.
In the following image, black areas represent locations where the natural night sky is still mostly viewable. In the blue and green areas, the ability to see stars is waning. In the yellow areas, the natural night sky is lost. In the red and white areas, there are often fewer than 100 visible stars. It’s not just major urban hubs or metropolitan areas where people don’t see stars. The glow from these dense epicenters can fan out for hundreds of miles, causing distant neighbors to experience skyglow they don’t even create. In Phoenix, light pollution dims skies 200 miles in every direction.
Most of us live in highly populated urban or metropolitan areas—those yellow, if not red and white zones of skyglow. These are man-made worlds that lend to an existence steeped in the man-made.
We communicate through computers in our hands, which often leave us looking down more than we look up. Even if we do look up, we see mostly structures and forms humans have created. As buildings get taller and closer, nature gets crowded out. For some of us, sunrises and sunsets are shrouded behind cityscape. So too is the moon sometimes hidden from view by buildings. And now for most of us, our night sky is a starless, monochromatic, dully-lit canopy, no longer a thing that reminds us we live in an unknowable universe with uncountable stars and planets.
The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines a sense of wonder as, “a feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time.” And then there is also the act of wondering. To wonder is defined as, “to think or speculate curiously; to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel (at); to doubt.”
Our minds are so over stimulated by the many modes through which we consume instant information—TVs, computers, mobile phones, tablets, Alexas, Cortanas and Siris. Even our watches and homes have gotten “smart.”
There is little need to wonder today. We can just do a search or ask a question and have our curiosities quenched in seconds. This guarantees thinking that remains small, shallow and narrow. It is the quest for an answer, the following of a curiosity that leads to new ideas, new thoughts, new discoveries. Instead of letting ourselves wonder, we often nip that brief curiosity in the bud with technology and move on.
What does it mean to grow so disconnected from the natural world? What does it mean when we repeatedly go without—or cannot access—visual reminders that our existence is miniscule relative to a vast universe around us? What does it mean to see, interact with, think about that which is mostly man-made? What does it mean to get so caught up in and consumed by the information coming at us all day that we forget to wonder? Even forget our place in the universe?
If wonder is the beginning of wisdom, as Socrates put it, what does it mean for us as individuals, as a nation, as a world if we live in circumstances and act in ways that undermine our sense of wonder?
It seems that if our attention is primarily on the man-made, our ideas, innovations and solutions will also stem from the man-made. This is not to diminish what man has achieved, which is pretty damn impressive. But it does seem to pose a risk that ideas won’t veer too far from what is already known.
Of the many geniuses of Albert Einstein, perhaps the most significant was that he did not work with the information already at hand; he worked in spite of it. Einstein was interested in both physics and philosophy, and he applied them together to break new bounds.
Einstein would conduct thought experiments about, at the time, pretty farfetched ideas—like how time might actually be a nonlinear thing that could bend, shift, and dilate depending on a host of circumstances. Once he could work out a theory through his wonder and imagination, he would then set out to prove it through traditional scientific means. If not for his insatiable sense of wonder about the universe pushing him to ponder seemingly outlandish ideas, we’d have no Albert Einstein as we know him.
As a college student at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, the young Einstein did not hide his boredom in class from his professors. Nor did he conceal his disdain for what he perceived as the “old” science they were teaching. He developed a reputation as insubordinate and arrogant. Instead of focusing on the old, Einstein was hungry to discover the new.
At first blush, this would appear a mistake. For two frustrating years after graduation, he was rejected from dozens of teaching jobs at scores of universities across Europe. His applications came with no letters of recommendation; he could not get a single college professor to write one for him.
Finally in 1902, Einstein had no choice but to take a job at a patent office, where he worked for seven years. These years are known as Einstein’s most productive. In 1905, Einstein published five scientific papers, including his “Special Theory of Relativity” that would fundamentally change physics, change the world and eventually win him a Nobel Prize.
Historians have surmised that it is because Einstein was unable to land a job in academia that he was able to change the world. Had he conducted his research while at a university, he would have been bound by the strict guidelines of academic process and theorems. Because most of his ideas were born from his imagination—not from the facts already at hand—most of his work would not have met the standards of approval for school supported research. Academics preferred to derive new hypotheses from things already proven.
Instead, in the openness of the patent office, Einstein was free to wonder.
Today we need to wonder more than ever. Our problems are big, global and growing. Our problems are also, at least in part, diagnosable as man-made. Many stem from stubbornly, almost blindly clinging to opinions, which seem arbitrary and certainly man-made relative to the vastness and order of the universe. So long as our attempts at antidotes to today’s hostile, unproductive climate are derived from what we already know, there’s reason to believe they will only beget fixes that will quickly prove temporary.
In this TLV, we will consider the inputs and threats to a sense of wonder and what we gain and lose with or without it. And for a healthy, humbling dose of awe-inspiring perspective, we’ll also include some reminders of just how immense and mysterious our universe is and just how small we are. We’ll do so through some imagery peppered throughout and then mostly at the end.
To prime yourself, an icon of childhood to remind us that we are all born with sense of wonder…
“We have an obligation to imagine.”
- Neil Gaiman
- Neil Gaiman
Crater-pocked Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons
THE CLUTTERED MIND
"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
- Albert Einstein
The modern world clutters the mind. It assaults us with stimulus to all senses, all the time. How can there possibly be any room left for a sense of wonder and curiosity when we are under constant sensory and cognitive overload?
The American Psychological Association just released a longitudinal report on social media use and found a correlation between social media and stress. In 2005, 7 percent of Americans used social media. Today, it’s up to 65 percent. Forty-three percent of Americans qualify as “constant checkers,” people who are always checking their email, texts, and social media accounts. This group reports a level of stress higher than average.
There are many theories as to why social media is driving people insane. It could be because so many use it to keep up on political news. It’s also been known to heighten feelings of envy, create a sense of isolation and lead to depression, particularly in young adults. Then there’s the possibility that it’s also cluttering the mind with that much more information.
In “The truth is out there, isn’t it?," an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, the hosts and guest tackle “social incompetence,” the idea that even smart, educated people do dumb things. An expert in social incompetence found something pretty fascinating. It appears that the more information we have about something, the more likely we are to hold an extreme view of it. In the podcast, they use the topic of climate change to make the point.
Climate change believers like to say that the other side is “anti-science” or just plain uninformed. The believers, as it turns out, are likely off base—at least in terms of how they perceive those with opposing views.
Interestingly, if you have a strong opinion one way or the other about climate change, you are likely to be educated, very informed and have a solid grasp on basic scientific understanding—even those who are suspect about theories on climate change. What’s more, the more educated you are, the savvier you are at seeking out perspectives that affirm your own. You are also more likely to surround yourself with people who agree with you. And should you somehow get lost and find yourself amongst those who hold a different view, you are less likely to speak up because you know the hyperbolic view they will take of you (because you have a similar view of them).
The more you know…the not better?
One of those definitions of wonder was “to doubt.” If that is true, then tossing on “facts” on top of more “facts” can, it appears, undermine wonder. All those facts make us less prone to doubt and more apt to adopt an extreme view, with conviction, and then in an echo chamber.
“Sometimes you have to lose your mind, just to keep your sanity.”
- Doug Leyendecker
- Doug Leyendecker
THE CLEAR MIND
Over the summer, a neuroscientist by the name of Moshe Bar published findings of an experiment that, in his words, helped him understand “how much we overlook, not just about the world, but also the full potential of our inner life when our mind is cluttered.”
In the experiment, he and his research assistant tested the creativity of participants at varying degrees of cognitive load. Creativity was measured by free association tasks. Participants would be given a word and asked to share the first response that came to mind. The researchers induced cognitive load by asking groups of participants to simultaneously engage in an easy or challenging task, such as remember a string of two numbers or seven numbers, or naming the alphabetical order of the first two or three letters of a word.
They found that the higher the mental load, the less creative the association responses were, like “black” shared in response to “white.” Participants with lighter cognitive stress were more creative, with answers like “cloud” in response to “white.”
“These experiments suggest that the mind’s natural tendency,” Bar said, “is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution.”
Grand Teton National Park
HOW TO CULTIVATE A SENSE OF WONDER
What is the opposite of our ever-extreme and entrenched views? Is it moderation? Maybe. Or might it be ambiguity—and a comfort with it? To even begin to find out, we have to loosen our minds, try to somehow clear out the old beliefs and ways of thinking. But how?
Philosophy. Philosophy is a great place to start. Philosophy is often the ugly stepchild of college majors. It’s seen as archaic, useless, of no value. But if its objective rests in a “love of wisdom” (as its etymology suggests), if its aim is to wonder, to doubt, to question everything, achieve new levels of understanding and arrive at…more wonder, how can that ever be outdated or of no value?
Philosophy as a thinking tool can chip away at beliefs and thought patterns and reveal new ones. It can pretty quickly prove that there’s little we can ever know with any certitude or finality. For there are as many perspectives as there are people, and that still gets us only at what we can know.
Consider this philosophical exercise:
How many numbers are in this image?
But wait…Could there be more than that? Could you see the number 22? And if you can, does the two instances of 22 count as one number or two? Or are there 4 instances of 22? On that line of thinking, is there only one number in this image? Can you see the number 222? And 2,222? What if you begin multiplying the numbers? Do you now have 4, 8, 16? Where does it end?
A simple graph with four 2s, and we’re off and running with a philosophical question that has no single, definitive answer. Our mind is forced open, forced to be nimble, forced to consider other perspectives. We might even find it’s also now in an inquisitive state. What else isn’t so simple? What else thought to be known is actually open for interpretation or fair game for further study? Is everything open to interpretation? Can anything ever truly be known, be a “fact”?
By the way, the Philosophy Foundation out of the UK advocates teaching children philosophy in grade school. Children exposed to philosophical thinking gain sharper reasoning and communication skills. They are more adept at grappling with unfamiliar concepts. To the interview subjects in the following video, there is an even more important benefit. Philosophy can be a safeguard against education systems that seek to control students’ thinking and indoctrinate certain beliefs.
Something to keep in mind before we move onto the awe-inspiring vastness of the universe…
There was a time when Aristotle was the smartest guy in the room, until Galileo put a fork in that. Newton came along and stole Galileo’s thunder, and then Einstein did the same to Newton. Over the years, new research has threatened to poke some holes in Einstein’s theories. So far, nothing has stuck. But it could only be a matter of time.
A binary black hole, viewed from above
REMINDER: THE UNIVERSE IS INCREDIBLE
Perhaps the greatest power of marveling at the universe is that it’s impossible to do so and believe you—just one person, around for one brief moment in time—can actually know much of anything.
The ambiguity afforded in the universe can be liberating. Realizing you can never know for sure frees from the need to know. You are freed from the smallness of beliefs and opinions. You are freed to wonder, land on this idea, then move onto another one, even if contradictory. And who knows the ideas and capital “T” truths you can stumble upon from an open and nimble mind.
Go forth and wonder. Do it for its pure joy. Do it for what you might discover. But also do it in the name of contributing openness, not closed-mindedness, to our contentious, overly-opinionated, overly-stubborn, overly-loud world. Do it to help us move through and out of these acutely tense times.
Scientists discover 7 Earth-sized, possibly habitable planets
Did you hear that scientists just discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the bright, red dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1? Some of those planets might even be habitable or…inhabited. The discovery is colossal in its implications. Scientists have launched the website, trappist.one, devoted to this planetary system. The discovery has inspired art, fiction, and even poetry. Astronomer Sean Raymond, who co-authored a study about the planetary system, wrote the charming “Ode to 7 Orbs,” which is worth a read.
View this link if you’re curious about the technology used to discover the TRAPPIST-1 system.
New evidence for the strange idea that the universe is a hologram
And why not? Because who knows.
Our universe is too vast for even the most imaginative sci-fi
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
25 facts and stunning pictures about Saturn’s rings
Made up primarily of ice water, Saturn’s rings are held in orbit by the complex gravitational influences of the gas giant and its moons—some of which are actually located within the rings. Watch the video for more Saturn trivia.
Astronomy picture of the day
An excellent, NASA-managed site to bookmark. Each day, a new astronomy picture is uploaded to spark some wonder. Every once in a while, you get videos. Like this one of an active night over the Magellan Telescopes in Chile:
Earth is also pretty incredible…
Winner of the Underwater Photography of the Year award
The award went to Alex Mustard’s “Dancing Octopus,” celebrated for how it captures how the hunting octopus moves differently from any land predator.
A close second was Nick Blake’s “Out of the Blue,” photographed in a freshwater sinkhole in Mexico.
18 of the most surreal landscapes on earth
Two to get you started.
Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah is home to brightly geological structures called hoodoos, formed by frost, weathering and erosion.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The “forest” of limestone needles was made when underground water eroded the existing limestone.