The Science of Wonder

Better humanity through discovery

By Corey S. Powell|Friday, September 02, 2011
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corey

"Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature."  —Michael Faraday

The quote above was a favorite of MIT physicist Philip Morrison. I had the good fortune to edit him for several years when he was a reviewer and columnist for Scientific American. He was, indeed, a man full of wonder. He helped formulate the concept of seeking alien civilizations by listening for their radio broadcasts; he lobbied for nuclear disarmament, believing that atomic power should be wielded only for constructive effect; and he helped Charles and Ray Eames create Powers of Ten, perhaps the most stunning science movie ever filmed. (If you’ve never watched it, get yourself to YouTube now. The whole thing is, amazingly, just nine minutes long.)

I was reminded of Dr. Morrison as I contemplated two kinds of wonder for this month’s special issue of DISCOVER. One is the scientific wonder—the way that sensors and scanners expand the range of the human senses. The other is the cinematic wonder—the summer movies that mine our fantasies and give them spectacular visual form. It is just coincidence that our Invisible Planet issue comes out during peak popcorn movie season, but the juxtaposition always tickles me. As entertaining as the summer blockbusters can be, they are always chasing well behind the scientists when it comes to capturing the wonder of the world.

Take X-Men. Loved the comic when I was a kid, got giddy when Magneto floated on a metal disk in the second movie. But two years ago, a pair of NASA scientists levitated a mouse using a superconducting magnet that repelled the water molecules in the creature’s body. It was part of a fairly routine experiment on simulating the zero-g environment of space. The researchers could have levitated more; they just didn’t have the resources to do so. The story didn’t make major headlines because such 
scientific marvels are so ubiquitous. It didn’t even make our “20 Things” column about magnetism. And on it goes. The fictional Professor Xavier has the ability to read minds. The real professor Greene scans brains and deciphers the mechanisms that let us make moral decisions. Movie aliens often have healing powers, but what could be stranger and more amazing than discovering that powdered pig intestine can regenerate a soldier’s broken body?

The obvious objection here is that science cheats: It achieves its wonders through technology. We don’t really have the power of levitation; only our machines do. We don’t really see the invisible; our devices do that for us. But really, which is more amazing: someone born into power or someone who earns it through ingenuity? Who would want to go see a baseball player who always bats 1.000 with no effort and no practice? Moreover, the scientific story keeps getting better as our technology takes us further and further. We can explore into the subatomic realm and achieve teleportation—real, actual teleportation. That is the core message of Faraday’s quote, and that is why I find putting together the Invisible Planet issue so electrifying.

Science and technology do not make us more than human. They make us more human, expanding our senses and our abilities to match the scope of our imagination. I cannot think of anything more wonderful than that.

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