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On Revelations

March 1, 2013

Suppose one day you had a revelation.

You were walking down the street, minding your own business, turning over the thoughts and events of your day, when bam! you woke up, looked around, and really understood your place in the majestic immensity of being.  You felt tiny, because you realized your life was only a grain of sand on the shores of the universe; you felt immense, because your mind could grasp it all; and you felt loved, because in the face of all that vastness, you still mattered.

Wouldn’t you want to run through the streets and sing hallelujahs?

Let me tell you about my revelations.

One semester I took on a full slate advanced earth science courses: stratigraphy, climate science, marine ecology, forest ecology, biogeochemistry.  They look, at first glance, like very different subjects: rocks, atmospheres, oceans, trees, chemistry.  But one hour in climate science we’d be talking about the atmospheric boundary layer of the earth, the layer of air that’s directly affected by the earth’s surface, and the next hour I’d walk into forest ecology and find that the exact same concept and equations applied at the scale of leaves.  We ran through the equations of ocean acidification in biogeochemistry one day and the next discussed their effects on corals in marine ecology.  And the bulk of sedimentary rocks, of course, were deposited in marine settings and record the history of life in the oceans. Going through a week of classes was like examining a many-sided die; one object, many faces, each revealing a little bit more of the interconnected web of existence.

So by the time exams rolled around, my mind was swimming in all this knowledge.  My exams and final projects and papers had all piled up on each other, as exams and final projects and papers are wont to do, and I had not gotten a lot of sleep. I was scrambling to get everything done, breaking my life down into manageable parts (I was so busy I put “eat” on my to-do list, because I knew I probably wouldn’t otherwise), and certainly wasn’t taking time to integrate all I had learned.

And then, as I was running across campus to turn in my final papers, I happened to look down into one of the gorges that cuts across campus. There was everything laid open: the strata laid down like pages in a book, trees growing out of the bones of an ancient ocean, wind in my hair, water below my feet, chemistry, ecology, rocks, life, time. I felt inside-out, I wasn’t sure where I ended and the world began – my molecules, after all, came from plants and rocks and stars – and just outside the edge of my vision, I thought, there was a great consciousness supporting me.

I fully acknowledge that exam-induced sleep deprivation played a significant role in producing this experience.  That doesn’t make it any less valuable to me, and I count that as the day I became whatever sort of quasi-theist I am.

The second time I was more awake, but rocks were again on my mind.  I had been learning to identify minerals and name rocks.  I walked out of the geology building and there was a piece of granite, born in fire and hewn into a pillar to keep cars from driving onto parts of campus they oughtn’t.  I could name every mineral in the granite, and I felt keenly that it had once been in the heart of the earth.  How odd, I thought, that we so cavalierly use our planet’s innards as construction materials.  I looked to my left, and there was a wall made of local shale.  I looked down at my hand and remembered a professor saying “Why do you have five fingers? You have five fingers because your parents had five fingers, and their parents had five fingers, and their parents had five fingers, all the way back to the first tetrapod that came out of the oceans with five fingers.”  We are clever fish to build such artifices of stone, but really, we would have nothing without this planet. Everything is a product of the past.

I wrote about these things in a personal statement for a fellowship application.  A friend who was helping me edit my essay commented, “You’re excited about what you do, and that’s great, but you need to tone down the …” At a loss for words, she made big wavy gestures with her arms.  It was fair criticism; with limited space, I needed to spend more time on past activities and future ambitions, and less on revelations.  And then she added, “Trust me; we all feel that way.”

Do we really? I have no particular reason to believe she’s wrong, but I have not seen the evidence that she’s right, either.  There are a few exceptions — Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — but by and large, this is not stuff that most scientists talk about, not even with each other. We focus on numbers and neglect the numinous. To be sure, numbers are crucial to doing good science, and I do not want to see theories argued in terms of God; but why, in the pub after talks, or when discussing our work with relatives, do so few of us breathe a word of the ongoing revelation which we play a part in building?

Are we afraid of appearing unscientific to each other? Are we afraid of blurring the boundary between science and pseudoscience? Do we find ourselves unable to trust the general public to distinguish fact from feeling? I know I have feared all these things, at one time or another.  The people of my country seem to have enough trouble accepting the validity of science without scientists running around being ambiguous. The concept of non-overlapping magisteria may be false, but it certainly simplifies discourse.

Whether that’s enough reason for staying silent, I don’t know.  But I do think we are all impoverished by this silence.  We are impoverished scientifically, because so long as we hide from the public what motivates us, they will continue to distrust us and our results.  And we’re also impoverished spiritually, because so long as we hide one face of the divine, the whole will never be complete.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2013 8:53 pm

    I was never a geologist, although I’ve always loved rocks, and I’m no longer a scientist, but I’m fairly certain your friend was wrong — everyone is not having numinous experiences. I, though, am having them. As are you, and that is something I’m always glad to learn about someone, esp someone I “know”.

    The most-recent one I had, I was hiking alongside a river, when I realized I could “feel” myself being the river. I had a sensation of water moving, but I also felt the *volume* of the water, swirling around things like tree roots and fish. I think it was sort of like sonar? It’s hard to describe – I’ve never felt anything like it before. (It was REALLY COOL, and I hope it happens again someday.)

  2. Cassandra permalink
    October 26, 2013 5:18 am

    Okay, this is the second comment, and now I begin to fear appearing as a cyber-stalker, though in reality I’m just a suburban housewife with pressing middle-class-family-weekend matters to attend to…but diverted by your writing and your interests.
    Anyway, a few other ‘recommendations’–physicists, not geologists, but overlap of theme. (1) Stephen M. Barr, book Modern Physics, Ancient Faith, or even more general–A Student’s Guide to Natural History, put out by ISI publishing. Also, not directly religious, but concerning passion–a fellow who switched from art history to physics in his academic career–on the prompting of ‘revelation’–Fearful Symmetry, by Antonio Zee.
    If you begin looking-you’ll find you are in excellent company. The best scientific men have all had souls.

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