A Better Question

by on November 29, 2011

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Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction
Sally Scopa

It doesn’t help that homo sapiens adapt with remarkable speed to novelty, so that even when our lawbound world does turn up something extraordinary, we get over it. Whizbang marvels like the iPad quickly degrade into tired units of electric furniture. Even that mirror, I’m sure, lost its luster among the tribesmen a few weeks down the road.

No wonder genuine astonishment is so hard to come by.

Luckily there’s another kind of wonder, one that won’t wear off so easily and that’ll never run out. A kind of wonder grounded in “hows,” not “whats.”

Let me explain what I mean.

Surely what was most exciting to the tribesmen as they encountered each of those modern objects was what the objects did. The match was exciting to them because it produced fire, the tape recorder because it captured sound, the knife because it cut with ease, and the mirror because it showed you you whenever you looked at it. Pretty phenomenal stuff. Far less exciting—at least in that moment—is the problem of how any of these things might work. Who cares? It would be like wondering how a UFO works as it hovers over your house.

I submit, though, that if wonder’s what you’re after, you’d do much better in the long run by attending more carefully to “hows” than “whats.” It’s the difference between a spark and a slow burn. If you can learn to get excited by finding out how, you can look forward to a lifetime of genuine astonishment, not just a handful of fantastic bursts. Of course it’ll be harder—it takes more work to understand the structure and mechanics of a thing than to merely use it—but that’s precisely why it’s better.

One might balk that this is exactly what’s dangerous about modernity’s scientific urge, that our instinct to “reduce” a phenomenon into parts is responsible for our collective disenchantment.Inresponse I’d lean on what the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said in the first few minutes of a documentary appropriately called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is.” And I’ll agree. And he says, “You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.”

And I think he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too. I believe—although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is—that I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter—there’s also a beauty at smaller dimensions, in the inner structure…

The science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Asking “how?” unearths riches when the question is directed at stuff that might otherwise be mere spectacle, like flowers, or hummingbirds, or those wimpy nighttime specks that turn out to be nuclear reactors and the source of life.

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