Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Path to Greater Wonderment

What is a violin made of? Bits of wood and bits of sheep’s intestine. Does its construction demean and banalize the music? On the contrary, it exalts the music further.

--Julian Barnes


The story is told that Hans Bethe, the man who finally unveiled the mystery of nuclear fusion in stars, was out with his girlfriend, sitting by a cliff and gazing at the night sky.

       “How beautiful they are,” said the girl at a loss for better words to describe the stars.

       “Yes,” Bethe replied, “and right now I am the only person in the world who knows why they shine.”

       You might be tempted to rebuke Bethe for spoiling a romantic moment, but before you do, allow me to plead his cause.

       Does scientific explanation spoil beauty? Consider what Bethe’s discovery led up to. We now know that all the atoms in the universe other than hydrogen --the simplest possible atom, with a proton for a nucleus and an orbiting electron-- were created in the interiors of stars that later exploded as supernovas. The stuff our planet is made of, and the stuff we ourselves are made of, was cooked in a stellar oven billions of years ago. So what Bethe and other astrophysicists have discovered is, in effect, a link between us and the cosmos. Those bright points of light that stud the night sky are even now brewing the substance of new life.

       As for poetry and romance, consider this: Where Bethe’s companion saw little pinpoints of faintly-colored brightness her physicist friend saw mighty suns, their incandescent atmospheres roiling with nuclear fury, their colors revealing their temperature, age and composition.

       In other words, it is with nature as it is with good books and good movies --you take more from it the more you bring to it. It is simply not true that the scientist is insensitive to the beauty of nature because he can understand part of that beauty. On the contrary, science is a path to greater wonderment. The play of forces and quantum effects that allows the stars to shine and later enrich the universe with heavy elements is so subtle it makes you dream. The deductive chain linking the Big Bang with the present-day structure of the universe --though still riddled with gaps-- is nothing less than awe-inspiring. But only, I’m afraid, to the trained eye and mind --as it is with good movies.

       Consider the movie Shakespeare in Love. At the screening I attended with my wife, Magali, several years ago, there were people from all walks of life, young, old, and even a few little kids. The plot plays on many levels. On the very surface, if the name Shakespeare doesn’t ring a bell (hard to imagine but not impossible), it is a love story with some vague comedy to it.

       On the next level, you can laugh at the idea of an uninspired Shakespeare intending to write a crowd-pleaser titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. You know he eventually wrote a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, which is widely considered a masterpiece.

       Going deeper still, you even catch a few snippets of actual Shakespeare diaglogue being uttered in the background as an oblivious Will goes by. Later he uses those very phrases in Romeo and Ethel. You may also appreciate the piquancy in the screenwriter’s ploy of having Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s real-life rival, suggest a better plot for Romeo. This is as far as my Shakespearean experience (such as it is) will take me, but there are deeper layers to Shakespeare in Love. How much more delightful the film must be for the lucky ones who can understand it in full.

       On the opposite side of the spectrum, the little kids only laughed when a character said “boobies.”

       So don’t be too harsh on Hans Bethe, the physicist who helped explain the stars. His intent was not to spoil a moment of romance, but to share with his sweetheart the poetry of a great discovery.

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