No. 3186: MARVELING

by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3186

Today, we marvel. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Throughout most of human history the universe was filled with mystery. Where did the sun go at night? Why did humankind hold a special place in the universe? With advances in physics, biology and the other sciences, the world's certainly become a much less mysterious place. Yet, as we probe ever more deeply, we find we're still facing puzzles that defy explanation. We laugh, make note of them, and file them away. But we shouldn't. We should marvel at them.


Sunset   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The world of physics is a gold mine of inexplicability. Imagine racing your car down a long, straight track. You start at a standstill, then push your accelerator to the floor. In about ten seconds you'll reach a speed of sixty miles-an-hour. Now imagine a car that could reach sixty miles-an-hour instantaneously - zero to sixty with absolutely no time passing. It's unimaginable. The forces involved are infinite. Yet in the nanoscopic world of the atom, that's just how electrons behave. They jump from one energy level to another with nothing in between. Our experience tells us that's impossible. Yet that's the way things work.


Single electron orbitals   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Or consider an infinitely tall container shaped like a funnel, forever tapering but never quite coming to a close. It has a hole in it. Yet it holds a mere gallon. Pour in anything more and it'll come spilling over the top.



Gabriel Horn   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

And then there's my favorite. It's a special recipe. Fourteen gallons of water. One-and-a-half gallons of carbon. We're already over ninety percent of the way there. A few cups of this, a pinch or two of that, and we're done. Mix properly, and we have a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound human.



Of course, it's impossible to remain in a perpetual state of amazement over anything. I for one don't stare in astonishment and utter "wow" every time I see somebody walk by. It's human nature that as we gain familiarity with even the most startling of facts they gradually settle comfortably into our brains. Electrons that instantaneously jump from one state to another? No problem. An infinitely tall container with a hole in the bottom that can be filled? Been there, done that. And unfortunately, when educators become too familiar with what they're teaching they can fail to impart the wonder of the concepts they're conveying. One reason the late physicist Richard Feynman was such a popular teacher was the almost childlike delight he took in studying the universe. Speaking about the nature of subatomic particles, he once lectured "We choose to examine a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way."

The world around us is astonishing, even if we can't feel it every waking moment. But just as we're reminded to stop and smell the roses now and then - to appreciate life's simple pleasures - we should also stop and stare at those roses - to appreciate life's mystifying marvels.


Smelling the Roses   Photo Credit: Flickr

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For related episodes, see SOME REFLECTIONS ON HUMAN COMPREHENSION, MODELING THE ATOM, TORRICELLI'S TRUMPET, and SPECIAL RECIPE.

Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Available online at the Cal Tech website: http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu. The quotation is taken from volume 3, section 1-1.