Mystery's Embrace


Chet Raymo taught physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and was for many years a columnist for the Boston Globe. In Honey from Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God

he wrote:

Every accumulation of knowledge is full of rabbit holes. Enter a rabbit hole – quantum physics, say – and that hole has its own rabbit holes leading to yet other exotic terrains. One doesn’t have to be a Lord Kelvin or an Einstein to find a place to enter. A leaf of grass will provide ingress to Infinity. The ancients believed that the stars were pinholes in the dome of the sky, through which shone the light of an outer, more wonderful world. And it is true: Every star is a rabbit hole into another world. In the course of a lifetime of starry night I could not explore them all.

…I have a friend who speaks of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. Let this then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or ever will have, is as an island in the sea. And still the mystery surrounds us.


I wonder how many scientists were drawn to their calling as children, noticing, making connections, experiencing sudden leaps in their understanding. Like Maria in our story – thinking her father literally did sweep the stars into the sky as particles of dust, or Albert Einstein at age four, excitedly realizing that here, in the movement of the compass needle, was something that did not work the way he supposed it must, and becoming intrigued.

Maria became an astronomer, and of course Einstein was one of the 20th century’s most important physicists. Did they maintain a sense of wonder, an appreciation of mystery, as they strove to catalog the skies or discover and mathematically codify universal laws?

Albert Einstein wrote that “the fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. The person who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead. A snuffed-out candle.”

Big questions and finer-grained ones – all of them, as Chet Raymo says, rabbit holes. Why is there something rather than nothing? What happened before the Big Bang? How do the bulbs we plant in the fall become flowers that blossom in spring? Why does the universe follow laws that are captured in mathematics? How do scientists know what they know about climate change?

How the natural world works, what the scientific community understands and is continually discovering about how it works – even the fact that life as we know it exists at all – all of that is mind-boggling, awesome, wonderful, and worthy of gratitude and praise.

My older sister Betsy is the scientist in our family – like Maria and young Albert, she knew from a very early age that she wanted to study the natural world. When she was in high school she had a poster on her bedroom wall of Pigpen, one of the minor characters in the Peanuts comic strip. Pigpen is the one who is always surrounded by a cloud of dust and dirt. The caption read, “When I grow up, I’m going to be an ecologist.” And that’s what she did.

I was decidedly not interested in science. I took only the minimum requirement of two years in high school – choosing chemistry and then physics. Before my sophomore year of college, however, I decided that I should know something about biology, even if it meant that I would have to do dissections. I enrolled in the basic course with five or six hundred other first and second-year students, most of them pre-med. I remember being somewhat intrigued by the ADP/ATP cycle – that’s the fundamental biochemical process by which cells make and exchange energy. But there wasn’t much else in that course that lit a fire in me.

As I mentioned earlier, Chet Raymo taught astronomy and physics at Stonehill College, and was a regular science and nature columnist for the Boston Globe.

He wrote:
“On the first day of my astronomy classes I tell my students, ‘This course will not help you make a buck.’ Few students run for the door. What draws them to astronomy is not greed but a longing of the soul to know its place in the universe.” (From Natural Prayers)

Maybe if I’d had a teacher like Raymo – I’d have learned a little more. Later, I started to read works by scientists for non-scientists. Books that tell the story of discoveries – in physics, astronomy, biology, genetics, the science of the earth.

In my thirties and forties I worked for biotechnology companies. I had to learn and understand the science – so that I knew what our work was about, and so that I could convey it coherently to people who had even less of a science background than I had. I first worked for a company that produced screening tests for antibiotic contamination in milk. They were developing products using the same technology for drug testing. Before my interview, Betsy gave me a brief primer on immunology – drawing diagrams of antibodies and antigens. In other jobs I wrote business plans and prospectuses with descriptions of the science behind the companies’ research. I had to explain – in lay terms – immunological principles, and molecular biology and genetics. All patiently taught to me by the scientists who did the work.

Nine years ago, around this time of year, I talked about a walk I had taken with Betsy at Harvard Forest. Harvard Forest is in Petersham, northeast of here. It is one of the places where scientists are collecting information about climate change. We looked at monitoring and observation stations scattered throughout the woods, and she described some of the research projects to me.

One study was monitoring the composition of the atmosphere (oxygen, carbon dioxide), temperature, the amount of light, the flow rate of the water in the forest stream, and other factors – year round, 24 hours a day. Monitoring the results of what the biologist Robin Kimmerer calls “a beautiful poem, written in the language of chemistry … carbon dioxide plus water, combined in the presence of light and chlorophyll, in the beautiful membrane-bound machinery of life, that yields sugar and oxygen.”[i]

Photosynthesis. Of which, I suddenly remembered, the ADP/ADT cycle is a part.

When the sun is out and the trees are actively photosynthesizing, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere of the forest decrease, and the water flows more slowly. At night, on cloudy days, and in the winter when the deciduous trees are bare, the water in the stream flows faster, and carbon dioxide concentrations increase. This study, and others like it that map complex environmental relationships, provide data for the climate models used to predict the impact of global warming.

That was nine years ago. Things have gotten worse – worse and more quickly worse than the models predicted back then. Over the past two weeks we have been flooded with news, all of it disturbing, about the acceleration of global warming and related climate change. Local activist Marty Nathan had an op-ed piece in the Gazette last Wednesday, delineating some projected fairly near-term impacts of climate change here in New England. Again decrying the Trump administration’s attitude of professed disbelief in the scientific assessments, including the report issued by his own White House. Reminding us, in case we had forgotten, of the rest of his administration’s anti-climate agenda, including its withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Accord.

France is a party to the climate accord. France instituted a new gas tax aimed at reducing consumption to help it meet its commitment under the treaty. This past week, the implementation of that tax was suspended. The French have experienced weeks of social unrest and violent demonstrations in the capital, sparked by resentment of the gas tax.

The movement is led by people from the provinces, working class people and retirees who are struggling financially. Even though the tax has now been withdrawn, yesterday there were massive protests that are continuing even now, and have expanded beyond Paris to other French cities and into Belgium.

Eleanor Beardsley, of NPR, said, “Dropping the gas tax was the first demand of the yellow vest protest movement, which rose up in opposition to the tax hike. The gas tax was meant to help France transition to a greener economy. But that was a vague concept to the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the grassroots movement who could not make ends meet at the end of each month.”

Environmental justice is tied to economic and social and racial justice. Which brings me back to rabbit holes. “Enter a rabbit hole,” says Chet Raymo, “and that hole has its own rabbit holes leading to yet other exotic terrains.” Or, less happily, leading deeper and deeper, getting us more and more lost in complexities and contradictions, feeling like we’re running out of air.

Reducing carbon emissions is not a zero-sum game. The predictions of social unrest in the face of climate change are already coming true. That might afford us a nanosecond of understanding for politicians who’d prefer not to play.

Let’s turn instead at scientists and inventors who are playing, and who are finding ways to help. Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire founder of Microsoft, calls himself an impatient optimist.

He has recently spearheaded a private venture fund that will invest more than $1 billion in companies that will, he writes, “take great ideas from the lab to market at scale.” The fund is partnering with the European Commission to extend its reach into Europe.

In a recent blog Gates wrote, “Energy isn’t just what runs your house and your car. It’s core to nearly every part of your life: the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the home you live in, the products you use. To stop the planet from getting substantially warmer, we need breakthroughs in how we make things, grow food, and move people and goods.” [ii]

Something else he wrote, and displayed in a wonderful graphic, really hit me. “If cattle were a country,” he writes, “they would be the third largest producer of carbon emissions in the world.”

Every change made will have consequences. Reducing meat consumption, if it happened on a meaningful scale, would hurt cattle ranchers and every other person who is part of the supply chain. Whatever happens, those who are most privileged will protect themselves first. Not everyone will approve of some of the technological fixes Gates and others are pursuing. Some ideas – like bio-fuels, have already shown to be making things worse. Technological fixes have the potential to lead us down additional rabbit holes. But I do think it’s helpful and hopeful to remind ourselves that there are powerful people and groups who do understand the magnitude of the issue of climate change, and trying to do something about it.

Many of those people are scientists, testing and trying to understand how the universe works, hoping to improve the prospects for the world’s children, and its children’s children, and – we hope – the rest of creation.

And we hope that some of them, like Chet Raymo and Albert Einstein and Robin Kimmerer, see poetry in the discoveries they make. Maybe they agree that how the natural world works, what the scientific community understands and is continually discovering – and even the fact that life as we know it exists at all – is mind-boggling, awesome, wonderful, and worthy of gratitude and praise.

“All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or ever will have, is as an island in the sea. And still the mystery surrounds us.”

What is found on the island of knowledge is astounding. And if Raymo is right – and he knows better than I do – the sea around it is mystery - and mystery will forever surround and embrace it.

That alone is a wondrous gift. Worthy of joy, worth of gratitude, worthy of reverence and praise.


[i] Robin Wall Kimmerer, from a sermon based on her book Braiding Sweetgrass,