Often my awe is stimulated by a simple thought: existence exists.
However, sometimes this strikes me as a meaningless truism: of course, existence exists; if it didn't, it wouldn't be existence. Also, if it didn't, I wouldn't be thinking existence exists. Or anything else.
Regardless of what makes awe so awesome to me or others, I heartily agreed with Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in the most recent issue of Scientific American.
Print version is titled "The Awe Delusion: What does the magnificence of the universe have to do with God?" Online version (identical except for title) is called "Can an atheist be in awe of the universe?"
Of course. Here's how the piece starts:
After 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in September 2013, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sundayshow in what was to be a motivational reflection on the triumph of will over age.
When Nyad announced, “I'm an atheist,” Oprah responded quizzically: “But you're in the awe.”
Puzzled, Nyad responded: “I don't understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach's edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”
What Oprah said next inflamed atheists: “Well, I don't call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”
This is the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder. Why would anyone think that?
I have no idea. If anything, religious belief deadens awe, because it pretends to explain mysteries of the universe instead of leaving them mysterious. Science, by contrast, is fine with saying "We don't know. Yet."
Even when science understands something, that thing can be so awesome, the understanding boggles the mind.
The March 2014 issue of National Geographic has a piece on black holes. Here's some factoids I read last night:
-- A sugar-cube-size fragment of a neutron star would weigh a billion tons on Earth; a neutron star's gravitational pull is so severe that if you were to drop a marshmallow on it, the impact would generate as much energy as an atom bomb.
-- But this is nothing compared with the death throes of a star some 20 times the mass of the sun. Detonate a Hiroshima-like bomb every millisecond for the entire life of the universe, and you would still fall short of the energy released in the final moments of a giant-star collapse.
-- The star's core plunges inward. Temperatures reach 100 billion degrees. Hunks of iron bigger than Mount Everest are compacted almost instantly into grains of sand.
-- If the Earth were to become a black hole [way denser than a neutron star], it would retain its current weight of more than six sextillion tons (that's a six followed by 21 zeros) but be shrunk in size to smaller than an eyeball.
-- Our universe began, 13.8 billion years ago, in a tremendous big bang. The moment before, everything was packed into an infinitesimally small, massively dense speck -- a singularity.
-- Perhaps the multiverse works something like an oak tree. Once in a while an acorn is dropped, falls into the ideal soil, and abruptly sprouts. So too with a singularity, the seed of a new universe. And like a sapling oak, we'll never send a thank-you note to our mother. For the message to escape our universe, it wold have to move faster than the speed of light.
-- The evidence for what could reside in a black hole is compelling. Look to your left, look to your right. Pinch yourself. A black hole might have originated in another universe. But we may be living in it.