5 Spiritually Healing Properties of Scientific Wonder
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5 Spiritually Healing Properties of Scientific Wonder

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5 Spiritually Healing Properties of Scientific Wonder

Dr. Alan R. Townsend is a scientist, author, speaker, and dean of the University of Montana’s W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. He was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow and a Google Science Communication Fellow and was one of six scientists chosen to be in the Let Science Speak documentary film series, which premiered at the Tribeca TV Festival in September of 2018.

Below, Alan shares five key insights from his new book, This Ordinary Stardust: A Scientist’s Path from Grief to Wonder. Listen to the audio version—read by Alan himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

This Ordinary Stardust Alan Townsend Next Big Idea Club

1. Science is about more than answers and solutions.

I once had a tendency to believe that science held the keys to nearly every answer humanity sought. Given sufficient time and effort, science could explain our planet and ourselves, and predict so much of what might come next. Of course, science is full of miraculous solutions to humanity’s needs and challenges and capable of remarkable predictive power. Look around you, think about how almost any day unfolds, and odds are just about everything you see and do have some direct connection to scientific discovery.

If we let it, science can be even more than that. It can offer a way of being in the world. At its heart, science teaches us to step away from our egos, wonder, push through repeated failures, and accept the things we can’t change. On so many levels, these are lifesaving skills. At its best, science is an act of profound attention and empathy, a way to express all that is best about us—curiosity, caring, altruism—in service of our loved ones and millions of others. Put more simply, it can be an act of love.

2. Grief is trauma, and science can help you through it.

When my young daughter and then my wife both contracted brain tumors within a year of each other, my world was ripped apart. It changed my lens on science and myself. For a while, it sent me into a tailspin that was nearly tragic on its own. I was despondent and angry, reactionary and self-centered, and often unable to step back, question, and think.

“When our own time is done, we go on to be part of an uncountable number of stories the world has yet to write.”

Grief is the most powerful force I’ve ever known, but thinking like a scientist helped me discover my path out. I found comfort in the fact that our atomic nature—the stardust within us all—is effectively immortal. The elements that assemble us carry an infinite number of stories across the arc of time. When our own time is done, we go on to be part of an uncountable number of stories the world has yet to write. Through this process, I learned that some very basic habits science tries to instill—wonder at the world and acceptance of that world as it is—can bring an unexpected peace, even in our hardest times.

3. Curiosity is medicine.

Even after millions of years of evolution, our miraculous brains are still kind of a mess. We are wired to switch into fight-or-flight mode in the face of stressors that come our way. This is an understandable trait, considering that we had to be ready to respond to threats like hungry lions or murderous neighbors for most of our history. But we kind of suck at the more chronic, insidious stressors that often dominate our current lives. They make us less fluid and unleash chemical cocktails that wreak havoc within.

Curiosity, though, does the opposite. When we find a way to set stress aside and be curious instead—be that at phenomena of the natural world or simply by taking an inquisitive rather than reactive approach to a co-worker who is pissing us off—our brains relax and open up, and our bodies are bathed in the good stuff instead. Curiosity is literally medicine that poises our bodies and our behavior for much healthier paths.

4. The butterfly has something to teach us.

We like to frame the world in stories, but when it comes to our own lives, we have expectations—or at least strong desires—for how they will go. We often want science to lessen the uncertainties that inevitably surround us. We want it to lower threats, to tell us the odds of what might happen next.

“From what looks to be total destruction, a wholly different and lovely new entity is born.”

Through the science behind it, butterfly metamorphosis reminds us that stories often don’t turn out as we expect, but can still contain unexpected miracles. When a caterpillar transforms, it literally dissolves into goo. Within that mess (that was once thought to be an example of resurrection) are tiny cells that contain both the memories of the bug’s past and the seeds of its future. From what looks to be total destruction, a wholly different and lovely new entity is born.

We can’t grow forever, and we can’t progress on this planet without also having destruction and loss. Nor can we predict or control every aspect of our fate. But science shows us that every seeming apocalypse is ultimately ephemeral and that many are followed by unimaginable beauty.

5. Science is deeply human.

Like religion, science seeks to comfort, to explain, and often, to control. It is grounded in fundamental truths about how the world works, but it is also a lens on that world practiced by humans, which means it’s subject to our own frailties and failings. Many faith traditions preach humility and kindness, but they are still too often used to exclude, demean, and even kill. But at times, so does science.

And yet, the best scientists I know are consumed by passion for their work, often driven by desires to help people they will never meet. Like so much in today’s dialogue, science is too often reduced to caricatures and over-simplifications, in which both the nuance and real humanity are stripped away. I believe science becomes its whole self, in both discovery and within us, when we neither demonize nor deify it and don’t demand perfection to lend it our trust. We can instead view it as most religions frame humanity: basically messy, hopefully striving every day to improve and still capable of astonishing miracles.

To listen to the audio version read by author Alan Townsend, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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