A few weeks ago I woke up to a bear in the yard. He wasn’t doing anything really, just milling about. I watched him through the window as he sniffed, coursing back and forth over the grass lazily, painted orange in morning sunlight. When he lumbered off to the next yard, I packed my things to go swimming.
I’m not much of a swimmer. I did a lap across the Echo Lake, pausing in the middle to rest, lie on my back and float. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I stared upwards, leaving my wetsuit to buoy me. My arms and legs hung in the water. When I exhaled I sunk. When I inhaled I rose. Clouds tracked overhead and ripples brushed my face. I closed my eyes, floated.
I stayed like that, motionless, just breathing. It may have been a minute, maybe five; I lost track of time. After a time I turned, rolled into the water and aimed for the near shore.
On the drive home my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. On the other end was Gene Likens, the scientist who 50 years ago discovered acid rain. An ecologist and former Dartmouth College professor, his most recognized work took place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a site an hour drive the Mount Washington Valley. Likens co-wrote a book on the forest, and I wanted to write a story about it. We spent 20 minutes talking, and he described the surprise of discovering acid rain: “Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said, but “the very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” up to 100 times the normal levels.
What got them to look at rainwater? I asked. Intuition? Some indication something was wrong.
Nothing like that, Likens replied. It was simple curiosity.
“It was purely serendipity,” he said. “So much of science is this way.”
“We didn’t set out to discover acid rain,” he said, but “it was there and we ran with it.”
They were just looking at raindrops. Because raindrops are amazing.
I’ve had a quote saved on my desktop for several years: “The beauty of science is not in the answers it provides, but in the act of questioning. And each question leads to more questions. There are no answers, only infinite questions.”
It’s not from some book or from anyone famous. It’s just some musings I scribbled down one day, the noise inside a writer’s head, something I didn’t want to forget even though I’ve forgotten what inspired it.
But like a tuning fork it sprang to life again, driven by that phone call: Likens was not studying stream water to prove some point. He was there to learn, driven by curiosity. It was a search of wonder, only a few steps removed from the child growing tadpoles from frog eggs she found in a puddle. It is innate inquisitiveness, a joyous exploration.
Science is built on such wonder. It is the act of questioning, of unveilings and discovery and reexaminations and answers so tenuous they are subject to constant revision. It is a process more than an outcome, something built over the soft passage of time, through the constant brushstrokes of curiosity. And in the process the truth emerges, the heart and soul of our world, something foundational. It is both the how and the why, with no part so sacred it cannot be discarded. In science everything is open to more questions.
There is something beautiful in that. Something simple, elemental, pure. And I can’t help but wonder if religion is born from the same roots. Maybe at one point humans looked at the majesty of the universe and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Who could have made such a beautiful thing?!” Maybe the answer they came up with was God.
It is a perfect question: Who could have created such a beautiful thing? What could have led to this world, all its life and all of us? It is the question scientists still ask today, one of curiosity and wonder. Look into the heart of the everything, and whether your launch point is science or religion it is impossible not to be overcome by the ants and oceans, by the volcanoes and the hurricanes. How is it that the Earth spins around the Sun? How did life come into being? How did so much order grow out of seemingly infinite chaos?
Those questions are everywhere. They were in the bear sitting outside the window, in my heartbeat in my head as I stared at the sky, in the cradle of water that held me up, in the clouds that traced the sky as I watched. Wonder. Beauty. Grace. These are the heart of science, and they are the heart of religion. Indeed, they are perhaps the heart of everything. The magic of creation is captured in music, in a van Gogh painting, in Shakespeare and Hemingway. It is in the movie that speaks to us, in the play that touches our hearts, in the book that we come back to and back to. Science, religion, music, art — it is all the same. It is all one thing, different versions of the same performance.
I wrote the piece on Likens. It ran a few days later. It relayed the facts of what he told me, but it missed the heart of his quest, the simple wonder on which his research began. Any written snapshot is guaranteed to be far too brief to do his story justice.
But then again his answers were not the point. He is a scientist; the point is always the questions.
Erik Eisele is a reporter at The Conway Daily Sun.