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Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky on Science and Wonder

“The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.”

“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more,” Richard Feynman proclaimed in his timeless lecture on the role of scientific culture in modern society. “A scientist is never certain,” he added — a sentiment echoed by poets (like Rilke, who called for living the questions), scientists (like Stuart Firestein, who argued for the value of ignorance), and writers (like Ray Bradbury, who eulogized the romance of getting things wrong).

These recent meditations reminded me of a wonderful passage from Stanford neurobiology professor and MacArthur “genius” Robert Sapolsky’s 1998 gem The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament (public library), in which he eloquently captures this very proposition:

I am not worried if scientists go and explain everything. This is for a very simple reason: an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering. We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.

But there is an even stronger reason why I am not afraid that scientists will inadvertently go and explain everything — it will never happen. While in certain realms, it may prove to be the case that science can explain anything, it will never explain everything. As should be obvious after all these pages, as part of the scientific process, for every question answered, a dozen newer ones are generated. And they are usually far more puzzling, more challenging than the prior problems. This was stated wonderfully in a quote by a geneticist named Haldane* earlier in the century: ‘Life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.’ We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge. The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.

What greater way is there to articulate the gift of “systematic wonder”?

* Arthur C. Clarke has quoted Haldane as saying “The universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine.” The correct quote, published in Haldane’s 1927 tome ‘Possible Worlds and Other Papers,’ is in fact “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”


Kay Nielsen’s Stunning 1914 Scandinavian Fairy Tale Illustrations

Haunting whimsy from the Golden Age of illustration.

As a lover of illustrated fairy tales and having just returned from Sweden, I was delighted to discover, thanks to the relentlessly wonderful 50 Watts, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North (public library; public domain) — a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales, illustrated by Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work you might recall from the all-time greatest illustrations of Brothers Grimm and the fantastic visual history of Arabian Nights. Originally published in 1914, this magnificent tome of 15 stories was recently reissued by Calla Editions, the same Dover imprint that revived Harry Clarke’s magnificent illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe, and features 25 color illustrations, along with a slew of black-and-white ones, in Nielsen’s singular style of haunting whimsy.

‘And this time she whisked off the wig; and there lay the lad, so lovely, and white and red, just as the Princess had seen him in the morning sun.’
‘She could not help setting the door a little ajar, just to peep in, when—Pop! out flew the Moon.’
‘At Rest in the Dark Wood’
‘The Troll was quite willing, and before long he fell asleep and began snoring.’
‘As Far Away from the Castle’
‘Tell me the Way, she said, And I’ll Search You Out’
‘Just as they bent down to take the rose a big dense snow-drift came and carried them away.’
‘He Saw Her Reflection in the Water’
‘She Held Tight to the White Bear’
‘Then He Took Her Home’
‘The Wolf Was Waiting for Him’
‘I am the Virgin Mary’
‘The Queen Did Not Know Him’
‘The North Wind Went Over the Sea’
‘The Man Gave Him a Pair of Snowshoes’
‘The Lad in the Bear’s Skin, and the King of Arabia’s daughter.’
‘She saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side.’

For the ultimate illustrated fairy tale treat, complement East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North with Taschen’s recent The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the 11 best children’s and picture books of 2011.

50 Watts


Susan Sontag’s List of Rules and Duties for Being 24

“Don’t criticize publicly anyone at Harvard.”

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, gave us the celebrated author and thinker’s insights on love (now available as a limited-edition print!), writing, censorship, and aphorisms. But the first installment, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), is in many ways even more fascinating, as we see a young Sontag begin to take shape as a private person and a public intellectual.

Immediately before turning 24 on January 16, 1957, Sontag produces the following list, a blend of the pragmatic and the aspirational:

Rules + duties for being 24

  1. Have better posture.
  2. Write Mother 3 times a week.
  3. Eat less.
  4. Write two hours a day minimally
  5. Never complain publicly about Brandeis [University] or money.
  6. Teach [SS’s toddler son] David to read.

Then, several weeks later, Sontag resolves:


  1. Criticize publicly anyone at Harvard —
  2. Allude to your age (boastfully, mock-respectfully, or otherwise)
  3. Talk about money
  4. Talk about Brandeis


  1. Shower every other night
  2. Write Mother every other day

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