Benjamin Long: SysAdmin, Amateur Programmer, Scientist, & Father
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The Beauty of Knowledge

April 12th, 2012 | Posted by benjamin.long in Uncategorized

On a few occasions I’ve heard an argument that goes something like this:

People like you need to know how everything works, and all it does is take the beauty out of everything! Can’t you just enjoy the beauty of [insert natural event or object here] without digging into how it works and ruining it?

The premise of the argument is that knowing too much about something somehow lessens your appreciation of it. Let me show you by some examples how little water that argument holds.

Enzo Ferrari

Anyone who likes cars can look at this picture of an Enzo Ferrari and marvel at the beauty of its lines. Anyone can be in awe of its power and agility. Anyone can get goosebumps from the sound of its engine. And just about every single one of them can wish they could afford one.

But what about a master Ferrari mechanic? What about someone who works at a Ferrari factory and builds them? Someone who tunes that fantastic v12 engine? What do they see when they look at this car? Do you think they just see a bunch of parts put together? Does the fact that they know, intimately, how every part in this car fits together, how it functions, where the parts come from, and how much time went into building it that it somehow makes it less impressive then it is to the layperson?

Florence Cathedral

What about the dome of Florence Cathedral? Millions of people have admired the timelessness of its architecture. They have gawked at how it dominates the Florence skyline. They have dreamed of the time when the masters of the Renaissance were hard at work.

But what about a professional Architect? What about a world class Mason? What about a Professor of Renaissance History? Does knowing how detailed the plan was make it less exciting? Does knowing how the bricks that make up the dome fit together and keep it from collapsing induce yawns? Does knowing how the cathedral was rebuilt over the course of 170 years make it dull? Does imagining how the rain poured down onto the floor for many years because no one would risk failure and take on the job of building the dome somehow make it seem mundane? On one of those rainy days, when the workers were too scared to continue, when they stopped working because of the fear of the collapse of such a large and completely unsupported dome, Brunelleschi scaled the scaffolding and, creeping out to the edge laid bricks himself until the workers regained their confidence. Does knowing that make it less amazing?

Now, what about the wonders of the natural world?

A Sunset

Everyone has, I hope, taken the time to admire a beautiful sunset. The colors change from yellow to orange to red and cast shadows on the clouds. You can almost see the changing hues in this still photograph. The stars slowly make an appearance, as if waking up for the first time. Reds change to dark blues. Your eyes adjust. You feel the last of the Sun’s warmth on your face before the cooler evening air gives your ears a chill.

Does it make it any less beautiful to an Astrophysicist because she knows that the Sun isn’t what is moving, but rather that the earth is spinning under your feet, and carrying you along at about a thousand miles an hour? Does it matter, in that moment, if you know that the last of the Sun’s warmth you felt was carried by photons of infrared light you can’t see and it took about eight minutes for it to reach you from the surface of the Sun?

Nucular Fusion in the Sun

Nuclear Fusion

Does it make it any less pleasurable to know that before those photons left the surface of the Sun on their eight minute journey to your face that it took them about 100,000 years after their production to finally exit the Sun? Does that warmth feel any less calming to know that it was produced by nuclear fusion in a process that converts about 600 tons of hydrogen into helium every second? Does it make you feel any worse to know that only about one billionth of the energy the Sun produces even reaches the earth?

How about after the Sun sets, and the stars come out? Does it make them shine any less to know that each point of light is a ball of gas glowing from the same nuclear fusion that powers our Sun? Does it make them less inspiring to know that even though we can only see about 3000 stars with the naked eye our single galaxy, one of countless billions, is estimated to contain between 200 and 400 billion stars? Does it make our Sun any less admirable to know that it’s a relatively small star and that there are stars known to be as large as 2100 times its radius. Does it make the ground under your feet seem any less firm to know that billions of planets are orbiting those other suns out there? Does it make it less lovely to know that one day far into the future our Sun will run out of fuel and die as all stars do?

Gold Crystals

Gold Crystals

Gold is a beautiful material. Does it shine any less knowing it’s only three protons away from being worthless dull lead? Does it catch the eye less if you know that it’s made in the death throes of huge stars, in the split second of their final act, when they explode? Does it seem mundane if you realize it’s made of individual atoms that all fit together and hold their shape due to their bonds? Is it less worthwhile for making fine jewelry to know that those same atoms, like all atoms, are mostly empty space and the only reason they don’t pass right though your hands is because of electromagnetic forces? Does it make gold feel any less luxurious to know this?

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? Almost 5 million people visit it each year. Everyone is made to feel insignificant by it’s sheer size. The colors of the rock mirror the sunset. You can watch birds circling below you for a change. The massive force of the river raging far below seems like a mellow blue silk ribbon. The sound of the wind howling though the canyon makes your spine tingle.

But how does it look to the Geologist? Does knowing what time period each layer of rock came from take away from the view? Does knowing why the rock has different colors make them seem less vibrant? Does an understanding of the time the river needed to carve its way down though all that rock make the depth less spectacular?

Stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon

Stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon

I hope by now I’ve made it clear. Just like the Master Mechanic admiring a fine automobile, and a professional Architect inspecting a well constructed and aesthetically pleasing building, people who know more about the natural world gain more enjoyment and satisfaction from what they experience. Nobody loses any wonder or excitement simply because they know more about what they are looking at. Instead, many people are lacking in appreciation for things because they lack the knowledge required to fully understand the scope of their observations.

This doesn’t mean everyone should strive to be an Astrophysicist or a Geologist any more then they should strive to be a Mechanic or an Architect. But remember that every little bit of depth you gain in understanding adds to the wonder of your experience. Strive instead to learn a little bit every day, and to dig just a little deeper then what hits your senses passively. You will be repaid many times over for your effort.

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