Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Science Enchants the World

John Bedell

They say that science disenchants the world. From Blake onward the romantics, the sentimentalists, the mystics, and the faithful have complained that the world of science is cold and ugly. But I don't find that science robs the world of meaning, or makes it ugly. I find that science makes the world more beautiful, more fantastic, more moving. Science shows us flowers through butterfly eyes, revealing the patterns our eyes can't see. Science shows us a trillion galaxies, with worlds beyond counting. Science tells us about enormous beasts that once roamed the earth. Science tells us about our own past, from our slow struggle toward intelligence and speech to the vanished civilizations of centuries past.

I could take you to a place in Washington's Rock Creek Park, just a mile from the White House. It is a little, steep-sided valley, with a stream you can jump across winding across a level bottom no more than fifty feet wide. It is shaded by trees neither remarkably old nor particularly young. The stream flows over brown and white cobbles, and the ground is covered with dead leaves. In places there are outcrops of gray stone. There are houses not far away, and English ivy creeps down the slopes into the woods. It is an unremarkable place, and most of the people who drive by it every day have probably never noticed that it is there.

But I have dug there, and found amazing things. There are places in this valley where you are standing on four feet of artifacts mixed with a little dirt. In one three by three foot test unit we found 2,000 objects, including hundreds of potsherds and 30 stone spear points. The density of artifacts is far beyond anything I have seen elsewhere in twenty years of searching. We found stone axes, scrapers, and knives, and one grinding stone more than two feet long. The valley is not big enough for more than twenty or so people to camp in at once, so this mass of material was not left by a passing horde. It was left by small groups of people visiting year after year from about 2200 BC to AD 1600. The visits were particularly frequent during what we call the Middle Woodland period, from about AD 300 to 1000. The distinctive pottery and spear points made then are abundant in the soil. In that time the visitors were family groups. We know this because they brought ceramic pots for cooking and stones for grinding nuts, both jobs done by women, and stone dart points used by men to hunt deer. They came in late fall or winter, when there were nuts to grind and the little valley provided shelter from cold winds.

Through the eyes of archaeology the valley is not a humdrum bit of green space, but a watchtower with a view across 4,000 years. In the soil we can see the rise and fall of cultures, the appearance of invaders from the south and west, the discovery of new technologies. We can watch people struggle to survive in a world very different from our own, when satisfying hunger meant finding roots, catching a fish, or killing a deer. Most societies before our time thought that their ancestors' lives had been very much like their own. In medieval histories, Alexander and Caesar are "great knights," and coats of arms were invented for them. But thanks to research in a dozen fields, we know how rich and varied the human experience has been. To us, history is not more of the same stretching into the past, enlivened on occasion by the intervention of gods remarkably like ourselves. It is an amazing tale of how creative and diverse our species has been.

Other scientists could tell you other stories about this place. A geologist could tell you about a great mountain range that arose in the days of the dinosaurs, whose remnants are the outcrops of gray rock in the valley wall. He could tell you about the great floods that swept the land when the glaciers melted, leaving behind the cobbles that fill the stream bed. He could explain the other ways the land changed when the ice melted, how the seas rose and drowned the river valleys, so that tidal water reached all the way to Washington. In his stories the solidity of the earth melts away, and it becomes a changeable thing, each hill and valley the mark of some event in the near or distant past.

A botanist could tell still more stories. She could point out the rare plants most of us pass by without noticing. She could explain how the landscape has changed since the European settlers arrived, describe the plants that have disappeared, and show us the invading plants that have taken their places. A zoologist could find a hundred species of animals, a microbiologist many more. What seems a little bit of woodland is really a fantastically complex ecosystem, in which trees, shrubs, herbs, mammals, birds, amphibians, molluscs, insects, worms, and smaller things all have their places. And that is only the large scale of the world -- at the level of molecules, life is even more astonishing in its complexity and cleverness.

When the world seems featureless and plain, it is only our ignorance that makes it so. When we can see all that is really there before us, even an ordinary acre of woods become a place of wonders. Science enchants the world.

December 28, 2008


From the 
Commonplace Book

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

-- Carl Sagan


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us


Night Train to Lisbon
Science Enchants the World
Intelligent Design
Turning 40

Gulliver's Travels
Spiritual Testament
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age
Knowing People
Having Children