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Finneran: Awe, Part 1

Friday, January 12, 2018


We live in humdrum times, or so it seems.

Eric the Red, Magellan, Columbus, Cook, and da Gama took their voyages of discovery many moons ago. As did the Polynesian adventurers

Marco Polo’s journeys were centuries ago.

Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, and John Fremont mapped America’s Western frontier in the 19th century. Alexander Humboldt’s adventures are of a similar age.

The actual discovery, passage, and mapping of rivers and mountains, lakes and canyons, forests and deserts, oceans and islands, those physical acts, are now well behind us.

Today we cruise along interstate highways littered with signs announcing Taco Bell, Mobil, and McDonald’s. The excitement of discovery today comes in the form of the newest location of Dunkin’ Donuts. And while a DD location is always handy knowledge, it’s not quite the same as navigating the Missouri, Snake, and Columbia Rivers for the first time.

Yesteryear was filled with awe, today is filled with yawns. Except, except...........

That evening sky. Outer space. Check it out.

A PBS special on the Hubble Telescope opens one’s eyes to this unimaginable frontier. It is astounding.

The Hubble engineering is awesome. The Hubble math is awesome. The Hubble physics are awesome. The human imagination to pull it all together is awesome. And then comes the really impressive stuff, the universe itself.

For all of mankind’s collective brilliance, the universe reveals just how puny we are in the scheme of things. For people of faith the majesty of the universe reflects the words of Scripture- “But, as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

Two words kept coming to mind as I watched the program. Two very humbling words—puny and awe.

We are truly puny microscopic specks. And the universe is a place of unimaginable awe.

Our little green planet orbits the sun. That sun is just one of about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That’s right—300 billion stars in our very own galaxy. And the universe has more than 100 billion galaxies. The sheer immensity of such numbers boggles the mind. The scale staggers the imagination.

The Big Bang theory? Intelligent design? God’s sense of humor on display?

Is the universe, as well as our place in the void the result of just one big chain reaction nuclear accident or is there something grander at work? A Carl Sagan quote comes to mind:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality”. Sagan seems to suggest that some scientists are as filled with wonderment and awe as we civilians are, peering around every corner and curve, bewildered, perplexed, in awed amazement at the complex arrangements of our world and its place in the universe. Could it be that all that they see and begin to understand is the result of a series of random events? Or, is there something more “spiritual”, more meaningful, more eternal at play?

A second thought arises. We may be puny but we are earnest. And the awe we feel is as irresistible as the awe of Magellan and his fellow adventurers.

Those humdrum times I mentioned? Let me change that. The universe beckons our minds and our souls.

We go forth in awe.

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio


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