It is difficult to forget what you know. Yet often we are asked to let go of our handles, our assumptions, our frames of reference. All hope of finding new life is lost if we cling. Our presumptions about what we know, even our understanding, whether or not consciously held, can be stumbling blocks to discovery. And if we allow ourselves to be open, sometimes newness is found in humble places, simple places, places we once thought we knew.
Anneka Tran, Solar System. Used by permission of the artist
At some point early in our lives we are taught about space. Here the Solar System provides great benefits, for there is the unavoidable suggestion, picked up quickly by children, that our bright blue Earth is a member of a family of distinct personalities. What’s more, the family is easily imagined, colorful marbles rolling about the luminous Sun in a balanced and pleasurable geometry. Professional astronomers, all grown up, know that the universe can be described to frightening accuracy with four words: cold, silent, dark, empty. But the the fullness of this view and its attendant existential woes and wonders belong almost exclusively to those who have devoted their careers to astronomy. In the minds of children space is a full house, awash in color and light and motion. And in that house the Earth belongs, its place set, its rank clear. Here there is no anxiety. This benevolent view is eagerly absorbed into the minds of children, and there it stays.
For how long? In most cases, for a lifetime. There are those few who actually become astronomers, and more than that take an astronomy course later in life, perhaps in high school or college, perhaps to satisfy a graduation requirement. A number might read a book about astronomy on their own or otherwise learn that space is somehow larger than they thought, that there is more to it than the planets — there are all those stars, after all.
But this view misses virtually everything that is interesting about the universe. It is not my intention to bemoan or even correct this state of affairs. This post is not written in the hope of setting you straight on the way the universe “really is” by making your mental image more scientifically accurate. There are many books that do this, some with sensitivity and joy. Instead, I would like to stop and admire once more this familiar view: The central Sun, the revolving planets, the stars beyond. This scene, after all, is worthy of admiration not only for its aesthetic appeal but for its scientific correctness. Everyone acknowledges that the planets go around the Sun and that the Earth is one of those planets. But the familiarity of these facts has rendered them invisible. We no longer see them. They have become as colorless and unremarkable as a sparrow.
Surely the dullness of this view is our doing and not nature’s and is a result of the general human impulse to put knowledge on the shelf once it has lost its shock value or its usefulness. Like the actual living, breathing, flying animal that has been lost behind the label sparrow, this arrangement of the heavens has been accepted, labeled, and removed, having long ago lost its potential to engage the imagination. It is also due in part to the success of astronomy, for in the face of exotics like dark energy and black holes, the familiar has been devalued. The famous ivory-billed woodpecker provides an example of such a devaluation. This bird, nicknamed the “Lord God Bird” in honor of a common reaction to the sight of the creature, is an enormous, colorful woodpecker that had not been seen in the wild since 1944. In 2005 it was reported that an ivory-billed had been spotted in an Arkansas swamp. The veracity of this report is still disputed, but one thing is clear: At that report, the lowly sparrow, itself no less a miracle and peculiarity of life than the Lord God Bird, only became more invisible. Yet one can, if care is taken, recover the marvel we call a sparrow from the oblivion of its label.
The same can be done for any familiar person, place, or thing. Your hands, your hometown, your solar system, your spouse. These can be made new and beautiful and wonderfully strange if you have eyes to see. How? It’s simple but not easy. All you have to do is forget what you know.