Mar 172005
 
Authors: Gavin McMeeking

It was yellow and round, but other than that, the rubber ball didn't have anything in common with the massive fusion reactor we call the sun, except both seemed to absolutely captivate Ayushi.

The Dunn Elementary School first-grader held the "sun" high above her head, at least until her arms started getting tired, and listened with great attention to Professor Scott Denning explain how the Earth's atmosphere conveyed energy from the tropics to the polar regions. As I, in my role as associate senior executive assistant, which meant I was responsible for putting the little hats on the children, watched the first-graders play out the activity, it struck me how enthusiastic and interested they were in the subject.

If only they could make college classes so fun. Perhaps acting out the principles of accounting or Roman history prior to the Samnite Wars could liven up the daily grind of lecture after lecture. Shouts of "I get to be Pyrrhus!" ringing from classrooms all over campus.

As uplifting as it was to spend an hour with such excited-about-science kids, an innocent question was asked by a child from the back of the room, "Why does the Earth spin?" Denning explained that as the mass of mush that formed the Earth came together, it started spinning faster and faster.

This answer seemed to satisfy Jimmy or Billy or whatever his name was, so that was that.

Dig deeper, though, and it's a tougher question to answer. Why was the stuff that formed the Earth slowly spinning before it collapsed together because of gravity to form the spinning Earth in the first place? According to "Professor Internet," it turns out that the chances of something not rotating at all are very small. This leads to the question of why most things in the universe are spinning to begin with.

Now, there probably is a more detailed answer to this question, which I'm sure many of the fine minds at this university could help answer, but it gets to one of the bottom-line issues all scientists face at some point.

As you continue to explain the way the universe works, whether it is figuring out what happens in a polluted atmosphere (bad stuff) or the reason why tigers have stripes (to make them look pretty), you eventually get to a point where you have to say such meaningful statements as: things have mass because they have mass or electrons have charge because they have charge.

Fortunately, having the answer to these earlier practical questions about tigers and the atmosphere doesn't depend on this deep-rooted, fundamental understanding of existence. We are able to explain the mechanisms of our world without necessarily understanding its motivations, if it even has any, as these motivations are rarely relevant to our day-to-day activity.

These motivations, nevertheless, still occupy a great deal of our brainpower in idle moments, waiting for a bus, say, or in the moments before you fall asleep. It starts to sound an awful lot like religion.

Though I may not have a lot in common with Dr. Charles Townes, Nobel laureate and inventor of the laser, we are both interested in the oddly similar goals of science and religion. Both science and religion share as a central goal: the understanding and explaining of, well, everything.

In his words, "If you look at what religion is all about, it's trying to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. Science tries to understand function and structures. If there is any meaning, science will have a lot do with any meaning. In the long run they must come together."

Townes first wrote these ideas down back in the 1960s and this week received the Templeton Prize for progress in spiritual knowledge and $1.5 million for doing so. I figure that if I try to do the same thing maybe I'll see a few bucks coming my way down the road.

In the meantime, I'm just happy to be reminded of how much I don't know about this strange planet, which I'm sure my exams will also help with. Plus, if I were going to try to win the Templeton Prize, it would probably help if I had something new to contribute toward discovering the meaning of life. Nah, I'll leave that to the Internet. It's too hard for a simpleton like me to try to figure out, if it can even be.

Gavin McMeeking is a graduate atmospheric science major. His column runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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