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Lewis Jones

Volume 8.3, September 1998

Recently the BBC put out a series of television programs titled “The Human Body.” It made use of filming techniques that had never before been possible, to show some of the innermost workings of the body in action. Understandably, it elicited much praise for the high-tech camera work that gave us so much new and vivid information. But approval was not universal.

One television critic protested at the unveiling of a natural “mystery,” and complained that the series was an “intrusive delving into the sanctity of human life.”

The declared message is simply, “I don’t want to know.” But the wider implication is, “People in general should not be allowed to know these things.” Mystery equals fun, and by explaining mysteries you are taking all the fun out of life. Spoilsport!

I don’t know what answer these people would give if you asked them whose names should be on the priesthood list of those privileged to possess such forbidden knowledge. Would the mystifiers care to have an inflamed appendix removed by a surgeon who had kept himself uncorrupted by the sacred mysteries of the inner abdomen? Would they be happy to cross the Atlantic in a plane piloted by someone who thought the only qualification he needed was an appropriate sense of awe at the mysteries of flight?

I would guess that skeptics and scientists have been familiar with this kind of attitude for as long as there has been such a thing as science. The key phrase these days seems to be “a sense of wonder” — characterized as something you suddenly lose as soon as you learn something of the inner workings of some phenomenon.

Not even Nobel laureates are immune to these charges. A friend of physicist Richard Feynman once told him, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” (Feynman’s comment: “I think he’s kind of nutty.”) Later, Feynman explained, “First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people — and to me too, I believe . . . But at the same time, I see much more in the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells inside, which also have a beauty.”

On another occasion, he said, “For instance, the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question . . . It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting . . . Or there are the atoms. Beautiful — mile upon mile of one ball after another ball in some repeating pattern in a crystal . . . What looks still to our crude eyes is a wild and dynamic dance.”

Richard Dawkins has made the point in another way: “I wish I could meet Keats or Blake to persuade them that mysteries don’t lose their poetry because they are solved. Quite the contrary. The solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle . . .” Let’s say you’re watching a ventriloquist and enjoying the amusing repartee, when someone turns to you and whispers: “The other guy is just a dummy, you know. Not a real person.” Do you now leave in disgust, because the illusion has been spoiled forever? Or do you still find yourself turning your head from one performer to the other as they talk? If you really think rational explanation destroys a good illusion, I have bad news for the next time you attend a film or a play: the people in it are all pretending. There. Now I've ruined your theatre-going experience for the rest of your life. Haven't I?

Magicians can get very jumpy on the subject of explaining illusions. They have a stock set of dire predictions. “Nobody will ever come to see magic shows.” “Nobody will employ magicians again.” Sure. And David Copperfield is back on the bread line.

One of the weakest lines of argument is that little children are being deprived of their “sense of wonder” (here we go again): “Are you saying you would destroy a child’s belief in Santa Claus?” This last is offered as a knock-down argument with which no one could disagree. I have never understood why. The appearance of presents on a child’s birthday is not attributed to a secret delivery by a Birthday Fairy, and I have never heard a child complain because the gifts were handed over by the giver in person. As Tom Flynn puts it (in The Trouble with Christmas): “There is something disturbing in the length to which parents will go to fabricate physical evidence to support the Santa Claus myth. It is popular to call such deceptions ‘cute,’ but don’t they really amount to laying traps for youngsters’ emerging capacities for critical thinking?”

Scott Kim is perhaps best known for his ”Inversions” — words that can be read “right side up, upside down and every which way.” He once wrote: “When I was a child, magic fascinated me. I learned very young just how powerfully people’s attention can be misdirected. The only problem was that I always wanted to explain how the tricks were done. I wanted everyone to see how they were being fooled.” He then added something that some will find very hard to understand, but that sums up the whole issue neatly: “To understand the mechanism and still be entranced — that to me is the greatest magic.”

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.