My old* friend Art Aungst listens to more podcasts than anyone I know. He’s kind enough to filter them for his buddies, suggesting worthwhile programs, and occasionally sending me a link to a special podcast he insists I listen to. I’ll admit he surprised me with a must-listen alert for one of Lawrence Krauss’s “Origins” casts that featured special guest Penn Jillette, the magician, and one half of the Las Vegas magic act, Penn and Teller. But, with a little road trip ahead of me, I decided to go for it. At 101 minutes, magician Jillette and theoretical physicist Krauss might help me kill well over a hundred monotonous miles of the Dewey Thru-ey.
I have always maintained a belief—however non-intellectual, unscientific and silly—in magic. No, not the kind that Penn and Teller do with card tricks, mind games, illusions, pulling members of the family Leporidae out of hats. They are the first to tell you they don’t have supernatural powers; they are simply trying to fool you into believing something that isn’t true and giving it that label of magic. I’m talking about all the world’s wonders that I can’t understand, and which I relegate to the catchall category labeled magic.
Take the internet, for instance. To me, it’s magic, plain and simple. My late, smartypants brother and other science-savvy types have tried to explain how billions of computers and phones are all connected in cyberspace as if that would make any sense to me. They want me to believe that when I have a question, like, say, how many home runs Ted Williams hit in 1946 (38), what’s for lunch at the Aurora Senior Center on Thursday (lasagna) or the scientific name for rabbits (see paragraph two, above), computers from Mongolia to Manhattan, from Java (Indonesia) to Java (Wyoming County) collaborate in finding the answers for me. For someone who grew up believing that library shelves held all the information the world had to offer, the concept of that data bouncing around from computer to computer in the ether above us (where my Sunday school teacher taught us heaven was located) is too much. A wooden card catalogue** with individual entries for each book—I could understand how it operates; the internet, probably never. So, I simply assume forces of magic guide the internet, and I hope it keeps working because I use it all day long.
The natural world, too, runs on magic fuel, if, that is, you ask me. Out here in Right Field, we read and listen to many books and subscribe to magazines and listen to podcasts that little by little reveal some of the natural world’s secrets. I just finished Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change by Thor Hanson. Utterly fascinating, Hanson takes the reader, or listener in my case, on a tour of flora and fauna from stately oaks and grizzly bears to the tiniest ocean-dwelling organisms to explain how they are adapting, successfully or otherwise, to changes in the climate. They are so clever. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Future by Merlin Sheldrake delves deeply into the complex world of fungi to help us understand how critical they are to the success of Earth as a planet and to us as a species. Amazing creatures, those fungi. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants explores the natural world from the point of view of a professor of botany at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry and a proud member of the Potawatomi Nation of Native Americans. These three books and a whole genre—The Hidden Life of Trees, Vesper Flights and more—unearth knowledge and the interconnectedness of all things, yes, but they raise questions as well. Hanson, Sheldrake and Kimmerer have their own fields of expertise, but they share one common belief: as hard as they’ve studied and as much as they know, they each understand that they don’t have anywhere near all the answers. The part they don’t know intrigues them as well as challenges and confounds them. They love that around every corner lurks something they never knew.
This brings me back to the magician, Penn Jillette. In their podcast discussion that ranged far beyond magic, the magician and the physicist talked about the nature of knowing things.
“The fact that there’s so much more to know is what keeps me going,” said Krauss. “It’s the thrill of not knowing that I love. What scientists want is more mystery, not more answers.”
Jillette replied, “Some people think they have all the answers, and they don’t even have a path to all the answers. If you solved everything you’re working on right now, you can’t even measure that you’ve gotten closer to all the knowledge.”
As long as there are mysteries, there will be a little bit of magic in the world.
I didn’t study too much science in school; literature and languages came more easily to me, so I guess I took the easy way out. The upside of that becomes my tendency to rely on magic as an explanation for the natural world. Today, for instance, as if by magic, the orioles returned, a sure sign that we will have a spring. Here we’ve been moping about the saturnine (RIP Snake) weather of late and they’ve been wending their way from their winter headquarters to arrive just as the bugs they love are itching. There are mechanisms at play, I’m sure, that guide these brilliantly orange, grape jelly slurping songbirds to the 14052. I’ve read a bit about it—magnetism, internal GPS, temperature sensing. But you know what? Even ornithologists don’t completely understand the physics, chemistry, biology and psychology of migration. I’m happy to chalk it up to magic and enjoy the show on my feeder.
As soon as I finish this message from Right Field, I’m riding the trusty e-bike to Hamlin Park for a little Blue Devils baseball, the 129th consecutive year of baseball at the diamond in Cicero Hamlin’s emerald isle. Talk about magic in the air.
Columnist Rick Ohler invites readers to find past columns and articles on his website, www.rickohler.com.
*old, as in number of years of friendship, not old as in elderly
**Younger readers—for a laugh, google “card catalogue” or ask your nearest antiques dealer to show you one.