13.7: Cosmos And Culture
11:24 am
Tue March 19, 2013

How To See The World In A Grain Of Sand

Originally published on Wed March 27, 2013 9:55 pm

This is the first in a series of commentaries by Adam on the theme of "How To See The World In A Grain Of Sand." Stay tuned to All Things Considered and 13.7 for future installments!

More than two centuries ago, the great poet William Blake offered the world the most extraordinary of possibilities:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

and eternity in an hour.

Yeah, that would be nice.

Unfortunately, most of us don't know how to hold eternity in the palm of our hands. In fact, most of us feel lucky if we can just hold it together until the end of the day. The problem, of course, is that mostly we've lost our minds. And I mean that literally. Our attention is endlessly lost in the endless blur of appointments, to-do lists, worry, concern and agitation that makes up modern life.

Sometimes, however, for the briefest moment, we do pick up a scent that there is something more going on than this daily round of survival. But those moments pass and waves of mundane urgency swallow us again. Tumbling through the chaos of our day-to-days, we wonder if Blake's vision of a broader, more expansive experience is nothing more than a poet's fancy. Can we really see the Universe in a grain of sand, even as we slog through traffic? Can we really hold infinity in our hands, even as we drop off the kids to violin practice?

The answer, I believe, is "yes." In fact I am sure of the answer is yes. The connection between the everyday reality we experience and boundless landscapes of cosmic beauty, inspiration and joy is actually so close, so present for us. It's there in the dust on your car, the mess on your desk and the swirling water in your sink.

How do I know this? Because I am a scientist dammit and I know that Science — under all its theories equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.

The trick is in the noticing and that happens by unpacking the question hidden in Blake's poem.

Can we really see the whole world in a grain of sand?

Through the lens of science we can see how even the smallest thing can be a gateway to an experience of the extraordinary, if only we can practice noticing.

We walk past a thousand, thousand natural miracles everyday, from the sun climbing in the sky to the arc of birds seen out our windows. Those miracles are there waiting for us to see them, to notice them and, most importantly, to find our delight in theirs.

You want some transcendence? I got if for ya. Let's start with that grain of sand.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish.

Commentator and NPR blogger Adam Frank is a scientist, an astrophysicist, to be exact. And part of the joy he finds in science is that it helps us slow down and pay attention to the beauty in the minutia of life. It's a notion he's going to explore over the next year. And today, Adam lays out the big picture.

ADAM FRANK: More than two centuries ago, the great poet William Blake offered the world the most extraordinary of possibilities. To see a world in a grain of sand, he wrote, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.

Yeah, that would be nice. Unfortunately, most of us don't know how to hold eternity in the palm of our hands. In fact, most of us feel lucky if we can just hold it together until the end of the day. The problem, of course, is that mostly, we've lost our minds: Appointments, to-do lists, worry, concern and agitation make up modern life.

Sometimes, however, for the briefest moment, we do pick up a scent that there is something more going on than this daily round of survival. But those moments pass and the waves of mundane urgency swallow us again. Tumbling through the chaos of our day-to-days, we wonder if Blake's vision of a broader, more expansive experience is nothing more than a poet's fancy.

Can we really see the universe in a grain of sand even as we slog through traffic? Can we really hold infinity in our hands even as we drop off the kids to violin practice? The answer, I believe, is yes. In fact, I'm sure the answer is yes. The connection between the everyday reality we experience and boundless landscapes of cosmic beauty, inspiration and joy is actually so close, so present for us. It's there in the dust on your car. It's there in the mess on your desk and the swirling water in your sink.

How do I know this? Because I'm a scientist, damn it, and I know that science - under all its theories, equations, experiments and data - is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and profound in the prosaic.

The trick is in the noticing. And that happens by unpacking the question hidden in Blake's poem. Can we really see the whole world in a grain of sand? Through the lens of science, we can see how even the smallest thing can be a gateway to an experience of the extraordinary if only we can practice noticing. We walk past a thousand, thousand natural miracles every day, from the sun climbing in the sky to arc of birds seen out our windows.

Those miracles are there, waiting for us to see them, to notice them, and most importantly, to find our delight in theirs. You want some transcendence? I got it for you. Let's start with that grain of sand.

CORNISH: Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and author of "About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. Stay tuned for more of his essays about witnessing science in everyday life such as "How to Meet Einstein on Your Next Elevator Ride" and "How to Feel Upside Down Under the Night Sky." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.