Will Wonders Never Cease?

Planets2013I think there’s hope for you and me if we continue to utter just two words at least once a day. These two words are:

“I wonder.”

Here are some things to marvel and wonder at:

Our Heavens:

Although just average, our humble sun is still pretty awesome, accounting for 99.9 percent of the mass of our entire solar system. How immense is that? It takes about 8 minutes for light energy to travel from the surface of the sun to Earth, but it takes hundreds of thousands of years for that same light energy to radiate from the center of the sun to the sun’s surface.

Our Solar System:

Our solar system is a marvel, too, in the sense that about two-thirds of the universe’s solar systems are binary, meaning that they are fueled by two suns. Many scientists say we would have two as well, if only the very gassy Jupiter had been about 100 times larger than it is now – not that Jupiter is a runt, given it would take about 1.3 million Earths to fill it up.

Our Planets:

They rotate in a counter-clock fashion, all except for Venus, which rotates clockwise. What’s up with that? And Mercury? A day on the scorched planet closest to the sun is twice as long as its year. Do you know how much you could get done in a day?

Our Earth

Water covers roughly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, yet only 1/400th of 1 percent is fit for human consumption. Every drop of life is precious indeed.

Our Mountains

As for our mountains, the longest mountain chain lies in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, evidence suggests that the Atlantic Ocean has closed and opened three times. Major deposits of rocks, minerals and fossils have provided the evidence to help solve this amazing mystery.

Our Mammals, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles and Invertebrates

A baby giraffe at birth weighs 150 pounds and stands six feet tall, which should make you feel a little more empathetic toward all mothers. An albatross will stray as far as 2,500 miles from home to find food for its young. The only bird to fly backwards is a humming bird. In 1938, a horse named Seabiscuit got more headlines for his exploits than either Hitler or FDR.

Our History

Not only do we get to live in God’s spectacular showcase, but we’ve been given leading and extraordinary roles to play in it.

Any way you look at it, our history has been amazing. Let’s look at a few eras or dates:

The Golden Age of Greece:

The Golden Age of Greece, roughly 2,500 years ago, lasted a mere generation, but its profound impact still generates today in our architecture, math, music, science, technology, engineering, medicine, religion and other disciplines.

The year of 1453

The year 1453 marked the end of the Hundred Years War, in which England pretty much kicked France’s behind for more than a century, before a little-known peasant girl, Joan of Arc, helped the French win an improbable victory at Orleans, leading to the coronation of Charles VII at Reims and the eventual expulsion of the English.

But the bigger event that same year came when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. After the Turks wrested control of the lucrative land and sea trading routes, all of Europe went scurrying for alternative routes to avoid paying port fees, duties and bribes to the Middle East’s new masters. One of those Europeans, born two years before the sack of Constantinople, was a Genovese seaman named Christopher Columbus.

Well, you all know what happened in 1492. Columbus discovered America. But this is what you might not know. When he arrived in Hispaniola, there were 3 million Taino natives who lived on the island. Fifty years later there would be about 200. They had perished from war, slavery, working in the mines and disease. Bartolome de las Casas who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, wrote in his journal, “Who in future generations will believe this?”

Because of this drastic decline in population, merchant companies would import some 12 million slaves from Africa over the next 300 years to work in the fields and mines of the Americas. The average life expectancy of a slave in the Americas was seven years. Ironically, it was Columbus’ son, Diego who wrote Charles V of Spain for permission to import African slaves to replace the depleted supply of Indians. His letter was the earliest known official request to import Africans.

September 5, 1793 –July 27, 1794 The Reign of Terror

After overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a representative government, the French Revolution’s most radical leaders formed a tribunal, calling it the innocent-sounding “Committee for Public Safety,” which arrested, tried, and executed more than 17,000 people, most by that sharp instrument known as the guillotine. One of the Reign’s victims was Antoine Lavoisier, the brilliant chemist who coined the words oxygen and hydrogen and helped construct the metric system. The vengeance came full circle when Maximilien Robespierre himself, the Reign’s most ardent defender of the Revolution but also its leading executioner, was arrested and beheaded.

1861-1865 – Civil War

Before we start thinking only foreigners are crazy, we need only visit our own horrific civil war, which killed about 620,000 people in about 1,500 days, an appalling harvest of death equivalent to about 6 million dead in terms of today’s U.S. population. After the South’s extremely bloody victory at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, Robert E. Lee, said, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we grow too fond of it.”

1914-1918 – World War I

Unfortunately, few took Lee’s words to heart because the Great War (World War I) from 1914-1918 claimed, at best estimate, 16.5 million lives. Do you know what started the war? After a grenade attack on the life of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand failed, the monarch directed his limo driver to drive to the local hospital to check on the wounded. After the visit, the confused and panicky driver took the same route back where the assassination attempt occurred. Meanwhile, after grabbing a sandwich, 19-year-old assassin Gavrilo Princip could not believe his good fortune when the royal motorcade approached him a second time. This time, he wouldn’t miss. Stepping toward the curb, he coolly fired seven shots into the royal couple’s car from five feet away, killing the archduke and his wife Sophia, which triggered a chain of events that reshaped the 20th Century.

By the way, World War I also gave us a new term, “basket case,” which I remember my dad, a World War II vet, calling me a few times. The term describes soldiers who had their limbs blown off, rendering them too helpless to help themselves, leaving them to be carried away in baskets.

POSITIVE AND PRODUCTIVE HISTORY, TOO

But our history also includes many glorious and redemptive chapters. We can also be very productive. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach fathered 1,100 musical compositions and 20 children. Of course, Brigham Young fathered 57 children, but who’s counting.

What really causes me awe and wonder is how we often stumble our way to greatness. Call them unintended consequences:

Newton

Isaac Newton had planned on continuing his post-graduate studies at Cambridge, but back-to-back calamities struck London — the Black Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Signs that you had the plague included black patches on your skin, inflamed glands in the groin, a swollen tongue, compulsive vomiting, and splitting headaches. Although he hated farming, Newton had little choice but to stay on his family’s farm in the quiet countryside of Lincolnshire for 18 months until the threat subsided. In that period, he formulated many of his major contributions to science, including integral and differential calculus, many of the laws of optics, the universal laws of motion, and the law of gravitation. When he returned in 1667 to Trinity College, where he was based for the rest of his life, the worst of the plague was over. The Great Fire had accidentally incinerated most of the infected flea-carrying rats.

Napoleon

To be considered a world-class conqueror, you had to include Egypt on your resume. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and Caesar after him, Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798 (before the English navy ultimately trapped his army, leaving it no escape from the land it had conquered). Yet the biggest winner in Napoleon’s campaign may have been scholarship. During the French occupation, a man known only to us as Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone in a small town outside of Alexandria. Because inscriptions on the flat stone conveyed the same message in Greek, Demotic Egyptian (a simplified form of the Egyptian language), and hieroglyphics, the key to finally unlocking the riddle of learning the long, complex history of one of the world’s oldest civilizations had been found. (By the way did you ever wonder how an Italian painting, the Mona Lisa, ended up in the Louvre in Paris? France has Napoleon to thank for that, too. After one of his successful Italian military campaigns, many Italian art treasures, including the Mona Lisa, were raided and spirited away to the French capital.)

Mark Twain

The United States’ Civil War also produced a perverse, but positive outcome for lovers of literature. When war broke out between the states, all commercial travel on the Mississippi River ceased, throwing highly paid riverboat pilot Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) out of a job. After a short, bumbling hitch with the Confederacy, he sought his fortune out west, reinventing himself as a miner and then as a writer. After his breakout story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he found more literary gold, writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Close:

Yes, our world is a strange, complex, and wonderful place, so be respectful, patient and tolerant as you try to find your place in it. And even when you think you’ve found it, you might not have, which brings me to the Statue of the Three Lies:

John Harvard

In front of University Hall at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., rests a bronze statue with the inscription, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” Thousands of visitors pay homage to it every year. Indeed, I did on a tour of Ivy League colleges when I snapped a photo of my son Brett standing alongside Mr. Harvard.

The statue is an imposter, however.

• John Harvard wasn’t the founder of Harvard. That honor fell to the General Court of Massachusetts.
• The university was founded in 1636, not 1638, as inscribed on the statue.
• And the figure of the man posing as John Harvard was actually a student named Sherman Hoar that sculptor Daniel French grabbed on campus one day. No one knows what John Harvard looked like.
So the lesson is, few things are what they appear! To illustrate my point, I’ll close with this story:

Picasso

Once when Picasso was riding on a train, a passenger quickly recognized the famous artist, then started venting about the failings of modern art. In particular, he talked about how he despised Picasso’s paintings because they didn’t look “real” — his work, he said, was a false representation of images in the world.

Picasso listened quietly. The man finally pulled a snapshot out of his wallet and said, “Here is a picture of my wife — this is what she really looks like.”

Picasso took the snapshot from the man, held it sideways, and stared at it for a long time. Finally he remarked, “Well, she is awfully small. And flat.”

***

At the end of each of the 59 chapters, I include an anecdote, many of which I still can hardly believe if I didn’t know them to be true. Here’s the one that that comes after the first chapter:

Larry the Lawn Chair: He Rose to the Occasion

On July 2, 1982, Larry Walters made history. After attaching 45 8-foot helium-filled balloons to an ordinary lawn chair in his San Pedro, Calif., backyard, he strapped himself into the chair and, outfitted with sandwiches, a six-pack of beer, a CB radio, a pellet gun, and other sundries, soared 16,000 feet.

His 45-minute flight was the realization of a 20-year dream to fly. He had wanted to join the Air Force, but with his poor eyesight, he was limited to driving a truck. He flew so high that glorious July day that he startled passing TWA and Delta Airlines pilots who radioed Walters’ position to air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport. Walters and his lawn chair finally came to rest in some power lines, causing a 20-minute blackout in a Long Beach neighborhood. After he crawled down to safety, Long Beach police officers arrested him for violating the airport’s airspace.

“It was something I had to do,” Walters said. “I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn’t done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm. I didn’t think that by fulfilling my goal in life — my dream — that I would create such a stir and make people laugh.”

The wonder of it all!

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