Alison Wohler, October 2, 2011   Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst


June 24, 2012   Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Chautauqua, NY

I have a science background – my dad is a scientist, my first degree and career were in science.  And I’m now a minister.  For me science and religion are inseparable – one is necessary for the fullness of the other.  The contrast of the two readings this morning – this is my life, inside and out.  The scientific on the one side, the wondrous and emotional, the spiritual on the other side.   For me, they are not only compatible, they are one.


So for my own enjoyment for the past couple of years, even as I minister to my congregation, I have been attending a weekly learning in retirement class on physics and cosmology.  It’s heavy duty stuff, much of which is way over my head, but I learn things from this retired professor nonetheless.  


There are about 20 of us who regularly make it to class – only one other gentleman is a retired minister, the rest are astrophysicists, engineers and mathematicians.  They tolerate me nicely.  


I go to these classes because science informs my god-less, my naturalist, theology, and I would like to keep myself up to date on the latest discoveries and theories.  I believe that what we learn through science must inform our cosmology – that is, our ideas about how the universe began and got to be the way it is.  As science has brought new insights and understandings, so have our beliefs moved toward the natural, often away from the supernatural.  Our basic beliefs about the origins of the world and life itself are changing based on the results of scientific studies.  Whole religions are looking at how they will adapt to scientific certainties that make their ancient and orthodox beliefs implausible if not impossible.


The physics lectures I have been attending have been illuminating. 


I used to think that there was only one energy, in multiple forms, interacting with itself in multiple ways – and that’s all there was.  Is.  But I’m finding out that it is more complicated than that.  Here is how scientists have understand our make-up, at least to this point. 


Under the standard model of particle physics, the stars and the atoms, the Maidenhair fern and the wax begonia, the baby bunny living in the garden, even the plastic bird bath – and you and I – are made up of only 12 basic subatomic particles, and four basic forces controlling their interaction.  Sixteen components, that’s it.


The first chapter in a book called Quantum Physics for Poets, (by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill), is called “If You’re Not Shocked, You Haven’t Understood.”  The seemingly cold facts of physics can feel far removed from our lives, but they aren’t.  The extravagance (in human terms) of what has been created out of just those 12 particles and 4 forces  – look around us – look at each other – is hard to grasp.


The fundamental particles come with names like gluons and bozons, leptons, quarks and neutrinos.  Additionally, leptons and quarks each come in different flavors.  That’s right, the physicists call the variations of these particles flavors, some with unlikely names like “charm” and “strange.”  Strange quarks.  Isn’t that a bit redundant?


Most of these particles have now been “found” by experimental method.  One that has not yet been “found” is the theoretical graviton, theorized to be the mass-less particle that makes gravity work.  Gravity and the graviton continue to confound us.  The idea of a particle, a thing, that has no mass, confounds me.


Here is a little humorous side bar:  Do you remember the fictional character appearing in the Marvel Comics “Avengers” series in 1977, called Graviton?    In the series, Graviton’s alter ego was named Franklin Hall, and if you look at the schedule of speakers for this Fellowship over the summer you will see that  (  Frank Hall will be right here, in the Hall of Philosophy, just two weeks from today.  The Rev. Frank Hall.


It has taken billions of years for the evolution of the stars and galaxies and planets, then water and land, plants and animals, their flourishings and extinctions, then our human ancestors, then humans, men and women, communities and civilizations and farming and technology, space exploration and the neurological wonders of our human brain.  None of this is separate or removed from the basic physics of the universe.  All this complexity out of only 16 fundamental particles and forces.  


And now we are finding out that all this complexity occupies only 4 % of the universe.


In the approximately 14 billion years since the Big Bang a lot has happened within that 4 %.  Look around us.  How many kinds of galaxies are there?  How many kinds of stars are there?  How many planets imagined to support the development of life are there in our galaxy alone?  How many kinds of rock are there?  How many kinds of moss and ferns and trees?  And insects!  Did you know that there are 290,000 species of beetles, alone.  Toward the other end of the spectrum there are only 4000 species of mammals.  There are even three times as many kinds of flat worms as there are mammalian species.  (The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson, p. 136)  These are extravagant numbers.


Extravagance and diversity go hand in hand and diversity is an important measure of the ability to survive.  In other words, life’s extravagance will be its salvation.  Should something happen to the more susceptible mammalian animal species, life itself, in some other form, might nonetheless prevail.  The beetles will most likely take over.  Biodiversity of both the plant and animal kingdom is the means to survival, because something will always survive.  Life’s extravagance will be its salvation.


Might we also say, in another context, that it may be life’s extravagance that is our salvation too.  As in the extravagances spoken of in Mary Oliver’s poem, not in a scientific sense, but in an emotional sense – because we human beings have something the rest of the living world (at least on this planet) do not possess: the ability to interpret beauty and wonder.   


Extravagant means “exceeding the limits of reason or necessity.”   It is my brain that makes things beautiful to me, the music this morning for example (thank you, Ann).  But do I need to be able to notice the perfect notes or the perfect rose in my garden in order to physically survive?  It seems an extravagance.


In an article called “Survival of the Interesting: the evolution of beauty and desire” by David Rothenberg I read that:  


Beauty perplexed Darwin his whole life.  “The peacock’s tail.” he exclaimed.   How could evolution as survival of the fittest produce anything as outlandish as that?

In time he figured it out.  In addition to natural selection, which enables the most adapted creatures and species to survive, and which seems a rather practical way for nature to change, there is a parallel process, sexual selection, that enables the most excessive features a creature might possess, like the outlandish tail of the peacock, to be favored, generation after generation, simply because one sex likes it more than something more practical or efficient.  Instead of survival of the fittest, sexual selection means survival of the interesting.  The beautiful.  [The extravagant.]  (“Survival of the Interesting: the evolution of beauty and desire.  David Rothenberg.  In Parabola, Winter 2010-2011, p. 46)


The very fact that we exist at all is extravagant, it seems to me, (perhaps, even, that there is something rather than nothing), but that there are, in our world and in our human experience, things of beauty and interest, and desire – this is real extravagance.  Things to get up early to see.  To stay up late not to miss.  Are these things the extravagance, or is our ability to notice them the real extravagance?  The sunset itself is not beautiful – it is we who make it beautiful.  We have an extravagance of brain power. 


Is the development of our brain to a level that allows us to wonder and appreciate and love and doubt and worry and suffer and cry out in both pain and joy – is this not a great extravagance of our universe?  There may be others with like brains and abilities somewhere out there, but they too would be extravagances – beyond the necessary. 


One of my favorite little poems is written by Catherine Mosby in The Book of Uncommon Prayer. ( p. 19)  She writes:


Hone my gaze

to the riches 

of detail – 

slight as the fur

on a bee’s belly

on the veins, thin as a breath

lining a forgotten iris


as a wing –


the hasty eye

and anxious heart

do not recognize.


Chautauqua is an extravagance.  We are blessed, in many undeserving ways, to be here.


Here is my message to you this morning: Just as scientists study the universe on both the macro and the micro level, so too can we recognize in our own way the extravagances of our world on those same two levels.  Somewhere in your memory banks, keep alive the ideas of physics – and the wonders of those 12 fundamental particles and 4 fundamental forces.  But also keep very much alive the wonders of the world at our fingertips – the extravagances of nature – the reasons we get up in the morning.  Then, sometimes, but not always, remember that the two are, in reality, the same.  Wow.


The Very Reverend Allan Jones, very interesting sounding by the way, is speaking in the amphitheater this morning and then each morning of the week as well.  One of his morning devotionals is titled “The universe is not made up of atoms, it’s made up of stories,” and while I agree with what he’s getting at, I would change the title to read “The universe is not only made up of atoms, it’s also made up of stories.”  We are not one or the other, we are both the atoms and the stories.  What an extravagance.


The physics lectures I attend are illuminating.  But the poetry I read and my time with my family warm me with a different kind of light.


In an extravagant universe, we too are extravagant creatures, with minds that can imagine beyond our experience, creatures who can take the information of science, the reflection of our questioning minds, and the love of our warm and caring hearts – and seemingly smell that dark energy between the atoms in the air we breathe.  We can make something of our world and our lives, because extravagance is both in our nature, (in fact, is our nature) and is our gift to enjoy.


On whatever level you consider, we are living an extravagance.  Especially here at Chautauqua.  Enjoy!


Blessings on you and your summer.