The Strange and Wonderful World We Share

Staring long enough at the shapes and forms of the natural world, some human beings find there patterns and images. Many of us do it with clouds, for instance: this one looks like a dinosaur, that one looks like a bunny rabbit. Something similar sometimes happens in stone:  Gloucester’s Mother Ann looks like a woman reclining, California’s Cathedral Peak resembles a church steeple, and Oregon’s Phantom Ship appears to float derelict in the waters that surround it. It often comes to us naturally to marvel at the wonders of the natural world. Those who would explain the mechanics by which these curiosities came to be – the flow of water vapor on air currents or the slow erosion of rock by wind and rain – are sometimes thought to be quashing this impulse: weighing down our native awe with dreary detail.

Sometimes, however, the puzzle is more complex and troubling than the semblance of a face on a mountainside, and the need for answers seems more pressing. In the Oklo mines in Gabon in West Africa in 1972, such a puzzle came to be found. The mines were dug for uranium, which can be used both to fuel nuclear reactors, to produce energy, and to make nuclear weapons. What they found during their digging was a very particular type of uranium that shouldn’t have been there: the sort you can only get after its been through a reactor. There was a small panic among the scientific team: this seemed to be evidence of some sort of tampering involving a dangerous, tightly controlled material, and the strange prospect of someone stealing ore, processing it (likely for the purpose of making a weapon) and then returning the leftovers.

Study and investigation eventually led to a conclusion perhaps as confusing but far more wondrous. Oklo is now held to hold the only known example of naturally occurring nuclear reactors. A modern nuclear power plant produces energy by starting and controlling a nuclear reaction, with very specific materials and circumstances. For it to work, everything has to be just so. And it seems that about two billion years ago, the natural flow of earth and water produced such a set of circumstances: the right amount of uranium in the right configuration, enough water to facilitate the process and the absence of other elements that would interrupt it. And this happened in not just one spot, but in seventeen points identified throughout the mines, sustaining reactions that lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, still well more than a billion years before the advent of complex life.

What I take from this, is that the world is bizarre and fascinating beyond our imagining; there is no limit to its potential to surprise. So that attempts to understand or explain what is are not a barrier to wonder and awe: they are a necessary product of them, and a means, in turn, of sustaining them. It is in our nature to wonder, and it is an expression of wonder to seek to explain. In the summer, many of us find ourselves particularly drawn to the natural world: whether thousands of miles from home, or in our own backyard. So in these weeks and months, I encourage you to turn your dreaming eye upon the world and seek out mystery. You may find puzzles to be solved, and learn from them. And you may find wonders whose full explanations elude you. Both are worthy of your attention, and your reverence. I look forward to those moments, whether in the summer or after the arrival of fall, when we may share our insights and findings with each other.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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