Suspended in a Sunbeam: On Being Awestruck

Lately, I have been discovering many stories on awe-inspiring phenomena and the benefits of experiencing such phenomena. Just a few days ago, The Huffington Post shared a video showcasing the wonders of the universe:

A year ago, performance philosopher Jason Silva created a video discussing psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s thoughts on the biological advantage of  being awestruck:

Jason Silva now hosts a webseries called “Shots of Awe” on Discovery’s TestTube network. Leslie Horn of Gizmodo writes, “The series discusses everything from the universe to technology, society, science, and much more, all in the tone of the boundary-pushing lectures of Alan Watts. If Carl Sagan or Timothy Leary had been born in the YouTube age, their videos might have looked something like this. Silva travels outside of the box where your brain normally resides and causes you to ponder life in a more philosophical sense.”

In his premiere episode, Jason Silva defines awe as “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it,” an explanation provided by a Stanford study published in Psychological Science. Silva argues that human beings have a tendency to quickly become acclimated to routine habits and consequently rarely step outside of their comfort zones in a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Henry David Thoreau also discusses the dangers of becoming stuck in a rut in Walden: “How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” He goes on to describe his recommended alternative:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could 
not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, 
discover that I had not lived.... I wanted to live deep and
suck out all the marrow of life..."

Thoreau’s message is highly evocative of carpe diem, Latin for “seize (or more literally, pluck) the day,” a sentiment also expressed in Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” So how exactly do we elicit wonder in our seemingly banal existences? Arizona State University psychology Dr. Michelle Shiota suggests, “The experience of awe involves feeling very small and insignificant yet also connected to something much greater than the self.” Lee Ann Womack expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “I Hope You Dance” with lyrics such as “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder” and “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.” This idea of humbling awe and experience is perhaps best immortalized in Carl Sagan’s timeless ode to Earth, “Pale Blue Dot.”

Looking for a source of awe and inspiration? While Halley’s Comet won’t be headed our way until 2061, debris from the familiar comet will be visible tonight in the form of the Eta Aquarid meteor showers, which will reach their peak early Tuesday morning, May 6th. The Eta Aquarids produce some of the fastest shooting stars of any annual meteor shower, blazing into our atmosphere at 44 miles per second! Blink, and you’ll miss them. Only the Leonids of November travel faster. The best time to view the meteor shower will be around 4 a.m. your local time. Viewers in the Southern hemisphere will be able to see up to 60 meteors per hour at the showers’ peak while those in the Northern hemisphere can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour at peak. Since the waxing crescent moon will set just after 1 a.m. EST, the skies will be perfectly dark for the showers. If weather proves to be a hindrance, you can catch Slooh’s live coverage of the event beginning at 9 p.m. EST with host astronomer Bob Berman.

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower
A bright, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid meteor streaks across Perseus on May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, watch for earthgrazers – long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. (Credit: Bob King via Universe Today)

If you’re unable to catch the Comet Halley debris this time, don’t worry. Earth will again pass through the Halley dust stream during the Orionid meteor showers in October. Additionally, skywatchers are expected to witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower caused by comet LINEAR on May 23-24! If predictions hold true, 200 to 400 meteors per hour will shoot across the sky in a remarkable celestial display in contention for the strongest showers of the year and maybe even our lives!

If music awes and inspires you, here is a playlist I compiled intended to capture the experience of being awestruck. Stay starry-eyed, my friends!


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