The Joy of Discovery

The Joy of Discovery

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“Pluto and Lowell Observatory, A History of Discovery at Flagstaff,” chronicles the fascinating story of the search for a ninth planet and the joy of discovery when Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997) identified a faint image on a photographic plate as the illusive Planet X.

Kevin Schindler and Will Grundy present the story of Pluto in a way that easily engages the reader from the outset. The saga begins with the initial search for the theoretical planet by Percival Lowell (1855-1916) and culminates with the exploration of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015.

The Process of Discovery

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines discovery as, “The action or process of discovering or being discovered.” Discovery is a process as well as a product. With Percival Lowell, the process filled his life with purpose and conviction. Even though he went to his grave without tasting the victory that belonged to his successors, the search provided its own joy of discovery, even amidst the many disappointments.

Pluto and Lowell Observatory clearly affirms that the discovery process can yield rewards and findings as important as the ultimate results.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) wrote, “The roads by which men arrive at their insights into celestial matters seem to me almost as worth of wonder as those matters in themselves.”

In Percival Lowell’s manuscript detailing the mathematical aspects of the search for Planet X, he wrote:

But to learn the general solution and the limitations of a problem is really instructive and important, as if it permitted specifically of exact prediction. For that, too, means advance.

The groundwork laid by Lowell served as a foundation for the success of subsequent efforts.

The Joy of Discovery

Scientific research aims at the discovery of things that formerly existed only in theory. That’s what drives researchers to go beyond the known.

That’s what drove Lowell to devote much of his life to searching the heavens for a planet that many astronomers insisted didn’t exist. “It means a planet out there as yet unseen by man,” he said, “but certain sometime to be detected and added to the others.”

The joy of discovery lies as much in reaching for the unknown as it does in its realization. And such joy is not proprietary to the sciences. The possibility belongs to all. The key lies in looking beyond our everyday experiences and reaching for new horizons.

The Possibilities of Discovery

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

The words above, often incorrectly attributed to Carl Sagan (1934-1996), capture the spirit of discovery. Infinitely more new discoveries lay ahead of us than in all the ages gone by. All that’s required is a desire to break out of the ordinary; to allow our imagination to carry us beyond what we presently do and know.

Non Plus Ultra

Someone supposedly inscribed the Latin phrase non plus ultra (nothing further beyond) on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar. The inscription marked the western end of the known world. Non plus ultra issued a warning to ancient mariners that they’d reached the edge of the earth and could go no further.

Any human endeavor that reaches the non plus ultra point may as well shut down. When an entity ceases to grow, it dies. An individual who loses the wonder of exploring new horizons at home or at work sadly misses the joy of discovery that awaits those who go beyond the norm.

Plus Ultra

Charles V (1500-1558), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, (known as Charles I in Spain) adopted the personal motto plus ultra, a reversal of non plus ultra. He chose the phrase, meaning further beyond, following the discovery of the New World by Columbus.

Something always lies beyond, unless we embrace the belief of some sailors in the Middle Ages that beyond a certain point further exploration becomes impossible, or even fatal.

Many scientists insisted that no planets existed in our solar system beyond Neptune. When Clyde Tombaugh took up the search for Planet X after Lowell’s death, a scientist told him, “Young man, I am afraid that you are wasting your time. If there are any more planets, they would have been discovered long before this.” The naysayer would not share in Tombaugh’s joy of discovery.

At work and in our private lives, the motto plus ultra provides the spark and the wonder that makes life an adventure rather than a burden.

The God of Discovery

Knowing God Through His Creation

The Belgic Confession (1561), written primarily by Guido de Brès (1522-1567) as a statement of faith for the Reformed Church, addresses under Article 3 the means by which we know God.

We know him by two means; first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely His power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says, Romans 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation. 

The more we discover about our wonderful world and beyond, the more we know about its creator. The April 1955 edition of Look Magazine quotes Dr. Warren Weaver (1894-1978), chairperson of the board for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as saying:

Every new discovery of science is a further revelation of the order which God has built into his universe.

The editors summarized the Weaver interview on a full page displaying the Andromeda Galaxy with the words, “Every new discovery of science is a further revelation of God.” (Over time we attributed this to Albert Einstein, but that’s not the case.)

David, and the Joy of Discovery

David grew up tending sheep. When God sent the prophet Samuel to visit David’s family, Jesse, his father, said of his youngest son, “He keepeth the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:11). David must have spent countless hours standing under a canopy of stars as he watched over his flock by night on the grassy slopes of Bethlehem. He never forgot. Later in life he remembered the star-lit skies in a song (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV).

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

By contrast, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first person in space, reportedly said, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.”

The genuine joy of discovery lies not only in learning more about our universe, but also in acknowledging the awesomeness of the Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God.

Without Excuse

Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (1:18-21, 25 NIV) that humanity has no excuse for repudiating the evidence of the Creator when exploring His creation.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

The exhilarating joy of discovery belongs to those who not only advance their knowledge and understanding of the physical world, but who also grow in their knowledge of God.

Rejecting the Creator

Carl Sagan spent his lifetime observing the cosmos and sharing his enthusiasm for its beauty and complexity with millions of admirers. But Carl Sagan died without once acknowledging God in all that he discovered.

Sagan compared reading about the stars as a youth to a “religious experience.” He lived his life worshiping and serving the creation rather than the creator. He said as much when he wrote, “But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God” (Cosmos, p. 257). 

There can be no lasting joy of discovery without God. The earth is “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Only spiritual blindness accounts for failing to see the wonder of it all.

And how desperately sad that a lifetime of living and discovering the beauty and magnificence of the heavens and the earth should at the last leave one empty. He died believing our world to be nothing more than a pale blue dot lost in a vast universe.

Again, the words of Carl Sagan seem hollow and pitiful when toward the end he’s quoted as hanging on to his rejection of the Divine Creator of the universe.

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

An Eternity of Discovery

The joy of discovery for the people of God does not end when they die. God prepares for them a New Heaven and a New Earth—a new creation filled with such goodness and perfection that in an eternity of eternities they would only begin to explore its grandeur.

For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth:
and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.
But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create (Isaiah 65:17, 18).