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Finding Wonder

There was a moment on the Tahoe200 course when Coops and I were huffing and puffing up Martis Peak in the dark. Martis was not even 9,000ft high, but we had covered three quarters of the 200 mile course, and every mile was biting, every rise in elevation hurting. It was dusty, not quite Rubicon dusty, even when the night had settled much of it, and the freshness in the air could still be felt when we managed to stick our heads above the bushes. Mind you, Coops was 65. He did not seem to see well in the dark and had taken a couple of hard tumbles. But there was no hesitation in the way he moved. And I drew much inspiration from watching the man move. According to Coops, historical sectionals in past years showed that some folks had taken up to 12 hours to traverse between Tunnel Creek to Brockway Summit over a distance of only about 15 miles! Although we were struggling big time, and my coughing bothered me heaps, we took comfort in knowing that we were way ahead of that time. At one point, Coops asked me to turn off the head torch. We both looked up at the starlit sky dome and realised how lucky we were to be there. Everything felt quiet, within and without, and pain instantaneously revealed its insignificance.

Unless you have been living in a cave, you must have, at least once in your life, looked up at the sky in wonder, amazed at the infinite beauty of it all, some known through personal experiences, but largely unknown and mysterious, existing only in the realm of human imagination. It is the infinity that creates much of the wonder. Feelings of wonder would signal that there is much depth to what is out there, and that much lies beyond what the senses can pick up and decode.

The same sense of wonder might have touched your heart through music. A certain melody, a particular harmonic rhythm or movement, a wild or calming beat, can keep you going, spurring you on. I was having a dream on a plane once. In the dream, I heard a peculiar and beautiful melody. Waking up, I realised that it did not sound entirely like a strings or a wind instrument. It was neither here nor there, yet it was both. Some notes sounded close to the harmonics that could be produced on the cello, but not all of them. Since that dream, I have been learning and practising the cello. So in effect, that dream was an inspiration for me to study a new instrument and to look more deeply into the nature of music.

Long distance runners, when weary and nearly emptied, are trained to recognise that moment when their body tells them that they are done, that they have no more to give. They might be, for one minute, slumping in a chair or lying flat by the trail side, but after a couple of long deep breaths the next minute, bystanders would notice a glint of life returning to their eyes. It would turn into a spark of rebellion, kicking and thrashing, refusing to give in, arriving like a fresh breeze on a hot summer day, igniting a possibility that has so far been lying dormant. These runners realise that they are never completely emptied, that they can keep going on for one mile, then another mile and another, until hours and days pass, and they eventually find themselves on the finish line. That moment is a moment of wonder, inward looking, yet as infinite as the universe itself, and no less mysterious.

During these moments of wonder, we get a vague sense that what is inside each of us is made of the same stuff as the universe. That vagueness, like a fog, slowly dissipates over time, as we learn to be more in tune with ourselves through different practices. Then what started as a feeling becomes direct knowledge, not the kind of knowledge that you can pick up from books or from schools, but from repetitions, from doing selective activities – the sort of knowledge you can only acquire through knowing yourself.

Recent advances in science and technology seem to indicate that they can explain this sense of wonder, and that it is possible to present the answer in numbers, and bits and bytes. Check out eBOSS. This is the most advanced and complete attempt to 3D map the Universe. It is a wonderful tool to explore. Some say that one day we might have the map of the entire universe on our phone (if we can collect the relevant data about the entire universe, that is). But can eBOSS replace the starlit sky on Martis Peak?

Check out the GPT-3 text generator from Elon Musk’s OpenAI. It can write better than many native writers. OpenAI’s Jukebox can write songs that are indistinguishable from mainstream pop music. They say that GPT-3 will replace even more jobs. But can OpenAI produce a Bach, a Chaplin? Or the cello music of Pablo Casals who has learnt to play, not the notes, but the meanings of each note?

In saying so, these positive claims are partially true. It is an interesting age we live in now, where selective uses of technology appear to enable humans to “reach for the stars.”

But the text generated by GPT-3, while factually and grammatically accurate, does not make me feel. Nor does the music “composed” by Jukebox. Nor do the visually fantastic 3D models of eBOSS. The outputs are functional; they do have valid roles and purposes. But they are devoid of wonder.

It is not quite the same as reading Dostoyevsky, listening to Bach, or looking up at the sky.

Many followers of this blog are runners. They inspire one another in more ways than one, often in unspoken ways. They train while having a career and trying to keep the household running like clockwork. They turn up on the start line, expecting to be triumphant at the end, but finding themselves at times not able to finish. Yet they would turn up time and time again, just giving it another go. Many turn quieter as time goes by, simply letting their actions talk. It is rather pointless, some observers might say.

True. So is looking up at the sky.

It is rather pointless.

But it is also where you can find wonder.

For further reading:
Tahoe200 Experience Report, 2019
eBOSS The most complete 3D Map of the Universe
GPT-3 The most advanced text generator (or simply, writer) using AI

📸 Andy and I at the Tahoe200 finish line, 2019.
🎥 Andy Westwick on the Tahoe200 course before reaching Tahoe City: “There’s a marathon left. Then it’s home.”

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