A deep dive exploring many of life's mysteries


Winston Churchill once famously said, on Oct. 1, 1939, during a radio address, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

To me, the universe, the solar system, everything on Earth, and I myself are riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. The keys, I suspect, are in the hands of a creator. Certainly if such a creator exists, he or she has chosen to divulge nothing directly about the creation of the universe and everything in it (except through the imprecise account of the holy scriptures).

The philosopher Zeno said thousands of years ago that, theoretically, it is impossible to reach a distant destination because one must first cover half the distance, then half the remaining distance, and so on, so that always, there is half of the remaining distance to cover, ad infinitum. 

That paradox does not present itself in real life, obviously, but to me it is a metaphor for our knowledge of countless things. We can know a great deal about countless things, but not everything, and perhaps never everything, about most of them.

For example, it is generally agreed that the birth of the universe can be traced to an event that occurred a particular number of billions years ago, the so-called Big Bang. But we are left to wonder what existed before the Big Bang, if anything. Is it possible for the human brain to conceive of there being nothing — no time, no anything?

We are also left to wonder how everything in the universe as we know it could come from an unimaginably small, unimaginably dense bit of matter. That is truly a mystery.

Scientists of unfathomable genius have determined that all elements are composed of atoms, and that every atom is composed of neutrons, protons and electrons (in the case of hydrogen, one proton and one electron). Other scientists of unfathomable genius have determined that protons and neutrons are composed of two different kinds of quarks that are held together by gluons, and that gluons have no mass.

But how are we to think of protons — which are positively charged — electrons — which are negatively charged — neutrons, which have no charge, and gluons and all the other subatomic particles and forces that scientists have reportedly detected?

When I think of a particle, I think of a grain of sand. But obviously, atoms and their components are nothing like a grain of sand. To me, atoms are a profound mystery.

Moreover, it is totally mysterious to me that differences in the numbers of protons are what differentiates one element from another. Somehow, conglomerates of oxygen atoms — with their eight protons — manifest themselves as colorless, odorless gas, while masses of sodium atoms, with their 11 protons, manifest themselves as a soft, silvery metal. Aggregations of sulfur atoms, with their 16 protons, manifest themselves as a soft, yellow, brittle solid. 

All protons, all neutrons and all electrons are the same. What is it about the differences in their numbers that accounts for the different characteristics of the elements? Will anyone ever be able to explain that?

On another front, scientists have tracked in detail what happens after a sperm penetrates an egg, but precisely what triggers everything that ensues is, in my opinion, a mystery. That is, we know an enormous amount about the process by which a fertilized egg begins to divide and develop, but we cannot explain why it happens as it does.

Scientists have also made amazing discoveries about the chemical and electrical processes involved in storing and retrieving memories, but how such chemical reactions and electrical processes can produce an actual memory — the memory of a taste, a smell, a poem, a tune, the face of a dead relative, an event from one’s childhood, or any other specific memory — is, in my opinion, a total mystery.

Anatomists, physiologists, biologists, chemists and other scientists have amassed many volumes’ worth of information about the structure and function of our bodies, everything from bones and organs to cells, the component of cells, and the components of chromosomes and genes. 

We know about all sorts of triggers for all sorts of reactions. But do we really understand the basic nature of those triggers — that is, the basic nature of life?

It is not surprising to me that each of us is largely a mystery, even to ourselves.

Miriam Helbok,