Mystery, play, and the suspension of belief

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November 11 2005, flying home from a Phoenix conference
The flight attendant didn’t hand me the cup of ice water, but put it directly on my tray. As it left her fingers it slid smoothly across the slate blue surface, towards my lap. Simultaneously puzzled and anxious, I reacted instinctively, grabbing the cup an inch from the tray edge. A spill averted, I let go for a fraction of a second, and the cup started to slide again. Fascinated, I flicked the cup lightly with my fingers and found I could control its glide with the lightest of touch.

For a minute I played with my cup as a child, delighted by a mystery I did not understand.

Then a moment came when my inner-scientist moved into consciousness and asked: “What is going on?”

I lifted the cup, and the mystery collapsed into understanding.

Under the base was stuck a tiny chip of ice.

I put the cup back down on the tray and played some more. But within twenty seconds the ice melted and the cup became ordinary, unmoving. My pants were safe from a spill, but the world had shrunk back to the normal, expected.

But for a minute, my fragile worldview that there are reasons why things happen, even if we don’t know what they are, disappeared. I played in a space of suspended belief.

And a tiny slice of wonder made my life a little richer.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ineffablepulchritude