Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

"In its encounter with Nature, Science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the cosmos." --Carl Sagan



I am a compendium of science facts arrayed in a way designed solely to entertain myself. My knowledge of science is largely science-as-story-somewhat-informed-by-detail. I have a degree of sorts in physics, from a reputable land grant university, and I once built a Heathkit computer from solder-soft wire and a hole-punched plastic motherboard, except that for the life of me I don't remember the computer being able to do anything but light one light for yes, another light for no.

I took a lot of literature classes, even as I acquired my liberal arts degree in a science. Once a professor, having figured out my major, asked me to explain to the class the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I gave a rather liberal-artsy explanation, free of math, to the class. When I discussed entropy, and how the universe gradually moves towards less order, this proved a revelation to the class. Anomie and isolation are all well and good, but to have the science support it? It made the poet who wrote "let us go then, you and I" a little less relevant and a little more poignant.

A degree in physics serves me in good stead, though. I am good at dinner parties, when the topic of physics arises. Never mind that I do not attend many dinner parties, and never mind that my optics professor, a kind soul, despaired of me, I can speak science in the way that some can speak architecture--with an aplomb that both admits and rebuts the notion that I know essentially nothing at all.

Even today, my physics degree is rather like a presence in my life, seemingly unobtrusive but perhaps only sleeping. Perhaps it's like that fellow with the big hair on the old show Babylon 5, who had a weird alien controlling his actions, latched on, as weird aliens are wont to be, in some anatomical way that must suffice until special effects technology improves. Of course, in reality, the fact that I am nearly innocent of science but have a degree in it is neither burden nor triumph, but just one more part of my personal puzzle-mystery.

I think, sometimes, how my life would have changed if I had gotten an advanced degree in entomology. I think that applied science is a fascinating thing. I live now in a world of rules and abstractions. But a locust!
That's a thing almost worth writing an exclamation point about in a sentence. To study insects appeals to me.

I love science because so often it is about an experiment in truth. To me, the divination of truth through deduction and experiment is a very noble thing. What use is theology, when one can meet the angels in their lair?

Yet for me, science amounts to merely a glorious pastime. I am a back row Presbyterian in search of the grace of after-service handshakes and mimeographed programs with pictures of rocket cathedrals on the front. I'm cognizant of minute detail, such as the fact that a full moon will obscure the Geminid meteor shower or the habits of the Argentine ant. Ignore that behind the curtain, I can count on 2 fingers the number of meteor showers I've seen in the last 5 years (but on several thumbs the number of ants I've crushed).

A recent issue of the Livebearer newsletter described the passing of a Dr. Joanne Norton, a woman who devoted her life to research on livebearing fish propagation. Although I am on paper a fan of loving guppies rather than merely regarding them as Mendelian opportunities, I freely admit to being captivated by the stories of a woman on a farm in Iowa, advancing her field.

It's this kind of "small s" science, rather than the science of the bomb and the big bang, which appeals to me.
If I graphed out the tiniest fact, but graphed it well, that would indeed be a life well lived. But I have every hope that I can find a well-lived-life in other ways.

I find that so often, evangelists and science popularizers speak in condescending tones about science and religion which are similar in their angle, if disparate in their views, on the opposite sides of imaginary coins. Yet so often simple parish-serving ministers and fact-learning scientists are too busy doing what they do best in the service of people to spend much time on debate. Those who can, do. Those who can do more, teach. Those who can't, condescend through pontification. Those who can't do anything, but can talk about it a lot,
perhaps become lawyers or AM radio hosts.

The 2006 American Livebearer Association convention is in a NJ suburb of New York in April. I don't think we'll go, but I have this fantasy of rubbing shoulders with fish breeders and scientists. It's in some Ramada-esque hotel, and no doubt it will all be unglamorous and insider-y. I am never an insider. I am never "in the know".
I am host to arcane secrets, but they are all secrets of my own. Like all secrets, they are banal. But in their banality, there is very little science. I also imagine going to obscure museums and learning remarkably useless science facts, all during unlikely side trips to unheralded destinations.

I've followed one of those internet stories lately in which a weblogger turned out not to be a 20 year old
undergraduate at a prestigious institution, but instead turned out to be a boringly workaday fellow about my age. I wonder if being about my age is inherently so flawed as to require one to have a secret identity. I have no alter ego, no Clark Kent to offset my Super me. I am like so many people--workaday suitable, fills the slot, a viola planted for winter in a plastic pot, not a prize orchid in an elegant hothouse. I think that many, deep down, long to imagine ourselves in the hothouse, pulse racing, entranced with the primate passion of earth and tropical plant. But instead so many of us are catalogues of argentine ant facts and "is that Betelgeuse?".

It's easy to access the longing to be someone one is not. The spirit of God moves across the face of the water, and it is evening and it is morning, the First Day, and it is good. One longs for new creation, a creation in which one knows real science, and one's hair need not be condensed into microparticles for easy combing, and in which one "knows something" and it all matters so very much that one is who one is. But like that minister in the movie "The Big Chill", about a generation even more lost than my own, I ponder what has happened that just living a good life is no longer enough. In my grandfather's generation, one who provided and strove and observed the regular things found him/herself enthralled with the result. In our time, making the car payment and having 2.5 kids is no longer a be-all and end-all. Is this ennui virtue or vice? I suspect the latter.

In the end, all I have is the scraps of the crazy quilt I built of my life. Here is a snippet of knowledge about acoustics. There is
a compendium of chess openings. A huge piece of elegant cut cloth is my legal expertise, while this odd-size swatch is some stunted inner poet in me. I'd like to think I can weave it all into kindness somehow, but then my quilt might not be so crazy. Yet a part of me believes that only in the patternless quilt can one do any good for self or stranger.

So I shall neither a borrower nor a scientist be. I'll pay the dues of the paths I've chosen, and seek out my liberations only at the fringes. I'll live with the choices I've made, and make choices I can live through. But deep down, I know that through my own indolence and lack of talent, the things I'm blinded with are not science, but a love of the verbal powder flash left when science is shot from the gun of real living. But powder season passes, and there are other game to hunt. I'm weaponless but in search of deer.
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