Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meandering Thoughts on Science and Discovery

I occasionally refer to myself as a scientist, but I am not really a scientist. I do not practice science. I do not perform that non-dogmatic, self-correcting investigatory process; who has the time or the funding for that? When I'm being more honest, I call  myself an ecologist, but I am not really an ecologist, either. An ecologist is a variant of a scientist, a subclass, an offshoot. I am not a scientist, ipso facto bingo bango, I am not an ecologist. When I'm even more honest, I think of myself as a naturalist, a delighted observer, a watcher, a person who enjoys stories and finding connections. I have the interest in becoming a scientist, and more than the average amount of scientific literacy, but I don't know if I have the patience or temperament to make it a vocation. No, I love learning about science, and applying scientific practices and knowledge in all kinds of ways, and sharing that knowledge, but I am not a scientist.

But this is why I have such a wide range of interests. There is never a lack of interesting things to learn, or of incredible stories to hear or tell. In the last couple years, I've picked up a moderate fluency in American Sign Language, I've studied sociology and a little bit of gender studies, I've learned a ton about the Pacific Northwest in its ecology and history. The world is full of stories and connections, networks, systems, economies, and ecologies. Any subject of inquiry can be broken down into an infinite variety of Venn Diagrams, tables, timelines, outlines, and charts, and if you just find the right connections and present the data the right way, you can tell a really great story about any human endeavor, any aspect of the physical world around us or the motivations that drive the great river of human history.

Sure, the slow grind of learning or explaining the math behind astrophysics is a challenge, but once humanity reached the point of exploring in that direction, we realized we are made of the stuff of stars, we are sparks of life born from the exploded carcasses of celestial furnaces that burned hot enough to make the old alchemical goal of turning lead into gold look like the most pitiable child's play. Sure, practicing your scales on a musical instrument is a rote task of questionable value when looked at as a single repetition, but the way music can chill my bones and make me gasp or shed a tear is an undeniably transcendent experience. And sure, memorizing names and dates from history texts is boring, but when laid out the right way, one can see the rise and fall of empires, the messy business of murder, intrigue, betrayal, and greed interplaying with every possible variant of human nobility, on both political and personal scales, and the small decisions and accidents that changed everything.

I once was told that if you get down into the math and science of higher-level Einsteinian physics, you can see that causality and free will are very possibly a lie. If, when traveling at the speed of light, you can see a person catch a ball before you see it being thrown, then the throwing was written in stone, was meant to be and inescapable. Apparently, you can envision a person in spacetime as a worm-like creature formed of a baby at one end, and an adult at the other, with each cross section representing a moment of awareness in the creature during which it is unable to see what lies ahead of it, and only dimly aware of what was behind.
Now, I am not scientist enough, nor smart enough, to truly understand these concepts, but if a man is a worm, or a thread of some kind, then humanity, human experience, the human family tree, is a matrix of these, all tangled and interwoven. Our offspring are forks off of our own threads, our time with our lovers is a place where two threads join and merge briefly before continuing on in parallel or apart, our dearest friends are those threads we gravitate towards and run alongside, and twins are threads that forked at conception.

My mind fills with images of such a structure. I imagine it to be some kind of an intricately layered algal bloom swirling in all directions, with patches of different consistency, color, density, all of which varies with the condition, the demographics, and the spirit of humanity at any moment in history. Can you imagine that we might be part of such a felt mat of living fibers, all so unaware of themselves, so unaware of the structure of which the length and breadth of their experience is simply the smallest part?

This may all be pointless philosophizing, but that's one of the things I find myself loving about it. If you push out to the frontiers of human understanding of our universe, whether on the scale of galaxies or DNA, you begin to see just how little we may actually understand. And that is an incredibly beautiful, captivating thought.

Modern Physics impresses us particularly with the truth of the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense-perceptions, and that there are problems and conflicts where these realities are of greater value for us than the richest treasures of the world of experience.
---Max Planck