Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Musing on Muses

A number of excellent scientists, naturalists, and other writers who are drawn, with a magnetic pull, towards studying and observing the world and its properties, have written very beautiful essays on why and how they first became enamored of and addicted to this way of seeing and examining the world. Rachel Carson, a writer whose prose is so pitch-perfect that it induces in me spasms of admiring envy, has a number of such essays. Phil Plait, a scientist and blogger, has a recent article in Slate about how the moment of sheer joy he experienced when looking through a telescope for the first time inspired him to become a scientist.

Not enough is said explicitly—though it is everywhere implied, within labs and within the world of science bloggers—about the basic, necessary joy, the thrill, the visceral excitement, that is the fundamental requirement and basis of the pursuit of a science career. One could easily argue that it should be the basis of any career, not just a scientific one—but I think it’s especially important to emphasize in the context of science because so often scientists are perceived to be emotionless or robotic, and because science itself is so often presented as being a dull conglomeration of facts, equations, and Latin names. (Poetry, in fact, is often taught in the same I-know-how-to-make-you-hate-this way, and should also be redeemed, rejuvenated, and refreshed by its devotees and practitioners—for heaven’s sake, it’s meant to wake the soul, not deaden the mind!).

In one of my favorite passages in Middlemarch, the author, George Eliot, describes the beginning of a very particular kind of love affair, and one that she acknowledges is not often addressed in novels—or anywhere else; she describes how Dr. Lydgate’s “intellectual passion” was “kindl[ed]” when he was a boy: bored at home, he absently opened an encyclopedia to an entry on anatomy, and read about the valves of the heart—and, in connecting valves with his knowledge of the Latin for doors, “through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanisms in the human frame.” In this moment, “the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast space planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge.”

Is that great or what?

In a later section—another favorite of mine—Eliot, when discussing another character, talks about the ways in which we fail to see the sadness of events that we perceive to be everyday, common occurrences: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Beautiful and terrible, all at once—and yet I think that second sentence could also be applied to some of what is wonderful about science—that there are those moments in which we do feel and see what is ordinary in a way that is piercing, magnificent, overpowering, revelatory. We can convince people that science studying black holes, or blue whales, or things that explode, is cool—but it’s not really those things that makes science so exhilarating: it’s the sensation of awe that shivers through you when you understand the way the moon influences the tides or watch an octopus change color so quickly that its body seems to flicker, as if colored flames are playing beneath the surface of its skin.

That’s what should—and, I think, usually does—motivate most scientific inquiry—that desire to know more in order to appreciate more, that desire to hear, if only for a second, the roar on the other side of silence.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Did you have, as Phil Plait puts it, a “Saturn moment”? What’s the spark that kindled your intellectual passion?

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anonymous said...

I'm not going to answer your question, Olivia. Instead, I'm going to thank you for the ways in which your deep and delicate perceptions elevate the common and the uncommon. Brilliance!


pattinase (abbott) said...

SILENT SPRING was a formative book for me. Colin Turnbull's anthropological books made me an anthropology major, albeit briefly. May Sarton's book about her gardens were inspiring too. There are many more....including Darwin's THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES.

Anca said...

When I was six, my father was tutoring in Romanian literature a boy who was a math prodigy and whose strong suit was not language. My father read him the opening lines of THE Romanian epic poem, Miorita, by anon, whose first lines would loosely translate as "At the foot of the meadow,/On the lips of heaven." My father exulted in the audacity of the anonymous poet, who dared compare his little corner of land, the foot no less, to the mouth of paradise. That's when I fell in love with what literature can do to us--make us exult in what we love and be able to transmit it to others, all while we commit blasphemy:).

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

How great that it was others' writing that electrified your interests in the natural world, research, and the subversive joys of literature itself!

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