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The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.”

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: Astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on the Transcendence of Nature and Fishing as a Metaphor for the Pursuit of Knowledge

“You put that line,” the great director Robert Altman enthused about his love of fishing, “and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.”

In The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything (public library), Dartmouth astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser argues that angling into the unknown to plumb its imaginative possibilities is also what science does. At the age of eleven, well before he became a theoretical physicist and came to study questions once considered outside the realm of science — question about the origin and nature of the universe — Gleiser grew enchanted with fishing as “a portal into a spiritual dimension of being, a way to transcend the clutch of time.”

Like gardening, an activity of larger metaphorical dimensions, fishing, Gleiser found, offers an apt metaphor for the essence of the scientific spirit. He writes:

Fishing teaches us to be patient, tolerant, humble — key qualities needed in research. How often do fishermen go to the water with their rods, dreaming of the day’s catch, only to come home empty-handed? Likewise, how often do scientists passionately explore an idea for days, weeks, months, years even, only to be forced to accept that it leads nowhere? Notwithstanding the frequent failures, and just as in fishing, they keep coming back, even if the odds for success are pretty low. The thrill is in beating the odds, occasionally landing a big fish or an idea that reveals something new about the world.

In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive. We stare at the water, and sometimes we see a fish stir underneath the surface or even jump, betraying its presence. But the watery world is not our own, and we can only conjecture about what really goes on down there, polarized lenses and all. The line and the hook are our probes into this other realm, which we perceive only very imperfectly.

Art by Shaun Tan for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Echoing pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s beautiful meditation on the poetics of curiosity and our natural blinders to reality, Gleiser adds:

We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration– our reality amplifiers — the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many other instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.

In one particularly poetic passage, Gleiser recounts his own encounter with that simple, scintillating beauty during a walk in the wilderness after a lecture in England. He writes:

A public footpath meanders along the river. I approached it through a narrow alleyway just beneath the castle. A huge sycamore bowed ceremoniously over the dark green water. I paused to appreciate the view, infused with a deep sense of peace. A cloud of mayflies wobbled just above the current, joyfully celebrating their twenty-four-hour existence. Suddenly, out of the depths, a salmon leaped some three feet into the air, swallowed one of them, and dived back with a noisy splash. The fish must have been at least six pounds, maybe more. I just stood there, motionless, mouth agape.

[…]

Was it an omen? Of course it was! Only a fool, blind, sad rationalist would wave away something like this, dismissing it as a mere coincidence. When an event is meaningful it becomes more than a mere coincidence. I’m not saying that some supreme supernatural power or some river spirit planted the message just for me. That would be nonsensical and hopelessly self-centered. The salmon jumped, and I happened to be right there to see it. Why take away from the simple beauty of what had just happened, attributing it to an invisible and elusive conductor? What should be worshipped here is not some invisible, unknowable magic hand but the serendipity of the event, the emotional impact it had on me. The salmon’s timeline and my own overlapped for a few brief seconds of pure and absolute bliss. There is no need to bring anyone or anything else into the picture.

The gap between our expectations and this marvel of the unexpected, of course, is what gave rise to ancient mythologies and superstitions. But learning to inhabit that gap is at the heart of what Alan Lightman has so memorably called “the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” It is part of, and perhaps the whole of, our search for meaning. Gleiser writes:

The meaning of life is to find meaning in life.

“The Unborn Fish” by Bhajju Shyam from Creation, an illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian myths

With a lucid eye to how our ancestors went about finding meaning, Gleiser notes:

The whole notion of a supernatural influence doesn’t really make sense. After all, an “influence” denotes a physical occurrence or an event. And an occurrence is something that happens in the physical world through some kind of energy exchange. Any kind of energy exchange or force is very natural and requires a very natural cause. In other words, as soon as the supernatural becomes physical enough to be noticed or detected in some way, it can’t remain supernatural anymore. A “supernatural influence” is an oxymoron.

[…]

The unexplainable — to be distinguished from the not-yet-explained, which is the province of science — is unavoidable. And should be welcomed. We are surrounded by mystery, by what we don’t know and, more dramatically, by what we can’t know.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s insistence on the importance of unanswerable questions and building upon his own earlier work about the mystery of nature and the nature of mystery, Gleiser considers the necessity of embracing doubt as an integral part of our pursuit of knowledge:

If our accumulated knowledge of the world makes up an island, the island grows as we learn more. (It may also occasionally shrink, as we discard an erroneous theory or explanation.) As with every island, this one is also surrounded by an ocean, in this case the ocean of the unknown. However — and here is the twist — as the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundary between the known and the unknown. In other words, new knowledge generates new unknowns. Unless we stop asking questions about Nature, there is no possible end to our search.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless clarion call for the discipline of doubt, Gleiser adds:

We must conclude that this ever-growing body of knowledge called science cannot explain all there is for the simple reason that we won’t ever know all there is to explain. How could we possibly know all the questions to ask? To presume that we can know all there is to know only shows how supremely arrogant some people can be. It also flies against all that we have learned about how science generates knowledge.

[…]

But … understand the limitations of science is not the same as labeling it as weak or exposing it to the criticism of antiscience groups, such as Bible literalists. It is, in fact, liberating to those who consider it, as it frees science from the burden of being godlike, all-knowing and all-powerful. It protects its integrity in a time when so many claims from scientists get inflated beyond their validity, either by those making them (they should know better) or by the media… Furthermore … why should we want to know everything? Imagine how sad it would be if, one day, we arrived at the end of knowledge. With no more questions to ask, our creativity would be stifled, our fire within extinguished. That, to me, would be incomparably worse than embracing doubt as the unavoidable partner of a curious mind. Science remains our most effective tool to explore the world in its myriad manifestations. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a human invention and that, as such, it does have limitations. Every system of knowledge is fallible.

And yet limited as it may be, science is still our finest searchlight for knowledge amid the darkness of the unknown — knowledge which we transmute into wisdom, out of which we then wrest meaning — or, rather, meanings. Looking back on his own path to becoming a scientist with the modern makings of a natural philosopher, Gleiser reflects:

This manifold devotion, this search for different ways to connect with something bigger than I am, can only be called love. Einstein called it the experience of the mysterious — “the cosmic religious feeling” — to him the most significant we could have, the awe we feel as we contemplate Creation. (By “Creation” with a capital C I mean the totality of Nature.) In my view, it is the purest form of spirituality, the manifold experience of our profound connection with the cosmos. From Nature we came, in Nature we are, to Nature we go.

Complement Gleiser’s altogether excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected with Alan Lightman on the transcendence of discovery and 19-year-old Sylvia Plath on finding nonreligious divinity in nature.

BP

Nora Ephron on Women, Politics, and the Myth of Objectivity in Journalism

“I’ve never believed in objective journalism … because all writing is about selecting what you want to use. And as soon as you choose what to select, you’re not being objective.”

Nora Ephron on Women, Politics, and the Myth of Objectivity in Journalism

“Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her spectacular 1975 speech-turned-essay about women, honor, and what truth really means. On July 28 of the same year, a young Nora Ephron (May 19, 1941–June 26, 2012), having only just begun her ascent to cultural acclaim, sat down with airwaves impresario Studs Terkel for a radio conversation about gender, politics, and the journalistic responsibility of ending the gaslighting of women. She had just published Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (public library) — her now-classic masterwork of comedically served cultural commentary on serious matters, titled after a fragment from W.B. Yeats’s poem “A Prayer for my Daughter” (It’s certain that fine women eat / A crazy salad with their meat).

Drawn from the WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive, the conversation is newly animated and brought to life by the ceaselessly wonderful Blank on Blank.

I’ve never believed in objective journalism — and no one who is a journalist in his or her right mind does — because all writing is about selecting what you want to use. And as soon as you choose what to select, you’re not being objective.

For more of Blank on Blank’s animated treasures of cultural and creative history, see Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.

BP

Thoreau on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice

“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Thoreau on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice

“Truth always rests with the minority,” the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1846 as he contemplated the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, “because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

Around the same time, across the Atlantic, 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) was beginning to contend with the subject of minority rights and civil justice after the horrors of the Mexican-American War compounded the outrage at slavery that had been seething in him for years.

Having recently benefited from trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller’s conscientious mentorship, the young writer set about committing his outrage to words in what became Resistance to Civil Government, better known as Civil Disobedience (free ebook | public library).

thoreau1

Published in 1849 — well before Thoreau’s vivid writings about the glory of nature and the spiritual rewards of walking — this politically and socially awake masterpiece went on to influence such titans of culture as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi (whose forgotten correspondence about violence, peace, and human nature is strewn with echoes of Thoreau), and informed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideals of nonviolent resistance.

More than half a century before women got the right to vote — an era predating “the invention of women,” when “man” actually meant man — Thoreau writes:

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice… Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? … Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice.

In a sentiment of acute timeliness as we are called to confront the atrocities of today’s criminal justice system and the systemic injustices of mass incarceration, Thoreau adds:

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

To the intuitive outcry of what is to be done, which bellows from deep in the soul of any human being who has managed to stay woke, Thoreau answers:

Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

Civil Disobedience is an indispensable read for every democratically minded, socially conscious human being awake to justice. Complement it with Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy, Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual responsibility in social change, and James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit Thoreau on the art of walking, the sanctity of libraries, what it really means to be awake, the vital difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

BP

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