The Science of Ignorance

Having finished the first quarter of my 100 posts about the arts, I’m taking a brief break to return to the glorious and wide-reaching bosom of science. There are a couple of catalysts working in step here: the first is that I, like a number of people, have been enjoying and occasionally yelling at current BBC series Wonders of Life (with Brian Cox doing outrageous things like “basic science on a mountain”, travelling to places I’m never going to get to visit, getting octopuses to punch him in the face, and cuddling impossibly cute lion cubs). The next is that in addition to enjoying the prime-time pop-science show I also have an oft-joked-of propensity for draining the programming on BBC4 of “everything that isn’t steam trains”, and an embarrassingly large pile of pop-neuroscience/linguistics books which have taken up residence in my bathroom along with some stuff on epidemiology because I have run out of bookshelves again and there are exposed pipes in the bathroom which work as bookshelves and how many books do you have to buy before you acknowledge that you have a problem?

I had planned to burble in my tirelessly charming fashion about the fascinating tendency of areas of study to bleed into each other anyway, but then I came across some delightful person claiming that learning about neurochemicals and the source of emotions and the evolutionary function of romantic love was somehow degrading to the concept of love and had to go and head butt a wall for a while. Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan have already dealt with the accusation of science being unromantic with more eloquence and poetry than I could hope to, but the idea of this ostrich-solution to the world still distresses me: you cannot use deliberate ignorance to maintain a state of supposedly preferable untrue happiness and claim that this is somehow makes the truth stop existing.

It has been one of the things which always appealed the most to me about the harder sciences: that regardless of the political applications of knowledge or the dead ends that we encounter on the way to knowledge, there is a singular truth, a set of universal laws which can be determined from rigorous and rigorously adapted methods of observation. Humans are deeply inconsistent: our ideals of morality have changed profoundly over the short time we have had morals at all. Our stories fluctuate in order to encompass the values of the society telling them and the problems of the time period.

Our notions of love and the expression of love alter not only through the passage of societal time but through the phases of an individual’s life: the neurochemicals and pathways which engineer this holy state of being do not. Energy tends towards entropy, organisms best adapted to survive their conditions are selected for over those which cannot adapt, the process of nuclear fusion attends to the same rules as always, the universe like a vast and impossibly complex four-dimensional machine jitters through its motions regardless of whether you or I are kind or cruel, clever or stupid, obstinately ignorant or fevered seekers of truths. Eppur si muove – or to give it a more prosaic iteration, the damn thing moves anyway. The laws of the universe continue, and it is up to us to understand them or not understand them: ignoring them will not make them go away.

And certainly angrily not only refusing to learn but declaring that anyone who wants to share the joy of their knowledge is deliberately trying to spoil your happiness is arrogant in the extreme, and fearful for no reason. Knowing how love occurs still doesn’t tell us why we fall in love with this person and not that person, at this time and not that one. That will take centuries to discover, and even when we understand it, it won’t stop that emotion from having the same effect on your receptors as it always did. What an amazing thing the human brain is, that it can generate pleasure and terror within itself over absent things and abstract concepts. What an incredible engine.

and here is a slightly distorted picture of Professor Brian Cox looking at an Aye-aye

And now back to something I love: documentaries, particularly ones involving wildlife.

That Nice Professor Cox is back on the telly, talking now about how the chemical process known as “life” works, and how it evolves, and what makes it kind of bloody amazing: following on from such televisual treats as Whoa Space Is Pretty Awesome Hey and its sequel No There’s Even More To Space Than That Seriously Look At This. There have been complaints about the presence of the ubiquitous and effervescent professor, even more so after Sir David Attenborough suggested that he might make a nice replacement for himself. Some of these complaints have more credibility than others: the disappointment that the BBC has not decided to employ more female scientists as presenters, for example, to follow on from a slightly better record with history programs (cf. Dr Janina Ramirez on the Hundred Years War, Dr Lucy Worsley on a number of subjects including the Regency, and the inexplicably-maligned Professor Mary Beard on Rome), or a general problem with academic/documentary programming tending to feature an almost unbroken sea of white faces. The less credible arguments include “but he’s not a biologist” (he’s a broadcaster with a good understanding of the GCSE-level science the program is disseminating, and more importantly has the charm and enthusiasm to pull off what he does): with a degree in geology and zoology Attenborough might not have been the obvious choice to usher in colour programming at the BBC, but he oversaw at BBC2 a time of considerable progress and quality.

There are stylistic matters within the program’s presentation that will appeal to some and not to others: I’m fond of the conceit of overlaying basic information on top of some of the footage but then I’m the kind of pervert who likes footnotes. The basic experiments conducted may draw contempt from people like my boyfriend, who scoffed “oh yeah, we did this in school”, but as one of no doubt many people whose school felt it wasn’t necessary to do any practical science or indeed to teach anything in lessons whatsoever a lot of the time, I didn’t, and I find practical demonstrations delightful and informative and above all accessible.

Brian Cox and a coconut/robber crab

One of the features of this series – which brings us back to the opening of this post – that has endeared it to me besides Brian’s infectious enthusiasm and pleasant voice is the angle of approach on biology. It is fascinating to hear and see the processes of nature and various ecosystems as well as individual parts of different animals factored into the wider universal laws and given a place within explanations which encompass stellar furnaces and molecular structure: it conveys a sense of joined-up learning which is absent from a very discipline/subject-oriented education, where each lesson is an island.

As soon as you start learning across different disciplines it becomes evident in a way it never was before that everything is in some way relevant to something else: the process of galaxy collisions millions of years ago and millions of light-years away helps to pinpoint the precise point in history in which a terrible plague was presaged by the coming of a new star in the heavens; evolution driven by chemistry and the test of the environment on gene expression helps to explain human behaviour and the propensity for war-making; understanding the chemical nature of love in the brain may one day lead to debates over whether it is ethical to induce empathy in psychopaths and a wave  of alternate history fiction about famous tyrants infected with great affection instead, for Literature students to analyse and reframe.

Everything we know and everything we invent, everything we imagine and predict, every lie we tell and every deity we envision has its roots in the real and observable universe, which quite frequently turns out to be weirder than we could have guessed. To shut yourself off from the incredible source of inspiration and excitement that is the inkling of an understanding of this vast and infinitely complex universe (both the one we are part of and the one that is part of us) is to do yourself an injury and limit your abilities for no reward.

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