Tag Archives: whimsy

science as “fun”

by Adam Johnston

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about how I got to where I am in my career, and in particular why I pursued science. I’ve taken advantage of those moments as a way to amass a variety of answers. It’s funny, though, because the question gets asked in lots of different ways. There’s “why are you a scientist?” and “how did you become a scientist?” and “what inspired you to go into science?” These are all different questions, and they all have different answers. I wish I could answer even one of them.

When I was on the radio a couple weeks ago (yes, I enjoy saying that) I was asked about the personal appeal for science. I talked about it being “fun.” Later, I tried to clarify this a bit. You could call it fun, or whimsy, or curiosity, or intrigue — any of these things and many others would do, even though none of them are adequate. It’s as adequate and satisfying as saying “love feels good”. When I said “fun” I didn’t mean it in the playing video games kind of fun. I meant fun like improvising on the piano and hiking a mountain, maybe at the same time. I meant “fun” like the part of me that feels a little more humble and a little more aware than other primates. I meant “fun” in the way you say it when you realize it isn’t adequate, but at the same time you have an awareness of the inadequacy of a word, the inadequacy of your own understanding of something that’s bigger than you, but the desire to get it right, to get it figured out.

In short, I meant “fun” in the sense that it is a part of what makes me human. It’s what inspires me and justifies to me the act of bringing science to children. They should own science like they own their own humanity. On that same radio show, the other discussant talked about science being about “power”. That bothered me at the time, and it still pricks me. Not to be antagonistic, but I think it’s completely the opposite. Yes, I know that he probably meant “power” in an intellectual way. To understand something is to feel a control and awareness of your place within nature. But even that I don’t think I really buy. I understand a little more about the space within me and without me, and I’m humbled. I’m shocked that we have capacity for this stuff, the understandings, and the consciousness of what we’re doing in science. We pick up pebbles, turn them over, one by one. None of the pebbles say anything in particular, but together, the pebbles and us and the rest of it, we make something out of it. That isn’t power; it’s sublimity.

There are plenty of moments, days, and weeks that I wander around wondering if I really am a scientist.  I think I am. Sometimes I joke that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t get a job, although I’m not always sure whether or not I’m joking. There are days I’m fairly certain that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t make it as a rock star.  Or maybe I’m not a rock star because I had the opportunity to be a scientist. That was a gift I didn’t know I’d been given until much later.

I remember wanting to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer (or a scientist) is. And then I remember a switch that flipped during a physics class taught by Herschel Snodgrass.  (Yes, that really was his name.)  He did the demo where the ball launched, aimed directly up, from a moving cart, and yet it still landed in the cart, jumping over a miniature bridge in the process.  I can’t say for sure that this was the moment exactly that I became a scientist, but it’s one that I refer to.  That demo, maybe more than anything, flipped the switch and cleared up the distinction between being a scientist and an engineer.  The engineer would be building that bridge in the demo and be satisfied with it in its stability and structure.  The scientist gets to wonder things like, “What rule determines the motion of that ball?”  “What is inertia and from where does it come?” and “Holy Jesus!?!”  And we stew in that.  

I still do that demo for most every class I teach, and I tell them about that moment and the switch, and I tell them that, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen and a little bit about why and how it connects to so many other rules, it still gets me, sticks a pin in some sensitive inside part of me that loves, is in love, with that beauty.  Not the beauty of an angel or a rainbow or a unicorn, but the simple up and down of that ball that keeps perfect pace with the cart.  How did the ball know how to do that without the ability to know anything? I still don’t know. I still see that ball, up, over, down, back in the cart… I still wonder. I’m in awe. And that, I suppose, is what I meant when I said it was “fun”.

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whimsical design

by Adam Johnston

I believe that any man who has looked at himself, naked, in a full length mirror, can’t believe in “intelligent design.” Intelligent design is creationism with a new jacket and a shiny pair of shoes. The notion I don’t have problems with necessarily, although I fight it in public spheres and in preparing teachers. When it gets infused into discussions of science, the premise is no longer merited. Science unravels the Natural world, so seeing into the mind of the Supernatural is out of bounds. Moreover, you shouldn’t insult your god by suggesting that we can.

But there’s more to it than just the philosophical, epistemological basis of science versus non-science. There’s the naked man standing in the mirror. Because, that is one of the funniest things we should ever have to face, eye to eye, man to man — symmetrical yet baggy, hairy but not furry, upright but hunched as though there’s an evolutionary memory of some ancestor without the opposable thumbs. And we’re not alone in our absurdity. There’s the platypus, volcanic pumice, the banana slug, music, lava tubes, brine shrimp, sandstone arches, sea cucumbers, hail, tides, viruses, pi, gray whales, and love. It’s all ridiculously improbable, and if you try to convince me that there’s intelligence, planning, or logic behind any of this I scoff. Again, I’m not sure I’d want to insult the intelligent of whatever deity you’d subscribe to.

Last week in my class, a science teaching preparatory course, one of my biology students brought up the fact that, of all the cells actually inside the human body, perhaps a tenth of them are human cells. The rest, the vast majority, the ruling party who could surely outvote the rest of my body in any kind of democratic decision, are microbial. We are mostly bacteria. They’re helping us, and us them, though mostly I think we just make the best of it. We’re a convenient hull in which they have a constant temperature, and they don’t kill us immediately. What kind of a crazy idea is this? Surely, if you really wanted to design something, especially something as “highly” evolved as the human, you could imagine something much more independent, less reliant and hospitable to foreigners.*

I think about places I love like Arches National Park, and a jaunt into Fiery Furnace in particular, and I’m fascinated and moved. Red stone walls give way to slots that we navigate in single file. Rock formations like “Surprise Arch” and “Kissing Turtles” emerge out of quiet, seeping water, and geologic time. The arid desert and sterile cracks give way to a slot where water collects to host a garden of poison ivy, surprising the visitor who was only wary of rattlesnakes, sheer drop offs, and heat stroke. There’s the immensity of the stone, sharply contrasted with the ridiculousness of individual grains of sand, responsible for the staggeringly slow pace of the grain by grain drip by drip process of it all. It creates something that is not only explained by a story but pours out the subjects and imagery of the theater. From kissing turtles to craggy juniper to sheer red walls reaching up into blue space, it all seems to smile back at me. It’s as though it were all there just waiting for it to be seen.

To me, all this is waiting, not intelligently designed, but whimsically designed. It isn’t there to do something, but to be laughed at and to laugh back at us.

It’s the same whimsy as that in the eyes of a visitor looking up at Sand Dune Arch, just north of Fiery Furnace, or the whimsy of my daughters playing in the sand there that forgives the rock for trapping it, climbing on the sandstone that was built grain by grain. This sandy chasm between fins is a destination of choice when I’m here with my family. Each visit we make is a bit of a return to some Mecca, where we stare at a thin ribbon of stone that spans the sky. Eventually, though, we find ourselves playing in the sand, climbing on the rocks.

It’s fun to imagine the creator behind sandstone arches, the result of sand eroded out of stone that was cemented out of sand. Too, there’s the Teddy Bear Cactus, cuddly looking but with needles that pierce tender flesh, green and bulbous with water in a place void of the stuff. There are things with scales, things with slime, things with venom, and things with whiskers. And then there’s brains. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in Galapagos: “I am still full of rage at a natural order which would have permitted the evolution of something as distracting and irrelevant and disruptive as those great big brains . . .” A natural “order,” or perhaps it’s the natural disorder of things. We have the intelligence to be just aware enough of ourselves to imagine where we come from.

It’s ironic that we are a product of whatever source of the design there may have been. Intelligent enough to be able to imagine some intelligence in the design, and then even go so far as to look for it. Of course, this just won’t work. It just isn’t what science does. It seems that we’re just intelligent enough to fool ourselves. Some whimsical source of it all is laughing, not with us, but at us. If only we got the joke, it would be pretty funny. There is so much around us and within us that simply defies intelligence, and in attributing an architecture to a logical and planful designer, we’re looking for the wrong author of it all. The designer is a poet and an artist, but not a scientist. That’s our our own job. And that’s fine with me.

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* I can imagine political implications: How do we consider the issue of illegal immigration if we, our very physical independent selves, are hosts to completely alien species?