“What did you think of that list the professor gave you? About what it means to be alive?” They were walking across campus toward the university district, going for a cup of coffee and free internet access for Zach.
“Oh, it’s pretty limiting, but it’s like anything else. It’s helpful to draw distinctions I guess, understand why you’re more like a fungus than a rock.” She smiled at him., knowing she was poking him a bit with the fungus remark. And the rock remark. She had seen him around campus before, usually reclining, sometimes sitting meditation.
“But we’re all just starstuff. You and me and the rocks and the fungus. We’re all made out of the same stuff that originated with whatever it is that it originated with. At least that’s what Carl Sagan said.” Zach had spent a lot of time with PBS growing up.
“Ah, but you and I and the fungus are all made mostly out of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen, and the rock is mostly made out of……well, that looks like it’s probably quartz and feldspar, granite,” she pointed at the stone of the wall near the walkway. So structurally it’s got silicon and oxygen and calcium and aluminum and all kinds of metals “And we’ve got all kinds of cool biochemical stuff going on in our bodies that Mr. Stoner in the wall over there doesn’t have going on. Maybe he or she has some stuff going on, but it’s a bit different.”
Zach let her go on, she was getting into it, and it was fun to watch her. The fact that she’d anthropomorphized the stone in the wall amused him.
“That’s metabolism, all that cool biochemical stuff. It’s releasing the energy from the food we eat so our cells can do stuff. And lots of our cells are bacterial cells, more than our own, in fact. Trillions and trillions and trillions of them.” She pulled off a pretty good Carl Sagan impression and grinned at him.
It totally turned him on; so much so that a little hitch in his pace was required to accommodate his growing interest in this young upstart. He laughed to hide his discomfort, but also because he was so tickled.
“The reason I ask is because of that thing about evolution that I was talking about, language. I like language a lot and pay attention to it. So even defining things like what it means to be alive seems pretty arbitrary sometimes. I mean, look at a virus. From what I remember from high school, a virus is technically a chemical parasite, not a living thing. Right?”
He knew the answer, but since she was helping him learn biology, he’d be doing most of the questioning. Or at least that’s what he assumed, it’s how it usually went. Of course it was often he who had the answers, or at least some fair semblance of what the system wanted returned in terms of answers. He found he usually ended up with more questions.
“Personally, Dude, when I look at a SEM of a bacteriophage virus and think about the various ideas about how life might have come to be on this planet, I don’t imagine something parasitizing life, I imagine something building it.” She stopped walking and turned to face him, halting him. “Wow. Is that what you mean about the language thing?”
He beamed at her. “Oh yeah.” He hadn’t really meant to say that, especially not that way, but he continued to have difficulties with the blood supply to his brain. He regrouped quickly.
“Where did you go to high school? I don’t recognize you from around here.” They were in the land of the Ivy League, the land of the intellectual elite, the upper crust of credentialing for life among the thinkers and shapers of the future.
“Online, mostly. Members of my commune taught me a lot early on, but mostly they just let me feed my curiosity in whatever ways that turned me on. It’s called radical unschooling.” She’d suddenly gotten a little defensive. She’d found that when she told others among her new classmates about her background, she got the look. Well, her appearance usually got her the look, her background just solidified preconceptions.
“Your commune?” Now he was intrigued.
“My aunties and uncles. My mother died in an auto accident when I was quite young and my father was totally ill equipped to deal with a toddler. My parents were hippie anthropologists who’d helped form a group living situation in Maine based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, but when mama died, daddy just kind of lost it. He got deeply involved in research and shallowly involved with lots of young female students and was away at this exotic site or that one most of the time while I was growing up. My education was totally organic.” She looked back up at him, a little shyly. “How about you?”
Now it was his turn to be embarrassed.
“I went to the best of the best private schools. Mother is an academician. Women’s studies, Smith.” He reply was curt, and oddly, his passions had waned a bit.
“So was your education broad, or narrow, or what? I really am curious, I feel like such an outsider here. You should fit right in.” She looked at him a little skeptically. He sure didn’t look very typical, but it was hard to say what typical might be. Grunge was pretty hip in some circles.
“Pretty broad I guess; broader than most. That’s because the society I grew up in was such a strong matriarchy. Lots of diversity in feminism, everything from misandrous thugs to witches and fairies. Intellectualism is cool, and in general, I love women.”
“What about your dad?” Em was pretty straightforward; she figured if he didn’t want to answer personal questions, he didn’t have to.
“He’s okay. It’s funny, in many ways, Mom made him exactly what he is. He’s a dollar chasing pussy hound who makes no apologies for being wildly successful at what he does, whether it’s selling a prime piece of real estate or fucking a pair of twenty year old twin blondes.” Zach was smiling a different kind of smile, shaking his head. “When I was born she squeezed him for every penny he earned for years, and every time he got a little bit ahead, she decided I needed to have my teeth adjusted or a new laptop.”
“Huh.” It was Em’s turn to let him go on. He seemed to be letting go of something.
“Thing is, he’s a really loving guy. He’s always been a super Dad to me, never tried to buy my love or anything. And I get his wicked ways, and totally see why he and my Mom could never be together. Their relationship was a disaster from the beginning and her pregnancy a total accident and she even told me that he had to beg her not to get an abortion. He really wanted me. Of course once I was born, she really wanted me, too.” He smiled his happy smile. It was nice.
Emily was surprised to find a tear in her eye. While her aunties and uncles all loved her dearly and she them, she found herself envious of Zach and the two parents who both wanted him. Arrival at the coffee shop allowed them to switch gears.
They ordered two regulars and found a table outside in the sun. Zach booted up his Mac and Em pulled her digital recorder from her backpack. She switched it on.
“Let me tell you about the scientific method. It is flat out one of the best tools ever invented by humanity as a way to gain knowledge and use our collective imagination. It’s right on up there with math, another tool, a system that we invented to describe nature quantitatively. Science depends on math in lots of ways, or at least our evaluation of data and the conclusions we reach depend on math. The stuff that we call science, this bunch of knowledge, is based on the statistical degree of probably that we can attach to the “truth” of our statements.”
The professor had a southern accent. Nothing too deep south, not Mobile or Valdosta, but a little bit of a twang. So far, Zach liked what she had to say. Emily turned off the device.
“It was kind of funny. The whole time she was talking, she was pacing back and forth and she had this pencil, and she kept dropping it.” She paused, smiled, went on. “So she’d like, have to stop her pacing and pick up the pencil, but she kept pacing, and kept dropping it and picking it up and dropping it until one guy just kind of lost it. She turned the recorder back on.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the guy shouted.
“Oh, this?” A pencil could be heard dropping onto a wooden podium. “A couple of things. First, can anyone tell me what empirical evidence is?”
“Kind of like you have to see it to believe it.” It was Em’s voice on the recorder.
“Kind of, yeah. Basically what I was doing with the pencil was to drive home the idea of my absolute certainty that the pencil was bloody well going to drop every time I let go of it. It’s not that I "believe" in gravity, it’s about experiential knowledge. Every time I’ve let go of anything ever, with the exception of a helium balloon, it has dropped to the ground. I don’t have to believe in the theory of gravity, because it’s just so certain based on my own senses and experience that I know it’s true. Newton figured out how to calculate gravitational relationships based on mass and distance.” The voice paused. “Gravitational relationships. I like that.” It paused for quite some time before going on. The room remained oddly quiet.
“At the same time, I didn’t need to do the math and understand the mechanisms involved to believe the truth of it. Now, on the other hand, the idea that a guy named Jonah was once ingested by a whale and survived for 3 days therein before being regurgitated back on the shore, that I have really, really significant doubts about. No empirical evidence I’ve ever seen or even read about tells me that such a thing is possible. In science, we like empirical evidence.”
“Now, that helium balloon, it might raise some questions in my mind, for sure. We’ll get back to that idea.”
“The other point I want to get across is the idea of a theory. In science these ideas that we’re so sure of we attach the word theory to them, even they’re not absolutely certain, but I’d bet my great left toe on that pencil dropping next time I let go of it. There’s an issue of language here, because in every day usage, people mix up the idea of theory and hypothesis. Since so many of us scientists are pretty anal retentive and OCD and AHDD and all kinds of awesome acronyms, the textbooks can get pretty snippy about it. Theories are pretty certain, it’s the hypotheses that aren’t certain at all.”
Zach reached over and hit the pause button. “Ah ha, language. You see?” He did the eyebrows thing again. “I think I like your professor. What’s she like? OCD? Anal retentive? Any take on her? She sounds like a redneck” he was grinning, starting to feel the caffeine buzz.
“More like LSD. She’s an old hippie, reminds me a bit of my Auntie Bea.” Em liked the professor; she was down to earth, a plant person, like she was, even if she did babble a little. It was funny, it sounded a little like babble on the recorder, but she’d been right there with her in the classroom. She turned the recorder back on.
“Thing is, no matter how certain we are that the pencil is going to drop, about that gravitational relationship, our certainly about the specifics of gravitational theory aren't quite so immutable. That's the beauty of simple empiricism and it's simplistic strength over mathematically derived theory. I know the pencil is going to drop. The quantitative and theoretical mechanism of it is not as certain. But I digress.” Yes, there was indeed a bit of a meander to it, but it did flow.
“Any questions so far?”
A voice from the back of the room spoke up.
“Will you write the steps down on the board?”
A sigh so heavy it seemed to drag down the rest of the snappily spit out spell that ensued, but just a little.
“Here's my take on it.
Step 1: Science is always question driven, or at least that’s the ideal.” Marker on white board provided background noise, along with the sound of Em’s pencil on paper. “Curiosity rocks. Newton was one smart and curious fellow and he had all sorts of questions. Newton used math to describe the phenomenon of attraction between bodies of unequal mass based on the distance between them. If we flew out far enough into space together, that pencil would be more attracted to me than to the Earth. He invented calculus to help answer some of his questions, those which involved infinity. His gifts to our understanding of the natural world are, well, incalculable. Of course he got a few things wrong. Perhaps it would be better to say that humanity hadn’t learned as much in the instant of Newton. He did some pretty cool stuff with what he had to work with, and lots of other folks have, too.”
Bottom line here is: be curious, have questions. Some of your answers will be wrong, and that's just fine.”
More marker noise, albeit brief.
“Step 2: There is a lot of pretty sound knowledge out there, seek it out.” The words review what is already known appeared in Em’s notes. “It’s the stuff that’s stood the test of time. The pencil is going to drop here on earth. The mechanism that drives the drop might still be questionable. Einstein came along equipped with better tools, standing on those giant shoulders of Newton, and readjusted our thinking quite a bit, a quantum leap of sorts. Thing is, these days in the world of physics, all bets are pretty much off in terms of certainty of the actual mechanisms and character of things we have so taken for granted, things like gravitational force, matter, electromagnetism, and on and on and on. Science just rocks that way, that’s what it’s all about. But beware, some sources of knowledge might be hidden from you. In my day, we never learned about Tesla.
Bottom line here is: explore the ideas of the giants who have come before you. Explore far and wide and deeply.
Step 3: Formulate an educated guess about what the answer to the question you came up with in step 1 might be. That’s what a hypothesis is, your guess about what the answer is based on the knowledge (that educated part of the guess) you’ve gained in step 2. It’s not your theory. Words do matter, at least in science. Evolutionary theory is sound, and ever changing, just like gravitational theory is sound, but dynamic. Do your homework.
Bottom line here is: The way that knowledge really grows is to ask the right questions, to collaborate with the cosmos and what it already knows. Let your imagination soar.
Step 4: Try like hell to prove yourself wrong. Collect data, even if those data are only observations in nature, even if they’re mathematical models or simple drawings. Look everywhere you can possibly look to give lie to what you’ve come up with. Make your study a thorough, multifaceted gem of a quest to find the truth. Do not limit your search to your own narrow field or discipline. Do not embrace your idea too firmly, let it develop and blossom and grow.
Bottom Line: Seek the truth, not your answer, using the best methods at your disposal.
Step 5: Data analysis is an effort to prove yourself wrong, to falsify your hypothesis. In order to use the mathematical models of statistics to analyze data, many simplifying assumptions are made. Some data fit into those models very well, some very poorly. Controlled experiments conducted in labs often have statistical strength but practical weaknesses. Uncontrolled studies of in situ phenomena, those that occur in nature, are incredibly difficult to attach real quantitative significance to in the spirit of the scientific ideal, interactive and unforeseen effects are everywhere. Newton invented calculus to help support his conclusions. The number and variety of statistical tests out there these days is mind boggling, new ones are invented often. They have value, and they can be used as very effective tools in wonderful ways in the quest for truth. Even so, they’re limited. And of course the problem is that these days, they’re quite often manipulated to prove oneself right, and not wrong. Things got twisted somewhere along the way.” The professor was darned near panting at this point. Zach imagined that the pacing Em had described was a non-stop part of the show.
“Bottom Line: There is never a statistically certain truth in science, only some degree of probably of truth based on the data used in the analysis. There's so much in this statement alone it could form the basis of a graduate thesis.
Step 6: Draw some conclusions based on the data you collected and what the statistical tests told you. However, be sure to remind yourself of every simplifying assumption, every weakness in your data set, every unanswered question that remains. Those are often the most important ones. Be confident of the truths you accept. If you’ve not yet found an answer to your question, keep looking.There might not be one, and that's okay. It's about the journey.
Bottom Line: Science is a tool used to seek knowledge, it’s a quest for the curious, a way of evaluating ideas quantitatively.”
She paused again, and again, to dead silence.
“Of course science is only a tool, one human construct we use to learn. It was an invention born long ago due to the necessity wrought by empiricism, the disconnect between what we knew from experience and what we’d been told by authority. It is one way of examining the cosmos. There are questions science cannot answer, things it cannot do, truths it cannot tell us because science is a tool and a system and not a real thing. It’s as lacking in heart and soul as the mathematical models it uses, the industries that use it. It requires those things of us, our hearts and souls, to help it reach its full potential, as do all human constructs. That’s the ideal anyway, good luck finding it. Science rocks. How I wish it could be taken back from the machine. It’s time to get out of here, I’m going home. Have a great day.”
“I think I’m going to like this class.” Zach was gazing at Em in a way that made her a little uncomfortable.
“Yeah, well, tomorrow we start in on chemistry. I don’t know how much fun that’s going to be, it never turned me on all that much in what I did online. Of course I never got in very deep, just enough to ace the entrance exams.”
“Oh, I think it can be lots of fun. I want to test the hypothesis that during the semester some really great chemistry and gravitational attraction will develop between you and me.” He actually batted his eyelashes at her.
“Not testable by any reasonable means.” She moved right into rationalist mode on him. “Besides, the gravitational thing is just silly.” Mona Lisa smiled.
“Oh, I could think of some really great gravity experiments.” Zach the horned toad got all reptilian.
She gave him a look that he’d learn well. Non verbal communication would become a hot topic for them over the coming weeks.
“Okay, how about this?” He changed tactics. “I want to test the hypothesis that I can figure out how to really turn you on.” But just a little. It worked.
“You’ll have to define what that means. What sorts of data will you collect? Tell me about your dependent and independent variables.” The smile she gave him was luminous, it shone from her eyes.
“There’s a dependent variable, we need a way to measure that.” His was just like it.
“Ah, that. You’ll have to be a bit more specific. Data sheets. Statistical analysis. This ain’t no freakin’ science fair project.” Em was practicing school ma’am; it was her ultimate career goal, teacher at the permaculture commune. She was also having a wonderful time playing mind games with this man, he was quite different from those who’d been more like family back at the farm.
“Physical responses. We’ll agree on some scale for smile magnitude. And laughter. Would you agree that those things constitute turn ons? Things that make you smile or laugh?” He touched her hand, but only just touched it, as he reached for his laptop.
“They’re definitely a good start.” She blushed.
“Oh, there’s another one. Blushes and shivers and moans, oh my. Sweet little whimpers, the howls of a beast……” he was getting into it.
“Put a cork in it, Romeo.” She laughed out loud. That turned out to be pretty high on the turn on scale, at least by the time it was all said and done.
Studying with Emily had just begun.
Linda Brooke Stabler, Ph.D.