“Let’s do an example to make sure we’re clear here.” They were walking back toward the dorms. Em’s scholarship provided her with free housing and a meal plan at the food court. She mostly lived off of smoothies and juices on campus, there was only one place there that was all organic. “Suppose I want to know why the sky is blue or why grass is green.”
“Ah, but already, the question why isn’t exactly right! You want to know by what mechanism those things are true, the how of it, am I right?” Zach really was into language.
“Well, it all depends, and believe it or not, comes back to evolution. That’s the part of biology that most interests me, and it’s not even just the biology of it, it’s the cosmology and anthropology, the genes and the memes and the noosphere.” Emily was winding down her first real day of college. She’d been on campus for a couple of weeks, but the onslaught of hipster humanity and a new academic year had just begun. A new leg of life for her.
Zach suddenly had a new leg of his own. What had just come from the mouth of this woman child had once again made him light headed. He was dumbstruck as she continued.
“The mechanism by which the grass is green is the question that the scientific method would ask. So the next step in those steps that kid wanted would be to look it up. We’d find out that there’s this pigment called chlorophyll that absorbs certain wavelengths of light energy and reflects others, so as the photons or waves or whatever are bouncing around and interacting with our eyes, what our brain says to us is green. The sky is blue because of the way those photons scatter around among the molecules up there, the water and nitrogen and oxygen and such and the way our eyes and brains interpret that.
The why of it is so plants can do photosynthesis. Or maybe even so the sky will be magnificent to behold, I mean, really, what’s more awesome than a great sunrise, all that light bending and photon scattering and big clouds of water molecules getting together to paint a picture with it all.” She’d gotten suddenly wistful. It was really nice.
“Why did the photon turn left instead of right?” he asked no one in particular. It elicited one of those smiles from Emily.
“So, my questions about grass and sky color can both exit the realms of what science can tell us, at least right now, and probably ever. We already understand the mechanisms of grass color and sky color. In terms of the evolutionary question, for me, did chlorophyll come to be on purpose or was it just an accident, like Richard Dawkins says it was.” She was incredibly serious, as only and eighteen year old can be, in her ardent quest for the truth of it.
“You’ve read Dawkins?” Zach had been forced to as part of his AP Biology course years before. His professor had been a hard core science zealot, as had been most of the teachers in those disciplines he’d encountered. Most of the culture he’d been immersed in as a child was firmly embedded in the liberal and fine arts, often wary of science and its strange practitioners.
“Oh yeah. He’s really quite an arrogant prick, at least in my arrogant opinion.” She smiled again. “But I totally love the concept of the meme, I think he’s got something there.”
“Something important. That noosphere.” Zach was pretty sure he’d found his intellectual soulmate. And it wasn’t just the intellect and knowledge base, her audacity rather thrilled him as well. Perhaps as their relationship grew, he could help her shape that into something really powerful. He suddenly remembered himself at that age and smiled. Women were so different from men in so many ways. It was sublime.
“But the thing is, I can’t be so arrogant as to assume that the sky is magnificent for humanity to behold. The flower sees it quite differently. Rather, I’d go on the assumption that it is the sky which has shaped humanity, and therefore we behold it with awe.” She grinned.
He beheld her with awe.
“And further, that the flower is beautiful to the bee because they have this incredible relationship that allows the bee to build its home and feed its young and for the plant to engage in long distance sex, and often it’s really beautifully erotic sex, but maybe it’s only beautiful and erotic to me because it makes me love it all so much.”
“Long distance sex. Wow.” Zach’s mind, while wide open and fractally divergent, rarely strayed far from some trains of thought.
She gave him the look.
“Anyway, so I know why the grass is green already, or the mechanism. But if I want to know why that tree has olive green leaves and why that one has kind of blue green leaves, I might ask a question about different kinds of chlorophyll and form a hypothesis about relative amounts. If there was no information out there about those particular species, I could do an experiment to try to prove myself wrong.”
“And how would you prove yourself wrong?”
“Well, the leaves of those trees could have the same amounts of the different kinds of chlorophyll. That would mean that my guess was wrong.”
“Exactly the same amounts?”
“That’s where the statistics come in, I think. It’s never going to be exactly the same amount, or sometimes it might be, but not usually. There would be some average amount, and some variation. It’s like how many zucchinis each plant produces in the garden. Some produce a few, some a lot. I haven’t done all that much math.” While she found it useful, it often rather bored her. She loved the day Uncle Bob taught her to use trigonometry to estimate the size of things, got a little dizzy thinking too much about infinity when she explored calculus. She figured she’d do better with someone to explain those things to her a bit.
“Yeah, it’s something like that. I’ve taken quite a few stats classes, thought about being an economics major once upon a time when I got into TM.” Zach had considered lots of majors before running off to South America at Emily’s age and expanding his thinking in all sorts of wonderful ways. He’d been intermittently homeless for almost the entire decade since, and unemployed, and perfectly happy with it all.
“Cool. It sounds like you get that stuff. I’m pretty beat, need to get on upstairs and check in online and organize my stuff for another first day in classes tomorrow. See you around?” She wasn’t inviting him up, or even into her personal space.
“Can I get your number?” Zach hadn’t thought about his phone in hours.
“I don’t have a phone. See ya.” She went in the building and trotted up the stairs.
Maybe it was electromagnetism. He was sure they’d get there. Zach was totally into studying with Emily.
Linda Brooke Stabler, Ph.D.