Tuesday, April 06, 2010

consort with things eternal

Today my friend Rose-Anne and I, as part of our ongoing tandem posting project, are going to talk about science. (You'll be able to read her post here as soon as it goes up.) Rose-Anne is an actual scientist; I am merely what might be called a science fan, if anything. (Although not in quite that way; math was never my strong point.) I don’t do scientific work, but I reap the benefits, both intellectual and physical, and I’m grateful for that. But science was a topic that was close to my heart long before gender entered the picture, and I’ve recently been re-evaluating my relationship to me nerdy roots and how—if—things have changed.

In high school I was heavily involved in my school’s science programs. It was my only extra-curricular activity besides music. I was a member of the Science Olympiad team—which was, as you might expect, utterly geek-tastic—and through that I eventually somehow ended up remotely piloting a mock Mars rover in California from my small public high school in Arizona, four-wheeling what was certainly very expensive machinery around a desert landscape searching for a Marvin the Martian doll that some wily scientists had hidden from us. After high school I spent a few summers working for an ecologist who assigned me tasks that ranged from cataloguing clam shells I tweezed out of disgusting-smelling samples of river sediment to classifying his gazillion insect specimens into their scientific orders, which I totally already knew from Science Olympiad. My second summer I said ixnay to the insect sorting—it gave me nightmares—and ended up organizing his file cabinets, a job which took me weeks and involved reading at least the abstract of each and every paper so that I could place it into the correct topical category. The next time I went to the zoo I was a rock star, spouting off facts about ants’ fungal farming habits and how tarantula hawks paralyze and colonize their prey. It was a good time.

I was never a scientist, really; I just hung around with them a lot. After my job with the ecologist I became an “adult” and didn’t have time for things like Linnaean classification on any sort of regular basis, and my relationship with science went from being a sideline to something more like an every-year-or-two liaison, mostly via texts like The Botany of Desire or some other book written to explain science to us laypeople. And that’s actually a good thing (although I’m certainly looking to up my yearly liaison count this year), because I think that I’m better and happier as a haphazard admirer than as an actual practitioner. But I’ve been thinking all week about What Science Means To Me, because it does in fact mean something, and what it comes down to seems to be connection.

Knowing amazing facts about bees and butterflies, telling customers in my flower shop about the historical physical adaptations of the tulip or explaining why it’s illegal to plant two gingko trees on the same block in Chicago, even watching a cardinal fly past me on an early spring day: all of these, for me, relate in some way or another to some sort of scientific idea, something I learned that I was then able to apply to my life. It connects me to daily existence, remind me that there are reasons behind my actions, remind me to look around and to consider the why and how of things. I appreciate the details more because of that, and the details are part of what keeps me happy as a person. In high school I was all about empirical knowledge because I was searching for anchors, but as I grow older I find that really my fascination with science and information exists more to connect me to the world in tangible ways than because I have anything to prove. Maybe my thirst for knowledge is entirely selfish, because what I most want to know about is the living breathing heart of what I can see and taste and touch.

But more than that—because really, that’s sort of rudimentary—it’s also about learning new things and the way that purely mental jolt makes me feel alive in the world. It’s a position of privilege to have access to that kind of intellectual high, and I know I’m lucky to have the time and energy to devote to such things; there’s such an immense feeling of satisfaction I get when I learn something new and I suddenly understand a little bit more about how things work, about how I fit into my own life. Knowledge really is a light bulb, and I’ve felt that click and the sudden warm flood of recognition, thought to myself and so! This is what it’s about. So when I talk about science, I’m not necessarily talking about data and numbers and experimentation; it may be rather romantic of me, but I’m also talking about understanding. I just want to know. I’m greedy. I want to have knowledge I can use, and I want knowledge that exists in my mind for its own purposes and nothing else. I don’t know that much yet, but that just means that there’s so much left to learn.


Z said...

"The next time I went to the zoo I was a rock star, spouting off facts about ants’ fungal farming habits and how tarantula hawks paralyze and colonize their prey."

a said...

It's true! It was sort of awkward after a while. "Well... I sort of... Yeah, I know something about that animal too."

Rosiecat said...

I really need to read The Botany of Desire! I cannot even tell you how many times Matt has said to me, "You know, it's like what Michael Pollan says in The Botany of Desire..."

I'm a science fan when it comes to turtles, lizards, platypi, sloths, and penguins. They are my animal obsessions. On Saturday, at the pool, Matt and I watched a lizard defend his territory against TWO other lizards! As you can imagine, it was quite dramatic: lots of nodding and throat puffing. Also, the lizards appeared to change color, which was very cool.

Laurie said...

OK, I have to ask. Why is it illegal to plant two gingko trees on the same block in Chicago?

Lauren said...

It seems like so much of your life and what you love about the world comes down to connection, Ammie, and I love that about you.

Also, you reminded me of that line from Hedwig and the Angry Inch: "Eve just wanted to KNOW shit." :)

a said...

Rose-Anne! I love those things too. I wish I'd written a more specific essay--this would have been far different had it been written two weeks ago or perhaps one week into the future--but on some level it just comes down to the fact I just love random stuff I learn from science. Unsophisticated? Perhaps. Fun and exciting? Yes indeed.
Lauren: I love that about myself too. Sometimes I worry that I build connections where there are none for my own peace of mind, but mostly I just love feeling alive inside the world. It's good. And Eve was SO on top of it.

a said...

Laurie! This deserved its own comment. This is my own understanding, and I'm not necessarily verifying this because I'm lazy, but here goes:
Gingko trees are dioecious (meaning roughly "two houses", I believe), which means that each tree only has male or female sex organs instead of both. If you plant a male and female tree too close to each other, they germinate (not, as a coworker of mine once told some customers, sperminate) and produce a horrible smell. I had been told that to prevent this Chicago had a limit on how closely together trees are planted, although I couldn't find any record of this in my cursory search. Many cities, however, have banned the planting of female trees, saying the seed pods smell like "vomit".

erica said...

wow, i never knew that about gingko laws...
and to me, when i get into science-y obsessive phases, it's also because of the connections, and how everything we as a species have learned (and i mean really *learned*, and perhaps grown from) seems to be screaming, in this new age-y hippie way, "IT'S ALL CONNECTED!" and your brain, a, seems particularly adept at interpreting those connections