Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.

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March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.

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Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.

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Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.

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From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.

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Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.

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As to what matters

What matters, at this moment, are compassion and communication–and recalling that communication requires listening, especially when we assume we know what the Other will say. [The Other may be black, or white, or a parent, or a politician, or of a different culture, etc.]

http://blacklivesmatter.com/

To people of color in the United States of America, in particular to African-Americans: Ask your questions. Speak up. I understand that some of you are prepared for argument and rhetoric, others for fear, anger, and defensiveness. You are tired, perhaps, of speaking up. Tired of the resulting outcry and pushback and character assassination and judgment and stereotyping. Tired of the pain. I get what you are feeling, even though it isn’t my personal experience, even though my social experience differs from your social experience.

Speak up nonetheless. Many of us finally recognize the need to listen. It matters because once someone signals readiness, true perspective begins. Because connections must occur before listening can occur. Where do we begin?

“Why don’t you listen?” is a good question, though it tends to put the Other on the defensive. If, however, people can hear genuine curiosity behind the interlocutor, there may be a moment of pausing to reflect: “I thought I was listening. Why do you think I am not?” Both parties need to ease the borders a bit (not a popular thing to do, I know).

So often, perspectives vary so widely that each of us carries into the discussion a host of unspoken assumptions based upon the only experience each of us has–our own. No one can ask the child-like, curious questions without being accused of hidden or not-so-hidden agendas.

I am reminded of an old saw one of my high school teachers wrote on the chalkboard:

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Learning to listen and to accept and to formulate questions reminds me of the process of raising children. Really. My perspective as an adult in the world–my assumptions–so often trumped what my children were experiencing as small people with totally unexpected and intriguing perspectives on life. I had to learn to listen to their points of view at least some of the time, and I was always rewarded with insights I would not have discovered on my own. (I referred often to the Faber & Mazlish book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk when my children were at home.) We have to make ourselves more aware, and much much much more patient than usually comes naturally, as parents and as members of a wider community than human societies have ever encountered before.

Yes, we yearn for answers. We do. That yearning may be part of the human genome. But just like our brains, and our conscious sense of self or selves, it’s complicated.

It would be helpful for all of us to recognize that listening to questions, and forming more inquiries–rather than answers or arguments–supplies the basics of Socratic inquiry. For the methods application in contemporary society, check out books by Christopher Phillips. Despite my occasional ramblings and speculations on rational thought (see many of my previous posts on argument, pedagogy, philosophy), argument may not be our best human tool at all times. The best human tool is compassion.

What matters is that human beings, whatever our color or culture, enter into relationships with one another and with our environments. That we admit to complexities and to questions; that we remain curious, which opens us to connections and enables us to see how vital all kinds of relationships are. Do people need to be reminded that #BlackLivesMatter? Yes, alas, people do. While a few of the social majority of human beings in the USA are more cognizant than usual, grab the moment. And people? Listen.

Because there actually is but one species of human being. Let us be homo sapiens–wise, judicious, sensible.

 

Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?

Curiosities & stories

Here’s James Delbourgo’s recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education (I read the Chronicle regularly, if that’s not already obvious) about collections of oddities. While the article itself is sometimes a bit maddening (what is his main idea here?), it put me in mind of Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien and of collections my friends have accrued. Toshio Odate, for example, has some fascinating accumulations he keeps in clear acrylic boxes, and some of his art constructions feature curious things: a favorite of mine is a large frame displaying every pair of sneakers his son wore as a child.

Edmund de Waal wrote movingly about objects and collections in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. Several months ago I promised myself I’d get back to the topic of objects and their stories, but it has taken me awhile to resume my meditations on the subject. As a child, I loved wandering slowly through the world, stopping and dawdling and picking  up acorns, buttons, marbles, leaves, whatnot. Sometimes I would arrange these found objects into tiny houses, or float them on puddles, or arrange them on my windowsill. I might imagine stories around them, drawing on Andersen’s “Thumbelina” or the song “Froggie Went A-Courting.”

"Swiss Shoot the Chutes" by Joseph Cornell

“Swiss Shoot the Chutes” by Joseph Cornell

Not too many years later, when I encountered Joseph Cornell’s work, I was enchanted. His boxes contained mysteries, stories, possibilities, and fears; and they were achingly beautiful to me. Not unsurprisingly, Cornell’s work gets a mention in Delbourgo’s piece, which is partly a review of Brian Dillon’s book Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.

From the Chronicle essay:

Curiosity, Dillon proposes, is a way of knowing that looks askance. It draws attention to the unexplained or overlooked fragment, to invite us, if possible, to look sideways and look closely at the same time. As such, its promise of knowledge is ambiguous. Does curiosity seek to unmask the strangeness that absorbs its attention, or is it an invitation to luxuriate in that strangeness? Does it carry an inherent Baconian injunction to go further and illuminate, or does it recommend the alternative pleasures of not knowing?

I like those inquiries and feel they may inspire some poetry. Later, while considering the way some collectors, particularly wealthy or scientifically-minded ones, made detailed lists of the oddities, Delbourgo notes that

Dillon suggests that such lists also constituted “a kind of story,” but do they? The list is an open form, not a closed and completed one. Curiosity collections could absorb countless new objects precisely because they didn’t propose a coherent narrative about them. Unlike spoils that tell of conquest, curiosities don’t preach and don’t teach. What makes them curious is their oblique relation to the world in which they’re embedded. And yet, as a matter of historical fact, early-modern Europeans accumulated curiosities in no small part through trade, colonization, and war…

The 18th-2oth century ascendancy of science and the current trend of interdisciplinary art-tech-science aesthetics gets a mention in the article, too:

Curiosity and wonder—distinct terms but often used interchangeably—turned out to be interwoven with theology, civility, craftsmanship, nature’s playfulness…Curiosity thus helped dethrone the modern fact from its hegemony over the history of science.

Again a connection with de Waal, and also with the work my brother has been doing in reconsidering the skull collection of Samuel Morton (and other early modern anthropological collectors). In the case of many people who collect ‘curiosities,’ there are thorny questions of ethics vs. the ‘value’ of extending knowledge or awareness. The political, the legal, the ethical–these can conflict with curiosity in many forms it can take, from the problematic Rauschenberg  sculptural combine “Canyon” which features a stuffed bald eagle, to the superficial thrill that gets us to sit through an adventure movie even if we can guess the ending.

Curiosity is basically an exploratory response, as psychologists term it, which covers a vast arena of animal and human perceptions of the environment to orient us to potential situations and to prepare us for behavior/action. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, D.E. Berlyne studied what I call curiosity quite extensively, including some exploration into art and aesthetics though mainly concentrating on the reactive responses that make us susceptible to enjoyment or evaluation of art, humor, literature. (He published, in 1954, A Theory of Human Curiosity, which I think I must read after I read Dillon’s book).

But now I am drifting far from my topic of stories and objects. Probably that’s Delbourgo’s influence, as his essay wanders a bit, though the author cites some books I plan to add to my to-read list; for that, I am grateful, but I would prefer to look at how objects inspire stories, or make the need for stories. There’s the sun in the sky each day, and it leaves each night. We make up a story about that, or about why the leopard has spots or why there are stars in the sky.

Here’s something from my own collection of curiosities, a wooden ampersand from an antique type magazine. &&001And there’s a story I could tell about it which would be more or less ‘true,’ but there are better stories yet to be invented.

Or, tell the story of Cornell’s “Observatory Box.”

http://www.thisisnotacraft.com/

“Observatory Box,” Joseph Cornell