The study of–

Earth Day. March for Science. Global weirding. Polar ice caps. Phenology, biology, meteorology, chemistry, zoology, entomology, geology…all the ologies: “The study of.”

Ways we learn about who and where we are and how to live where we are and with those who have been there before us and on whom we–usually without realizing it–depend.

Scientists tend to justify their work by citing how factual it is. They believe it is necessary to have facts. But there are people who question these facts and who peg scientists as dry, heartless unbelievers. How wrong that concept is. Let’s look at scientists as people who study. Observers. Curious, inventive people. People who push the envelope of the “known” and who inquire into assumptions. Science evolved from philosophy, after all.

And there is so much at stake. We are all stakeholders in this environment, in this universe that extends–as far as we mortals know–infinitely. But scientists are working on that.

 

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March for Science–Philadelphia.

 

So many reasons why “the study of” matters.

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.

Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!

 

 

 

*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.

Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.

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I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

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Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into long spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:

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Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.

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I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.

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The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.

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Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.

Connected

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.

 

Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

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Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience