Archive for August, 2011

Science–A Life

I’ve been a scientist for quite a while now.  Over fifty screwed-up years.  I guess you could say my life as a scientist started in high school.  About that time I began to wonder what the heck I wanted to do with my life beyond graduation.  I’d taken several science courses in high school, biology and physics (I didn’t take chemistry until college), and enjoyed them, although I’d have a hard time explaining why I liked them.  (That’s one of the drawbacks to being a scientist, explaining things that are so intensely non-scientific in origin.)  Perhaps it was the logical way the studies were laid out, that is, by the scientific method, that attracted me.  I like things that are straightforward and simple to understand.  A + B = C,  C + D = E, and so forth, onward and upward.  One person makes a discovery, then another person takes that discovery to the next logical step, and another person goes on from there, etc., etc.  There’s a very definite progression to it, a plausible, rational progression that reveals something about the world we live in.  Einstein, for example, could never have made his most significant discoveries without the work of Newton, and today’s discoveries about the world around us and the space in which we live could never have been made without Einstein.

Once I got into college, I majored in biology.  There wasn’t any subdivision of biology at the time because I went to a rather small college (only about 2000 students) and all they had was a Biology Department.  I took courses in anatomy, embryology, genetics, and so forth, but what I got most interested in was bacteriology.  It had lots of stuff in it, lots of little things to fool around with, petri dishes, bunsen burners, agar plates, test tubes, microscopes, you name it.  I was hooked.  I liked the process of the course, all the stuff to work with to keep my hands busy.  Those little bacteria seemed to adhere to all sorts of logical steps in their life, and I found I could predict what they would do in any given situation–absolutely fabulous for someone who likes logic.

I went on to graduate school and studied viruses.  Now, viruses are actually somewhat less predictable than bacteria, and really it’s not as easy to explain what or why they do things, but I think part of what attracted me to them is the fact that they are somewhat less plausible than bacteria, and it’s more of a challenge to understand them.  They are a challenge, make no mistake about that.  AIDS, measles, rabies, hepatitis, influenza–you name it, these diseases have been frustrating virologists for as long as we’ve known about them.  Even before.  At least smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on its way out, though what will arise to fill the void left by those plagues is still a great unknown.  (That’s one of the drawbacks of eradicating a disease; something else may come along to take its place, something much worse.)

In any event, I’ve gotten away from directly participating in science and I’m now writing, novels mostly, all about science fiction.  Not so logical anymore.  I have to write about human nature as well as science, and many people don’t follow a logical life history.  My characters have to be human first, even if I make them scientists.  Scientists, like everyone else, do have moments of irrationality, they can have fears and doubts, phobias and uneasiness, all of which can be ungrounded in legitimate and plausible conditions.  They’re people like everyone else.  Now my problem is, how do I convey that in a book and keep the science and logic, yet present them as plain, honest real people?  I guess I’ll find out.

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I was just reminded (a few minutes ago by a post on Facebook by the Sierra Club) of the importance of wilderness to our civilization.  The reminder took the form of a quote from my favorite environmentalist and philosopher, Joseph Wood Krutch.

When I was a young man, I read many of the works of Joseph Wood Krutch, concentrating mainly on the books he wrote in his later years which were oriented toward the emerging environmental movement.  (Dr. Krutch passed away in 1970).  He was an environmentalist before it was really fashionable, following somewhat in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold, who is widely credited with starting the environmental movement with his seminal Sand County Almanac (first published in 1949).  Krutch wrote his most significant books about the desert he loved so much in the late 1940’s, into the 50’s and early 60’s, so quite a lot of his work is well out of date now, but his love of the land and his philosophical impressions of how to use and enjoy it are still important and significant today.  For example, he talks about the extinction of the dinosaurs before it was known that those dominant animals were rendered obsolete and defunct by an asteroid crash in Yucatan.

Joseph Wood Krutch started out as a mathematician, but also wrote treatises on such other writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Johnson, and Henry David Thoreau.  He lived his early years in the northeastern United States, and even became a drama critic in New York for a while.  Then one day he stepped off the train in Lamy, New Mexico, and, as he put it, “…a new, undreamed of world was revealed.”  He soon moved to Tucson, Arizona, and began his term as a naturalist/philosopher.

If you haven’t read any of his works, here’s a list of the books I consider most significant (listed not in any particular order):  The Desert Year (1952); The Twelve Seasons (1949); Grand Canyon (1958); The Forgotten Peninsula, A Naturalist in Baja California (1961), and Voice of the Desert (1954).  This last book was written after he moved to Tucson and contains stories and comments from the point of view of an Arizona resident wandering in the desert near his home.  I learned more about the desert than I’d ever known before by reading this book.  It’s all about the spadefoot toad, scorpions, moths, roadrunners, cacti, the kangaroo rat (it’s actually more a mouse than a rat), and other denizens of the desert, and finishes with a couple of chapters of a more philosophical nature.  Two of his other books, compilations of many shorter works, are If You Don’t Mind My Saying So (published in 1964), and A Krutch Omnibus (1970).

I’d like to critique Krutch’s style of writing, which is different from anything I’ve read since, but I’m not sure how to characterize it.  He had a tendency to run sentences together, usually a big no-no for writers, but he got away with it because he made them interesting and by not overdoing them.  As a result, his writings may be a bit thick in places, but they’re worth taking the time to read.  I’ve put a few quotes of his in the “Reflections” section of this blog, but just short, pithy ones.  If you, as I, like to view the world through different sets of eyes, ears, noses, feelings, tongues, and minds, I suggest checking out some of his works.  You may have to peruse the library or a local second-hand bookstore to find his books, though Amazon may have some.

Good reading.

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Are We Really Alone?

I’ve noticed that a number of articles and news stories have appeared in recent months about the possibility of life on other planets, including the physics behind the possibility and the attempts to find it.  Here’s a compilation of the few things I’ve seen.  First, a recent news report said that our earth-moon system is very stable.  Our moon is unique in our solar system because it is so large in relation to the planet it orbits.  This is good because the moon’s gravitational pull helps keep the Earth stable and keeps it from tilting over too often.  That aided the development of life on Earth because it kept it from being wiped out by extremes of temperature over the surface.  But the chances of a “twin” system like ours developing elsewhere is awfully small, so it may be an important factor in the development of life on another planet.

Second, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) hasn’t discovered any evidence of life on other planets in spite of listening for over 40 years.  Someone recently made the rather arrogant presumption that SETI would find evidence of life out there within the next 20 years.  Virtually 100 percent, they claim.  Personally, I find it hard to imagine that a civilization with the intelligence to send a radio signal our way would be dumb enough to do it in the first place.  Why would they want to?  In twenty years?  Get serious.

Third, scientists in China now claim that time travel is impossible.  Everything, they say, has to obey Einstein’s laws and that makes it impossible to go back or forward in time.  So, no one is going to visit us here on Earth by traveling in time.  I always wondered why no one has ever been here from the future or the past.  Now we have a good idea.

Fourth, the number of planets out there that are enough like Earth to allow the development of life on their surface seems to be very small.  So far, scientists have discovered over a thousand planets (though no one has ever actually seen one), but none of them are capable of supporting life.  Too hot or too cold or too noxious or too dead or too whatever, but life as we know it couldn’t get a foothold at all on any of those.

Fifth, a report on, says that life may not always develop on a planet even if the conditions are right.  I’m not sure I understand this report fully, but the scientist’s conclusion was based on a statistical analysis of the chances of life developing.  I blogged about this a few months ago, and I said that life must develop if the conditions were right and everything necessary was present.  Apparently that may not be the case.  But we have to keep in mind that a statistical analysis can be far outside the bounds of normal life experience, and sometimes it’s just plain unrealistic.  For example, statistically, the average family in the USA may have, say, 2.3 children.  Granted, three-tenths of a child isn’t going to happen, but this is a statistical analysis.  Keep your shirt on, no one is slicing your next kid into parts.

Sixth, in order for life to develop, everything has to be present.  Everything.  Let’s postulate a planet somewhere, orbiting a nice star, at just the right distance so it’s not too hot, not too cold, has water and oxygen and carbon and nitrogen and other things.  That’s what happened on Earth.  But if one element is missing, the life that develops there may be so different from ours that we may not recognize it.  Our life developed in response to the mix of chemicals that existed 4 billion years ago when things were just getting a foothold.  A planet that has a different mix (and a different planet certainly will) will develop a different form of life, or life may not develop at all.  To expect life to develop on another planet like ours here, or even be remotely similar, is, in my estimation, an absurdly unreasonable expectation.

All together, the chances for life out there to be recognizable by any of our explorers in the future that may land on another planet is pretty slim.  I think we should get used to the idea that we are alone, or at least, in company so limited that we might as well be.

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