In the fourth chapter of The Science of Discworld, we learn that science can be magical, too. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
I love that I have no idea what I’m getting into.
As I said in the video while reading this, I love that we’ve unearthed so much evidence of early civilizations. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how many cultures and peoples have lived before me, and even with the remains of said cultures right in front of me, it almost doesn’t feel real. Seriously, our own species has changed so much in the last few thousand years, so it’s a tough thought experiment to try and THINK like someone from long ago. It feels impossible, doesn’t it? And I’d like to think that humans have long been observant creatures, so I love that this chapter questions what that early pondering must have been like. What did they think of stars? The sun? The Moon? Comets? Meteors? The changing tides? Storms?
I’m sure we have records of some of this, but to imagine it is fun. The writers (I have no way to know which of these three folks wrote the science parts) tie this to instinct, which is FASCINATING TO ME. We all have instinctual reactions to things that were passed on through our genes, BUT ALSO: we have instincts based on experience. And biases! And prejudices! And oh god, this doesn’t even touch on that stuff, yet I was still enamored with it. Instinct! Turtles! I didn’t realize that humanity had such an effect on newborn sea turtles, though it doesn’t surprise me. WE KEEP RUINING THINGS.
I did want to talk about what it’s like to grow up in a household that didn’t “believe” in evolutionary theory. Whether or not we believe in it, living creatures evolve on this planet. But I was raised to consider evolution a lie (and not a lie-to-children thing) and a threat. That latter element is critical in understanding this. By suggesting that any creature created by God “evolved” to become better, you’d be admitting that God created inferior beings. It was seen as a direct attack on God, despite that it is indeed possible to believe in evolution and God at the same time. But that wasn’t even an option! Evolution (and by extension, most of science) was a scheme cooked up by Satan to discourage people from seeking out God’s love or the redemption provided by Jesus.
So when I was first taught it in any capacity, I experienced dissonance. It was my seventh grade science teacher, Ms. Hall, who was responsible for that, and I recall the “clash” I felt within myself. I felt dirty for learning about evolution. After all, it was a sin, wasn’t it? Yet I loved the examples Ms. Hall gave us. I loved learning how, over time, the animals with the most optimal features and abilities were favored to survive to the next generation, passing along their advantage through procreation and genes.
Honestly, junior high was where I learned to doubt. It’s where I first began to feel that all the things I’d been taught or raised in weren’t typical, fair, common, or even true. And that’s a tough thing to go through at age 12 and 13! It’s what all this talk of evolution brought up in me. The writers make reference to people uninterested or opposed to science, mostly for religious reasons, and y’all… I lived it. It was a long time ago, and I don’t necessarily feel regret about it. I was young. Impressionable. Eager for validation and direction. And who defies what their parents teach them, at least at that age?
You Can’t Beat Physics
It’s just as hard to wrap my mind around much of the reality of physics. True story: the only B I ever got on my high school report card was in the first semester of AP Physics. I otherwise had a perfect academic history! That class KILLED me. (I’m actually still a ghost, SURPRISE.) As well as I ultimately did in that class and on the AP test itself, I got the sense that physics might not be something my brain was meant to understand. I had a fantastic teacher, too, and I’m actually still friends with him on Facebook! So I don’t think he had a terrible teaching style at all.
I’m saying this because my brain just cannot handle the idea that the energy required to send a rocket to space is the same as an elevator to space. Like, objectively that makes absolute sense, but my brain is also going, “NOPE, SOUNDS FAKE.” Yet that doesn’t affect the fact that the “rules” that govern the universe are still gonna go about and do their thing. The writers bring that up in a manner that addresses the inherent existential threat that comes along with it. It’s a challenge to acknowledge that the universe is affecting us. As they put it:
This is one reason why science often seems so inhuman, because it looks at how the universe drives us, rather than the other way around.
That does wonders on the ego, no? And how does that fit into a worldview that’s afraid of science or that believes that evolution is an evil plot? One of the major things I struggled with as I tried to be religious was the overwhelming sensation of existential dread. It certainly didn’t help that I converted to Catholicism, which left me feeling more isolated, guilty, and frightened than I expected. There’s nothing like shame to make a person believe that they’re worth nothing in the grand scheme of things! Yet much of what I started learning from my science teachers – Ms. Hall, my chemistry teacher, that same physics teacher I mentioned earlier – left me with a sensation of hollowness. What if the universe really didn’t care about me? What if I was just an amalgamation of biochemical processes and accidental procreation?
That same de-centering of the self that terrified me now presents me with a comfort. It’s the magic that the writers describe in this chapter. Somehow, I am alive now. I am alive in a world of smartphones and laptops, in the world of the internet and social media, in the world of medicine and vaccines and transplants. These things are so magical in the most basic sense, and yet all of them can be explained in intricate detail. So I take an immense pleasure in the uncaring nature of the universe because it means I get to care about myself and others. I make that choice. And I get to experience the magic of cultural and technological advancement! Obviously, it’s not always a marked improvement, and I wouldn’t argue that progress is inherently good. There are a lot of messy implications of the meaning of progress, especially whom gets to experience it and at the cost of what members of a given society. But damn, some days, I feel truly happy to be alive now.
Lies To Children
I’ll bet you can guess what I’m gonna say here, given how I started this. Unsurprisingly, I have complex feelings on this concept because… well, one of my parents not only told me the kind of lies the authors refer to at the end of this chapter, but they also outright lied to me multiple times. So does that count? What about all the textbooks I read in junior high and high school that either simplified scientific principles or historical events? Do those count as lies-to-children? Or are they more malicious? (I’m prone to believe the latter, given the companies who publish many of these texts. GO RESEARCH THAT, IT’S FASCINATING IN A TERRIFYING WAY.)
What the writers describe in these lies, though, is a necessary part of learning and education, provided that at some point, that learning is updated. Replaced. Fleshed out. Given its full context! Lies-to-children aren’t inherently bad… unless you never tell those children the truth.
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