Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Brian Boyd on science

The 89th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Browne and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists, art curators – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

I will always be a visitor in the world of science. But what a place to be! When tourists choke the alleys of Capri or even Kathmandu, l can still travel to that other world, which is ours made new, infinitesimal within a cosmos we still cannot measure, or infinite beyond imagining. (I can barely comprehend that there can be trillions of atoms in a drop of water, let alone that the number of synaptic states possible in a human brain – in a lump I could hold in my hand – is many times that of all the particles in the known universe.)

Science enchants us because we know we have not invented its world. If reality did not so firmly resist our push, we would never think up terms of existence as strange as those we discover – we, who naturally rush first to animistic or anthropomorphic extrapolations of the obvious or explanations of the immediate: waves as the horses of Poseidon, thunderbolts as the wrath of Zeus.

But eventually – and Einstein thought this the strangest fact of all – the universe yields its secrets to intelligence, to patient, critical human intelligence, ready to reject what appeared incontrovertible, to sidestep timeless tracks of thought, to add to and multiply the five senses we once supposed were all nature allowed.

We extend sight with telescopes and microscopes, high-speed, slow-motion and time-lapse photography, radar and scanners and infrared images. We turn microscopes on ourselves to find that the human eye samples a hundred million points of space at any moment. We analyse the night vision of cats, the corneal focus of the hawk, the compound eye of the fly, we learn about blindworms and the ultraviolet sensitivity of bees and animals that can “see” by means of energy other than light: the snakes that sight their prey in the dark by heat, bats that negotiate night by sound inaudible to us, eels that navigate river murk by electrical fields. We can even look back into pre-human time by pointing at the past such chronoscopes as red shifts and radioactivity, rock strata and fossil pollen, tree rings and gene drifts.

The farther we see, the more we learn, the more we find how wrong was the notion that we stand at the centre and serve as the measure of all things. The natural supposition that the Sun moved across a flat Earth gave way to the Earth revolving around the Sun at the hub of the cosmos, to the Sun as only one peripheral star in the galaxy, to the Milky Way as one of billions of galaxies, perhaps to the galaxies as a minute part of the matter of the universe. We find that our sense of space, time, matter, self, and our senses themselves are accidents and atypical in the universe, just as we are. And yet the universe makes sense, and its intelligibility somehow places mind – the human mind, and what other kinds that we still do not know? – at its centre.

I forgot to mention what Brian is working on now: the page I linked to above mentions the Karl Popper biography, which I for one can’t wait to read, and the show On the Origins of Art he is co-curating at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. Brian adds (in a Quote Unquote exclusive!):
Four guest curators, psychologists Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Miller, neuroscientist Marc Changizi and I each propose our own evolutionary account of art, and select works to illustrate our own hypothesis and challenge the other three. I have works from 15,000 years ago to new commissions, from all inhabited continents and a generous dotting of islands, from pottery 7000 years old to pottery now, from music videos and comics old and new to avant-garde carpet, and a sprinkling of New Zealanders, Hone Taahu, Len Lye, Filipe Tohi, Fiona Pardington and Marion Maguire. The show opens November 5 and runs until May 2017.
When I win Lotto, possibly this weekend, I will head straight for Hobart.

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