Saturday, August 14, 2010

William Blake, scientist

This is from a couple of years ago. I liked it then, and I like it now.


To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake, opening of
Auguries of Innocence

I may open the school year with this. "Heaven" is one of those words that can get science teachers in trouble, though the truly religious parts are "infinity" and "eternity".

It fits the curriculum test--
STANDARD 5.1 (SCIENTIFIC PROCESSES)
Descriptive Statement: Students best learn science by doing science. Science is not merely a collection of facts and theories but a process, a way of thinking about and investigating the world in which we live. This standard addresses those skills that are used by scientists as they discover and explain the physical universe-skills that are an essential and ongoing part of learning science.

NJ Core Curriculum Standards

If get called to defend it, I'll call Richard Feynman to the bench. I love his discussions about his father (4:00 on). I've been pushing this video on the science staff at our high school (though not terribly successfully):




Science leads to awe.

I am a congenital Catholic. I know the awe felt when the senses are heightened by incense and music, by Communion, by a community's search for something beyond what we can describe.

(Play "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" and I'm ready to worship the sun, the earth, even a freakin' Doritos corn chip.)

My problem with "awe" in the organized religious sense is its artificiality, in the truest sense of the word--awe induced by human acts.

Not that that's such a bad thing, as long as it ends there. If I want to spend the next 17 years listening to Bach while trembling in a corner wasting away, feeling awe, that's not the worst choice I can make.

Still, it's a construct, a human construct (as is science), based strictly on culture, which science is not. If I use the awe induced by Bach to push an idea outside of man (say, um, God), well, that's hubris.

The great faith in science is that there is order, and in that sense, J.S. Bach reflects that. Science rests on empirical evidence, and try as we may, empirical evidence keeps exceeding our imagination.

The awe in science, though, goes beyond that--the order extends as far as human imagination, faithfully farther. It's why science is so frightening, no matter what kind of faith we have.

Infinity is not comprehensible, but as far as any one of us can go, the order is there.

Reductionism has its place, and no doubt my day is a bit more comfortable because of technology that owes its existence to reductionism, but science ultimately cleaves even the reductionist.
***

I went clamming yesterday on a tidal flat that stretched a quarter mile out

Hundreds of tide pools surrounded me, each with its own story unfolding before the tide swelled in again. I studied this one (a tiny hermit crab chasing one twice its size, perhaps after its borrowed home), I studied that one (a striped fish frantically trying to escape my grasp, burying itself completely in sand).

The stories are happening now, in the dark, a new tide arising.


***

God does not play dice with the universe.
Albert Einstein

Einstein's "God"was not a personal God, though there's some confusion on this issue; that's not the point here anyway.

On the tidal flats, in a puddle outside, on your own skin, these stories are happening, an incomprehensible web of life, and if you let yourself observe it, with all your senses (and not through the someone else's eye), you will be overwhelmed.

William Blake got this.
Auguries of Innocence appears paradoxical when read inside, under incandescent light, with no breeze and no sunlight.

Recite Blake outside* on a tidal mud flat in August, and the paradox dissolves. Science is religious in the lower care "r" sense--it acknowledges the mystery while trying to put things together. Not sure I can ask for a better church than the decaying mud on the Delaware bay.



*Wendell Berry uses the same point about reading the Bible--it makes a whole lot more sense reading it outside than it does inside. I'm not going to put my neck on the chopping block here taking a stance on the Bible, but Berry's right as far as he goes here.




7 comments:

Kate said...

"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." - Carl Sagan

And when I really want to feel the presence of that which is holy beyond walking on the beach or looking at that sliver of moon that hangs there tonight: Spem in alium(40-part Motet by Thomas Tallis)

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

(we made it to LBI slowly but without incident)

Leslie said...

It's always a good thing to experience Hopkins again!

J Bowie said...

Good thoughts. Sometimes its difficult for me to separate the two. I recognize each has its own purpose and its own method. This is something students definitely have NOT been taught. At least in Oklahoma! (we are the buckle on the Bible Belt).

However, I love the mystery. I love that science is based on evidence. However, my faith is based on exactly that: faith. Two totally different things, but one that many are not willing to accept.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

I had completely forgotten about Gerard Manley Hopkins--fortunately, I live with someone much more literate than me. I will have to dig out his stuff and read some more.


Dear Leslie,

Thanks for enlightening me (again).



Dear J Bowie,

I don't think kids anywhere are adept at separating the two, but I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
What does frustrate me is when "faith precludes looking at anything with open eyes because it might tear down a perverse version of faith.

Kate said...

And listen to the Tallis. It always reaffirms my belief that even though we all have our own melody, the song we are singing together is beautiful. (the lesson of the motet, I think)

Jenny said...

Ah, Feynman. I had no idea there were clips of him on youtube. You have just cost me quite a bit of time!

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

The motet is unreal, just unreal--and to think of what was going on 500 years ago, just unbelievable.

(I may write about it yet--almost frightening in its power.)


Dear Jenny,

Ah, but was it really such a "cost"? Listening to Tallis and Feynmann both seem like time well spent, or not spent at all.