Saturday, October 4, 2008

the law of gravity requires no enforcement

Here's a picture of my little cousin Ula and I in the lab not too long ago. I borrowed it from her facebook album. I brought her to work with me for an afternoon and tried my best to make 'science' look appealing. I asked her to do an aqueous workup of an mid-sized DMF reaction and she said something like: "This stuff is a lot of work - it's no wonder it took you so long to get a degree". Yes it is cuz, and yes it did :)

I’d like to tell you about one of my ideas for a book. I’d like to write a popular science book – don’t laugh! I have been thinking about it for almost a year. My goal is something that I would have enjoyed reading about ten years ago when I was starting university. The topic will be the ‘mechanisms of life’ (as we understand them - obviously :). I don’t want give away specifics, but I see a 200’ish page paper back that simplifies some of the fascinating complexities of biology and chemistry and hopefully leaves reader with appreciation– rather than fear – of the unimaginably small details of the living world around us. If we understand how gasoline is converted to motion in an internal combustion engine, why should we not also understand how an apple becomes muscular movement in your arm? Do you know how that works? Do you think it is something worth understanding? It’s not magic. It probably once was. But today, it's just chemistry. And I believe that the only reason biochemistry is considered so ‘difficult’, is that so few people have tried to simplify it for us.

No doubt this book would be difficult to write. I suppose that is why I have yet to find it on the shelves. But it’s not impossible I think. Perhaps I might make a contribution to bridging the growing gap between us and them – between the nerdy scientists and the ‘regular folk’.

Why write such a book? First, I’d love to write a book, and chemistry is what I know. But also, I feel like front-line scientific research these days is becoming more and more like ‘black magic’ to Joe Average - and not just because it’s pretty boring but also because it takes so much effort to comprehend the boring stuff. In the good’ol days, I think the public could better appreciate discoveries like electricity or radio because, although remarkable, the practical details of these ‘miracles’ were easier to grasp than today’s ‘particle accelerators’ or ‘small interfering RNA’.

But does that mean that we shouldn’t try to understand science? And do scientists not have some responsibility to simplify physics or biochemistry and teach it to non-professional-academics? You might argue: what’s the point? Well here’s the point: when you and I stop trying to understand our world, society seems to take a nose dive into ignorance. Unfortunately, it appears to be human nature to fill knowledge-gaps, wherever they exist, with endless fiction. If the word ‘ignorance’ is offensive then call it ‘unawareness’ or ‘naivety’ or maybe even ‘ill-judgement’ but there must be a good term that describes what possesses so many of the people around us to act in such strong defiance of basic logic.

Examples of this ‘ill-judgement’ will undoubtedly offend, so forgive me, but if the law of ‘gravity’ requires no police enforcement and then neither should evolution, or coincidence. These are observable facts. I believe the world would be a better place if no adults believed in: magic, miracles, astrology, creationism, alternative meds, seances, ouija boards, UFOs, elves, bigfoot, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, and even the seemingly harmless concepts of fate and destiny. In my ideal world, everything observable would be left to reason - and everyone's actions (and prejudices) would be sensible. So believe me when I say that, as cool as he is, David Blaine can not fly. No one can read your mind. No house is haunted. And nobody communicates with the dead.
If any of those things were actually true, would they not also be ‘ordinary’? Yes they would. They would be about as 'mysterious' to us all as microwave ovens or the clouds in the sky. And they would be studied by reputable researchers like all other observable truths.

I should add now that I am neither an atheist, nor would I ever object to anyone’s belief in a ‘higher power’. I believe that any sort of faith makes finding some honest meaning in life (and in death) a whole lot easier. But as to the question of what to do when faith and science cross paths? The only answer that makes any sense to me is that they don’t. They really don't. I am thankful to live in a time when a religion that tries to challenge and disprove observable facts faces a real uphill battle (although many still stubbornly try). I see no need for man made mysteries in a world with so many real ones. We have plenty of questions that no researcher will ever answer - the biggest one, of course, is the question of why this universe of ours exists in the first place. That one you can ask a priest :)

And as for 'right and wrong' or ‘good and evil’ or human ethics and human rights, and all other morally tricky lil’issues are concerned: if you really don’t believe these can be tackled without religious input, then perhaps you will at least agree that a priest who also reads science books can offer better judgments about the today’s world than one who just reads scrolls.

So… back to the point. (I see that got carried away again) I keep thinking about how much I would enjoy writing for living. But the thought of taking the time to get started - and then actually becoming good at it - is pretty daunting. Maybe by posting my intentions to write this first book I will be motivated to get going. I wish I had a few months off to get a draft out… hey, I wonder what would happen if the lab burned down :)

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