An article outlining some of my personal thoughts about stuff.
|One sunny afternoon a couple of years ago I was sitting at my desk working away on my computer when I noticed an ant on the desk. At first I only glanced at him, mildly irritated to be sharing my workspace with an uninvited insect. Then I began to watch him more closely, becoming increasingly absorbed in his seemingly random and haphazard scurrying. What on earth was he doing, I wondered? What was he hoping to achieve? It appeared that he was expending a prodigious amount of energy just running about, getting nowhere.
Then I began to think about the world occupied by the ant and how different it was to mine. Although we shared the same space and time, the universes in which they existed were totally unconnected. The ant knew nothing of my universe. Of mobile phones, chilli con carne, the Panama Canal, space travel or situation comedies. (I thought, my gosh, he has never seen Friends and has no idea that “JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD!”).
Although humans have studied ants – not me personally you understand, but professional ant studiers: entomologists I believe they’re called - I knew nothing of how his world appeared to him (or her, I had no way of knowing sex either, especially without the helpful Disney trick of giving any female long attractive eyelashes. For the purposes of simplicity I’m going to refer to the ant as ‘he’ from now on).
So there we were each of us in our own personal universe, getting on with our tasks and not really knowing anything about the other. I suppose I had an advantage in that I at least recognised the ant’s existence and had a sketchy, if wholly incomplete, notion of what he was. In other words there was a universe going on around the ant of which he was completely ignorant. I pondered what it would take for the ant to suddenly stop what he was doing, look up from the desktop and think “Oh crap, what the hell is going on, what’s that huge creature doing and why is he looking at me with that vague simple look on his face?” What was it that stopped him or did not allow him to reason in this way? I also thought that if there could be this hidden universe for the ant, could there also be universes going on around me which were equally hidden and beyond my capacity to reason?
The eventual conclusion I came to was that limiting both the ant and myself was our brains. In chemical reactions there is something called the 'Rate Determining Step', the idea that any reaction can only proceed as fast as its slowest step. Our concept of everything we sense in the physical world is filtered, organised, shaped and ultimately interpreted by our brain. We all see the universe in a slightly different way because our brains are subtly different.
The ant’s brain governs his world and the universe that he see's is the one his brain presents to him. In exactly the same way, my brain interprets and presents me with the universe in which I exist. I don’t live in a communal universe. I live in a very personal and private universe that my brain gives to me. However, fortunately my world is very similar to yours.
“Hey, it’s a nice day,” I say.
“Hi, yes it is a nice day,” you respond.
This is because our brains have evolved in the same way, giving us a shared, common translation of our universes. Sometimes however, the brain can offer quite different and dangerous interpretations, often with tragic consequences.
The French mathematician and philosopher Descartes supposed that perhaps everything he experienced was in fact a deception. He proposed the concept of an 'Evil Demon' in a well-known thought experiment. The basic premise of which was: what can we really trust about the view of the universe that is presented to us? This resulted in the 'I think therefore I am' ruse, a rock of certainty to cling to in a world of total doubt and confusion.
Now I can see that for the ant to look up and try to understand my universe would be such a leap beyond his brain’s fundamental ability to reason that it becomes an absurd idea. Even for him to start to wonder what the desk beneath his feet is made of or its purpose would be highly improbable.
Human brains are very different to that of an ant. After all we came up with chilli con carne, no mean achievement I assure you. So, I wondered, what would it take for us to look up from the table and start to unravel what might be going on around us?
Then I realised that some of us have actually done this very thing. The likes of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein (notable amongst thousands of others) were the proverbial ants that looked up from the table. They reasoned differently and started to peel away some of the layers of collective understanding to see new possibilities, glimpses of hidden universes. In so doing they caused what are known as Paradigm Shifts –violent intellectual revolutions that completely alter our view of the known universe. Science is often difficult and complex precisely because by doing it we are stretching the human brain to a point where it struggles to comprehend and interpret the information being uncovered.
A physicist, popularly believed to be Richard Feynman, once said:
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
As a fan of science this is a profound realisation. For me the very essence of science is to be able to say, "I don't know." My advice when you meet anyone who says they are certain about anything is to run a mile; they frankly scare the willies out of me. Although I don’t understand the precise details of new discoveries or theories, I’m more than happy to stand on the touchline and cheer. I love science for its questioning nature and ability to correct itself when presented with new evidence – to accept the Paradigm Shift. For me it represents the ultimate search, not perhaps for the truth - I’m not sure what truth is - but definitely a never-ending search into the unknown.
We should celebrate even the most seemingly mundane discoveries. Like glass for instance. Bill Bryson sums up my feelings on this excellently in his book, Notes From A Small Island, when he says:
“Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach until the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.”
To me the concept of even the most seemingly mundane of contemporary technology is fascinating. Take radio for example, when you actually stop and think about it, radio is so mind blowing and clever it staggers me. As for television don't even get me started, I could weep with joy at the thought of television.
I have made a reasonable living from science in a peripheral, abstract kind of way and it has been both satisfying and rewarding. But as a "scientist" I accept, and almost revel in, the idea that actually I know absolutely nothing. The older I get, the more comforted I become with this notion and on my gravestone the words:
"None the bloody wiser"
Will be a fitting epitaph to my final declaration of this life. No bitterness or regret, you understand, just an honest statement.
So this is my salute to all those ants: past, present and future that look up from the table and try in any small way to advance our understanding. I shall continue to watch their efforts with wide-eyed admiration.