• Su Cummings

The attraction of science

It’s been said before (and more explicitly), but I f-ing love science!

A scientist can envision many peculiar worlds; not only the one we all see at face value, but also worlds far more vast, microscopic, outlandish, logical and logic-defying than what the rest of us observe. Imagine the creative leap it required to look up on a clear night and imagine that everything you saw didn’t revolve around you. Consider looking at moldy food and thinking: I can use that to cure disease! Or i-Hsing, the Chinese mathematician-monk who first quantified time by inventing the clock. Isaac Newton, who defined gravity when it hit him on the head. Michael Faraday (electricity). Or one of my heros, Niels Bohr (the structure of the atom).

Let me put this kind of wonder in another, more literary way, via a passage that has stayed with me from The Last River, by Todd Balf. The book's about a tangle of extreme whitewater kayakers searching for a legendary wilderness river in Tibet. It’s a true story, and a good read (I expect the pitch to the publisher was “It’s Into Thin Air, but in a river.”) As it happens, one of the group, besides being a world-class kayaker, is a scientist named Doug Gordon:

… a fellow paddler once wrote that “flowing water has all the mystery, challenge and magic of the world hidden in it,” and Doug didn’t disagree with that—but he also felt a less conventional bond. As a gifted scientist whose talents were bound up in synthesizing new and exotic compounds, he was attracted to water on a vast other scale too. Its sublime molecular framework—namely the intensely stable, chemically potent coupling created when two atoms of hydrogen combine with one of oxygen—makes water one of the most peculiar materials known to mankind. The Yarlung Tsangpo [river] might seem to defy physical laws, but so did water, plain water. It had lab characteristics that made no scientific sense: It didn’t freeze or boil where it should. As a solid it was lighter than in its liquid form. Water molecules were corrosive enough that, given time, they’d disintegrate the toughest metal. And yet water was so benign that life-forms of all types flourished in it; indeed, none could survive without it. Even the stroke of water that gushed between the Tsangpo’s banks underscored an unlikely trait that Doug knew well: Water’s own molecules, like magnets, draw to one another more tenaciously than those of certain metals. Anyone and anything that attempts to break the bond has to be equally tenacious. In so many ways water was a fear and a fascination. It was no wonder that so many religions looked to water as a foundational metaphor, but Doug saw water for what it most truly was: a mystery big and small.

And that did it for me. Reading this passage cracked a door into the wonder of our planet in a way that all the thrill-seeking excitement didn’t.

Artists are scientists too, of a kind, plumbing the depths of equally strange and intimidating and gorgeous interior and exterior worlds, requiring feats of the imagination and discipline every bit as rigorous. You don’t think so? The Science Council sums it up this way: “All scientists are united by their relentless curiosity and systematic approach to assuaging it.” And that, for me, is just as apt for describing an artist. Science is no less act of imagination than creating art. Art no less an act of rigor than science.

Image: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarlung_Tsangpo. Yarlung Tsangpo River as it courses through Tibet, with peaks Namche Barwa and Gyala Peri. The picture is centered on 29.156°N 93.983°E ©2018 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

#Whitewaterrafting #DougGordon #TheScienceCouncil #TheLastRiver #ToddBalf