Writing in The New York Times, Tim Kreider wonders if the immediate availability of information has robbed us of the romance of not knowing:
Instant accessibility leaves us oddly disappointed, bored, endlessly craving more. I’ve often had the experience of reading a science article that purported to explain some question I’d always wondered about, only to find myself getting distracted as soon as I started reading the explanation. Not long ago the Hubble telescope observed that Pluto’s surface is changing rapidly, and noticeably reddening. It’s not a bland white ball of ice, but the color of rust and soot. We’re not likely to learn anything more until the New Horizons spacecraft gets there in 2015. In the meantime, we just get to wonder.
I find this mysterious and tantalizing. As soon as I began reading possible explanations — ultraviolet light interacting with chemicals, blah blah blah — I started to lose interest. Just knowing that there is an answer is somehow deflating. If some cryptozoologist actually bagged a Yeti and gave it a Latin name, it would just be another animal. An intriguing animal, no doubt, but would it really be any more bizarre or improbable than a giraffe or a giant squid?
We’ll return to that in a moment. He closes with this:
I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill.
Fear not! If there’s one thing a decade of teaching has shown me, it’s that today’s kids are better than ever at not knowing things.
Anyway, Kreider’s lament is a familiar one. A sagacious letter writer sets him straight:
Tim Kreider (“In Praise of Not Knowing,” Op-Ed, June 19) gets it half right. Retaining a sense of mystery and wonder about our living world is a keen source of joy for children — for all of us. But to take in emerging answers about the nature of Pluto or newly discovered animal species needn’t kill off that joy! Answer-seeking in science leads far less often to dry explanation than to fresh excitement.
Mr. Kreider invokes a future cryptozoologist who bags a Yeti, but let’s look instead at the real world. Jane Goodall and generations of primate scientists have now observed chimpanzees in the wild for almost 50 years. Each hard-won answer about ape social behavior, tool-using or emotional bonds brings on new waves of questions — and thus new waves of wonder.
The notion that science somehow robs nature of its beauty and mystery has been tossed off by a number of writers. Let us not forget Keats’ musings on the perils of cold philosophy:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
Walt Whitman was even more scathing:
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
That’s downright dickish. Edgar Allan Poe also piled on:
Science! True daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
Of course, the scientists have not been idle in the face of such effrontery. When Richard Dawkins’ wrote a book length discussion of the beauty and poetry of science, he taunted Keats by titling it Unweaving the Rainbow. And Isaac Asimov gave Whitman a piece of his mind:
I imagine that many people reading those lines tell themselves, exultantly, “How true! Science just sucks all the beauty out of everything, reducing it all to numbers and tables and measurements! Why bother learning all that junk when I can just go out and look at the stars?”
That is a very convenient point of view since it makes it not only unnecessary, but downright aesthetically wrong, to try to follow all that hard stuff in science. Instead, you can just take a look at the night sky, get a quick beauty fix, and go off to a nightclub.
The trouble is that Whitman is talking through his hat, but the poor soul didn’t know any better.
This is the start of a short essay pointing out that a knowledge of science, far from robbing the stars of their poetry, simply adds a whole new dimension to their beauty. When you think about it, the argument put forth by Keats, Whitman and Poe, is pretty obviously silly.
We’ve been getting a lot of rain around here lately. The other day I walked outside after several hours in my office. I was still thinking (and muttering) about whatever I had been doing, when suddenly I looked up and saw a perfect rainbow. My exact thoughts were, “Whoa! That’s really pretty.” And do you know what it didn’t even occur to me to think? “Darn it! I’d be able to enjoy that if only I didn’t know that it’s just something that happens when light refracts through moisture in the air.”
I’m reminded of something I once heard a mathematician say. It’s not math that people don’t like. It’s being confused. Indeed, when a student asks, with disgust, “What is this good for?” he usually doesn’t actually care what the math is good for. More often it’s just an expression of disgust and frustration. The student is really saying, “I don’t understand what you’re doing!”
When I first read Kreider’s essay, arguing that something is lost when the mystery is resovled, the first thing I thought of was the conclusion of this passage from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Headed League.” Holmes is discussing a new client with Watson:
Sherlock Holmes’s quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.
Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair, with his forefinger upon the paper, but his eyes upon my companion.
“How in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labor. It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ships carpenter.”
“Your hands, my dear sir. You’re right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.
“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”
“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”
“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”
“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk.”
“Well, but China?”
“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been doen in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks, and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”
Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”
“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. `Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid. ”
The Latin, by the way, means “Everything unknown appears magnificent.”
Magic is something of a hobby of mine, especially sleight of hand with cards. One of the first things you hear about magic is that it loses all its appeal when you know how the tricks are done, but I’ve never found that to be the case. Quite the opposite, and for exactly the same reason we have already discussed. Knowing how the tricks are done provides an additional layer of beauty to the performance. After all, even when the magician manages to fool me, I know that ultimately the explanation is something simple, the kind of thing that would make me feel dumb as soon as it is explained. There’s always a trap door, or a strategically placed mirror, or something like that. It’s really the showmanship that is appealing, not the thought that you have actually seen something that is miraculous. And when I see a performer perfectly execute some sleight or other, I can enjoy not just the patter and the storytelling, but the technical proficiency as well. It’s like watching a juggler. I can see exactly what he’s doing, but I can still be amazed by the skill with which he does it.
So that’s it. If you don’t like science, well, that’s just different strokes for different folks. But don’t pretend that it’s somehow noble for you not to explore or investigate or to wallow in ignorance. Life already provides us with enough insoluble mysteries to ponder. We don’t need to create more by pretending we know less than we do.