Saturday, March 18, 2006

The facts and the white fire

Back from the Bahamas to a pile of journals, three months worth of Science and Nature, a dozen of each. When I'm away I keep up with the highlights online, but I save the nitty-gritty till I can put my feet up on the couch with hard copy.

It's not all fun. Scientific literature is dull by design. It's Joe Friday: "Just the facts, Ma'am."

For example, the current issue of Science is largely devoted to analyzing the data from spacecraft Cassini's reconnaissance of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Numbers, graphs, tables, formulas, diagrams.

A sample sentence:
From this fit (HRD data for Rp > 2 μm), we can infer the rate of particles larger than 2 μm emitted by the south pole source and escaping the moon's gravity to amount to 5 x 1012 particles s-1, whereas the impactor-ejecta mechanism would produce at most 1012 such particles s-1. These numbers correspond to an escaping mass of at least 0.2 kg s-1, assuming Rp = 2 μm for all grains.
This passionless, colorless prose has a purpose.

Scientific literature emphasizes that part of our experience that is common to anyone who makes the observations in the same way. It is independent of the politics, gender, race, nationality and emotional state of the observer -- which is why we have confidence in science as reliable public knowledge.

Of course, the dry facts are not enough. We are emotional creatures. We have appetites. We are driven by awe, terror, love, distaste. A diet of purely objective knowledge is oppressive. With the poet Mary Oliver we say...
...what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled --
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
But make no mistake, the white fire is there too, in the Cassini-observed emanations of Enceladus. Facts, yes, a flood of facts. But also, for a moment, reading Science, I am transported to the vast multi-world of Saturn, where a moon the size of Arizona plumes water vapor into space. I am there, cruising that maelstrom and forge of creation -- the white, white fire of a great mystery.