Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The tables turned

A few more thoughts on the pollen book: page after page of microscopic orbs, exquisitely photographed and reproduced the size of soccer balls, each glistening ball containing flower sperm.

Why do plants encase their germ within these lovely jewel boxes? After all, the male cells of animals make their naked way to the female egg. The answer of course, as Kesseler and Harley point out, is that animal sperm swim their short journey to the egg in a aqueous environment. By contrast, the male seed of rooted plants must sometimes travel far in air to find a receptive female (with the help of wind, insects, birds and even mammals, especially bats). The pollen case protects the sperm from drying out -- a robust FedEx packaging of a sort. But with what a variety of envelopes! All those zillions of gorgeously packaged sperm wafting hither and yon on the breezes, flower sex without a whiff of romance.

Francis Bacon, the great philosopher of experimental science, said that nature must be "put to the torture" to yield her secrets. Not so, countered William Wordsworth:.
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;
-- We murder to dissect.
It may well be that we are murdering nature, but it is consumerist greed, not intellectual curiosity that is doing the dastardly deed. Sweet may be the lore which nature brings, but great continents of nature's lore are beyond our powers of unaided perception. Without the probing curiosity of experimental science, pollen on the wind is nothing but an annoying cause of sniffles and sneezes, and the beauty of each microscopic speck of flower nuptial dust would be forever beyond our contemplation.

So let the scientists follow their Baconian muse, exposing with their gentle torture the secret apparatuses of the universe; you and I will add our dollop of Wordsworthean balance, bringing to the universe revealed by science what the poet called "a heart that watches and receives."