Saturday, September 03, 2011

The mundane and the miraculous -- a Saturday reprise

In the current issue of Nature there is a paper called "A lever-arm rotation drives motility of the minus-end-directed kinesin Ncd." A kinesin is a microtubule-based motor protein. The old mechanical metaphor.

It's probably fair to say that if the four authors of this paper hadn't done the work, someone else would have, perhaps not today, or tomorrow, but eventually.

But what about that mechanical metaphor of Mary Oliver in yesterday's post [describing the hummingbird]? "...the brisk motor of his heart/ singing/ like a Schubert..." It is probably also fair to say that if Oliver had not written those lines, they would never exist. Ever. Imagine writing: "...the hummingbird comes/ like a small green angel, to soak/ his dark tongue/ in happiness ---"

And here we have the difference between science and art. Even the greatest science -- Darwin's theory of natural selection, say, or Einstein's theory of relativity -- is inevitable. If Darwin hadn't done it, then someone else would have (indeed, someone else did, simultaneously). Likewise for Einstein.

But those lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 in Anne's valentine the other day? Only Shakespeare. And only Anne.

It is the great strength of science that it relies on consensus. In Bacon's words, scientific understanding "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." Darwin or Einstein may have dreamed up their theories in the secret closets of their minds, but it was the collective measuring of their ideas against nature that makes natural selection and relativity reliable public knowledge. Out of the closets into the light.

When the hummingbird motor sings Schubert, we are invited to journey in the other direction: out of the light of common experience into the secret closet of a single, unmatchable, individual mind.

(This post originally appeared in February, 2006.)