Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The general and the particular

Of the fundamental particles of which the world is made, each one is identical to all others of its species. Every electron is a clone of every other electron. Every proton is interchangeable with every other.

And the laws by which the fundamental particles interact and bind are fixed and immutable. Physics would not be possible if there were not an elemental sameness to the world, a concrete block redundancy.

As a young man I was trained as a physicist. I was taught to revel in the general, to see through the particulars to the sameness, to admire constancy, to focus on the letters of the world's alphabet, the notes of the scale.

And it was exhilarating! To discover the oneness of things, their commonality under the skin. This was not only a mathematical revelation; it was a social awakening too, a release from a host of parochial prejudices, a shattering of those artificial boundaries that box us into the particulars of our birth.

To solve Schrodinger's Equation for the hydrogen atom, say, was a privileged glimpse behind the curtain of particulars that obscure the singular focus of creation.

I mention this now because as I sit here at my desk looking out into the Irish countryside through a screen of saucer-sized morning glory blossoms, it occurs to me that the emphasis in my life has swung from the general to the particular. Every blossom emerges from the same seed, the same DNA, but every one is different, and it is the difference that electrifies and illuminates my morning.

I've spent too much of my life studying and teaching science to be unappreciative of the general, but now, in these so-called golden years, it's the particulars that give the glisten to my life. Not the alphabet, but the poem. Not the notes of the scale, but the sonata. Not the astonishing four-letter language of the morning glory's genome, but the way those two-dozen individually unique translucent blossoms share my hopeful gaze out the window toward a pale, wayward sun.

The irreplaceable solicitude of the particular.