Science as an Art

I caught sight of an artist one day, sitting in the garden and painting the profusion of life around her.  I stood there drinking the contentment of the scene in. Here was beauty, poetry, art and the science behind it all in one grand stroke. How marvelous it is to stop and observe someone paying attention to the world around them?

I remembered the piece in a book recommended to me by a writer friend, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The book is an example to show how each one of our stories is different in its own way. This memoir is written by a dedicated scientist, and covers among other things a rare friendship, her bipolar disorder, and her journey of a life with trees. 

In the book, Dr Jahren writes about the science and its demands on its lovers. Her writing is lyrical, and when she writes of her research and her little moments of leap, it is nothing short of poetic. For instance, she writes of studying the structure of the seeds of  hackberry trees. It is the kind of research that is, as she says, ‘curiosity-driven research’.  Dr Hope Jahren is a paleobotanist, and she goes on to say that her research is the kind of work that “will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain – or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me. “ 

I have always admired the tenacity and perseverance of endeavors such as these. In the world of instant gratification, working on fields where the gratification may not arrive in your lifetime is nothing short of phenomenal. It is the work of an artist: working on something solely for their interest, because they have the aptitude to understand life around them, and to persevere in the face of odds.

In the book, she captures some moments along the path of a scientist’s life that are magical. For instance, she writes of the time she was studying the structural makeup of the seeds of hackberry trees, and she unmistakably finds traces of Opal in the seeds:

“It was opal and this was something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was – in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation,…Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone.”

How could one not smile at this? How beautifully she marvels at understanding the ecstasy of life. Walking along a forest path, I’ve often wondered how, that of the millions of seeds dropped in there, a few decide to take the leap and sprout into sapling, clawing their way up towards the light, while digging deep and finding their roots. It turns out there may be no definitive answer to that. If you were a seed, what are the parameters you would use to sprout your wings and decide where to put down your roots, knowing fully well that from then on, movement is out of the question?

There is more to the miracle of our ecosystems than we can imagine. The ones who study this profundity – astrophysicists, anthropologists, scientists, ecologists, geologists – and then, go on to share their journey with us is marvelous. #Shoshin.

Who was it who said that – when you read a book you live a thousand lives, but if you don’t read, you only live once, yours?! 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R R Martin in A Dance with Dragons

What would we do without the internet to give the answer right away?!

Complement with:

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

Swimming Across The Media River

One week-end evening, the devices in the house were barking mad. Twing, twang, tring. Video calls, phone calls, instant messaging systems were all driving themselves to a tizzy. Far away, far, far away, 5000 miles away a temple bell was clanging.

I yearned for some quiet and asked if anyone cared on joining me for a walk in the cool Spring evening. Everyone sprang out of my sight like a cat let loose in a party of rats. The husband was trying to yelp his way out of a walk when the first free WhatsApp call came. He ran to pick up the phone with a sense of urgency, and secret relief that he did not have to go a-walking with me, but narrowly missed the call. I made for the open skies while he dialed back. 

The walk was a beautiful one. I admired squirrels chittering, birds twittering, even the raucous cackle of the geese seemed musical. I have, in my chronicles expressed an interest in finding out about animal communication. Misguided. It is better if we don’t know. This way, I could let the noise wash over me, and assume best intentions on their part. The breeze gently tousled my hair, and the setting sun threw brilliant hues across the scattered clouds.

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I stepped in to the home after some time, and saw the husband looking drawn and crumpled, like wet cloth tumbled about in a dryer.

Is everything alright? I asked him a little worried.

Yes! Yes! he said, and proceeded to tell me the thrilling tale of the past 1/2 hour. The saga clanged its way across temple towers, cell phone towers, underground cable networks, and busy human ones. Leaping from a small rural temple town in South India, a couple of metropolitan cities, and continents, with data bits coursing through half the earth, it read like the glossy blurb of these bestselling novels steeped in drama and suspense. 

I was intrigued, and gave the sympathetic ear at once.

The first phone call had been from his mother in India. She lives in Madras. WhatsApp calls are free, and people are free, so I will just give the gist. 

Mother in Madras: Can you call your cousin in New Jersey, and ask him for his sister’s number in India?

Husband in California: Why? 

M in M: His sister is here in India visiting no? 

Wait! I see even gists could take a while, alright let’s try this then:

Premise: Husband’s cousin visiting India for a few weeks.

Plot: Said cousin and her mother, viz, husband’s aunt, went to a small temple town in South India.  There, they planned to meet up with husband’s uncle, and go into the temple together.  

Plot Twist: Uncle tried to call Aunt, but she had put the phone in her handbag and did not hear it ring because someone was twanging the infernal temple bell with great righteousness.

Cliff hanger: Will they ever meet? The temple town had all of 3 streets culminating at the temple after all.

That is it. The entire plot. 

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How does that leap across metrops, continents and coasts, you ask? Fair question. 

As I see it, the itch to go temples stems from mankind’s search for spirituality. Learn to calm the inner anxieties and voices and so on. On this spiritual quest, when one does not meet the intended person in the first 32.5 seconds, the mind flutters and they place an immediate call to their sister in Madras. She then calms her brother saying there is no need to worry, and immediately places a phone call to the husband in California. 

Why husband in California? 

Repeat after me: Aunt visiting temple with d. Plot thickens when Aunt does not pick her phone. But the visiting cousin has a phone for use in India. Stroke of brilliance indicates that her brother preparing for bed in New Jersey will have his sister’s number. Call husband in CA *Tring* to call girl’s brother *Tring* to find out temp cell phone number in India. 

Husband misses call narrowly *Tring*. 

Husband calls mother again *Tring* as soon as possible, but mother’s phone is busy for she has called *Tring* her second son in New Delhi to call his cousin *Tring* in New Jersey and get the phone number. 

After several nerve wracking minutes, both folks call the poor fellow in New Jersey *Tring Tring*. The fellow moans sleepily that he has already fielded five free calls from various parts of the globe asking the same thing and there is no need for any of this, since they seem to have found each other. 

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Then a next set of phone calls were completed for the express purpose of letting everyone know that the concerned parties had met each other, and all was well. In all, I guess about 23 different calls were made. If one party had stood still for 5 minutes, the other party would have simply fluttered into them in the breeze. 

Though tactless, I laughed heartily. The husband looked like a spent force after dealing with this hurricane of calls. He eyed me, and said somewhat icily, “Let’s talk about something else, shan’t we?”

“Do you know how trees, and wild boars communicate to each other?” I asked the husband grinning. 

“Tell me”, he said, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing acacia trees, giraffes, wild boars and hunting laws in Geneva. (Inner Life of Animals, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben)

“Did you know the wild boars are so smart, they have figured out that the Geneva side of the river has a hunting ban, and the France side doesn’t? So when the first gunshot rings out in France, all the boars scramble, splash into the river and swim to the other side of the river. I suppose they poke their tongues out at the hunters on the other side!” I said.

“Is there someplace that has a free-calling ban, so we can swim across the media river when the first phone calls start?” moaned the fellow, and I patted his hand in commiseration, wisely refraining from telling him that all of this could have been avoided if he had just come out on the walk with me leaving all modes of communication behind.