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

Soonish

“How do you think the water on Titan is? “

I must’ve responded with a quizzical look, for the son responded with a “Saturn’s moon!” 

http://Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=610237

“Oh!” 

His interest in all things Space-Cosmos has me unnerved sometimes. He catches me when I am zap in the middle of the myriad things that keep me busy and unproductive, and like a zing of fresh air, sends a question like this to remind me that life does not always have to be stern.

As I thought up a response to another ping at work, I found myself wondering what ammonia-esque water must be like. The temperatures must be more frigid – sure, but beyond that the imagination sort of teeters. Would there be  fish in the seas on Titan? Would their eyesight have evolved so differently because of the low amounts of sunlight, and all this, only if we assume life has evolved on Titan. 

We did not evolve into cyclops like one-eyed creatures. Two eyes lends perspective to our vision and construct the world around us differently than a person with only 1 eye would. What if we had evolved with one eye on top of our head – always upward looking? And another set under our feet? I wonder how we would have shaped our world if we had managed to evolve like octopii with neurons everywhere not just in our brains. 

Over lunch today, discussion moved to contact lenses. With changes in contact lens technology, the disposable ones are in use now. Calculations were being made as to how many days of lenses were left, and I picked up the thread of the third eye and the octopus-like eyes-and -brains-in-limbs theory.

The son immediately calculated the number of the contact lenses we would have required for 3, 4 & 5 eye scenarios, while the daughter moved to the more practical problems

“Yes – imagine – looking upwards all the time, and see bird poop flying towards your upper eye and not having time to close it. Aaah!” That child can take the magic of star dust and turn it into duck-poop!

Another time, there I was thinking along simple lines such as ‘These flowers have faded so much in the summer heat”, or “These poor little squirrels in the heat wave – should we leave some water outside for them?” when the son in his attempt to make conversation pulled me straight out of this solar system altogether with “Did you know Proxima Centauri can pull comets towards it from the original Kuiper belt?”

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/792/10-things-to-know-about-the-kuiper-belt/

Keeping up with a child’s curiosity is difficult enough as an adult. Yet, I look forward to these little chats with the budding futurologist, for they make me think outside of the what-needs-to-be-done to the more creatively beckoning what-can-be-done mode of thinking.

One evening, on a little stroll by the waters, the fellow asked me what I thought would be the 5 most interesting things in the future. I love it when I have to think through his questions like this. I had him go first so I could get my thoughts into some sort of order.

He started off with the space elevator, and then a sky hook, moved on to some solid asteroid mining, and then conservation of energy. He is increasingly fond of the channel Kurzgesagt 

Their you-tube channel has a number of philosophical, scientific concepts. The videos are only a few minutes long and are done in a highly simplistic style, yet enough to give one the overall picture. 

Luckily, for me, I had picked up this book, Soonish by Kelly & Zach Weinersmith

Thanks to the book, I could hold up my end of the conversation. The book is written in a funny and engaging manner. Starting with space technologies and asteroid mining; the book moves on to robotics, augmented realities; and the future of personalized medicine and synthetic biology.

People who have the joy of gaining fresh perspectives from the forward looking spirit of youth are lucky indeed.

May we always retain the inner child in us – The wonder of Shoshin.

Shoshin Seeking & Science Writing

Shoshin is a concept dear to me as regular readers know. Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist word for ‘beginner’s mind’, denoting the capacity to bring wonder and open-mindedness to learning anything.

To continue the quest in Shoshin seeking,  I volunteered to take an online writing class with a focus on Science for elementary school children. 

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The idea for the class was inspired by multiple factors:

(1) A sense of wanting to be useful while doing the socially responsible thing of staying home during the Corona-virus shelter-in-place. 

(2) My brain after years of running around from Place A to Place B found a method to calm down from the frenzied lifestyle that modern man prides himself on (The Virus is a reminder of something lost long ago – an essay by Alan Lightman – a writer and physicist at MIT) 

(3) Combining the marvels of Science and keeping the wonder of Shoshin alive is pretty much what my writing has been about (at least in the past 1/2 a decade). An area of passion that I was happy to share with the children, from whom I learn Shoshin in spades.

(4) A love for children and young minds has me yearning to be like them on multiple levels. I live precariously through this yearning by reading children’s books, squabbling childishly with my own children, and much more.

The result of this was a marvelous month in which I went about reading topics that had long since been pushed to the back of the brain. I wondered as I prepared for the classes, how we wasted those marvelous moments of youth with all these fascinating subjects. I understood as the class went on:  sometimes the children were enthusiastic and wanted to write all about the topic under discussion. Other times, they liked the sound of music-like science lilting in their ears, and they nodded along sagely. The rays of the afternoon sun filtering in through the window made for warm, cozy sessions in which one saw one’s friends on the zoom call, and answered when one felt like being a part of the discussion. This was nothing close to the normal they knew, but they adapted with ease and their customary good sense. All in all, it made for a marvelous time, and with the children happy, so was I, their teacher. 

If post-Covid, some children recall sunny afternoons with thrilling science to a background of their classmates trilling in the background, while taking a leap of imagination, it is time well spent, in my opinion. 

I remember distinct moments when something piqued the children’s attention. The time I told them about giraffes in the savannah, or when we played the little game of hearing frequencies, or when we spun off pretending to be whales using sonographic techniques to unearth something really unexpected.

I am going to sign up for another 4 week session in which I hope to have as much fun, learn as much and enjoy the companionship of younger authors, who are by  virtue of their youth also leaps ahead in imagination and spirits.  Wish me luck!

A Rose is a Rose

We were out hiking one day in mid February. The son and I eagerly packed our snacks, water bottles and headed off as the sun rose. It was a golden day in which we stood under trees listening to the blackbirds trilling overhead. Squirrels scuttled past with their duties, while woodpeckers drilled in the trees above. New born calves stood demurely by their mothers. We stopped to sniff at the flowers every now and then, looking indulgently at the buds waiting for the spring bloom. A thousand smells rent the air, and I said “How marvelous it must be to be a flower in spring time?”

He laughed – the sort of tumbling laughter that children have, and we adults can do with from time to time. His words tumbled out between his giggles, and he said, “Did you know? That a flower 🌹 comes up when its ovaries burst open?” 

I gasped dramatically and the little botanist went on to explain what his teachers must have told him in school. I listened enamored, wondering not for the first time why we ever grow out of schooling, and the shoshin of childhood.

Anyway, there we stood with the beauty of spring all around us. The rains had made the hills green, and in this verdure, it was hard to imagine anything but positivity and beauty. It was hard to imagine that in less than 2 weeks, the world would be reeling under the influence of a virus.

Talking to my colleagues & friends over virtual calls, and phone, reading what people have to say over Social Media, I feel a general sense of overwhelm, gloom and what-next overpowering some. Some seem to have taken to the new normal, doing the best they can with the new set of circumstances, others not so much. The relentless news cycles have been pounding us with streams of news that reminds me of Oogway. 

Oogway, the wise turtle: “There is no good news or bad news, there is only news!”

Master Shifu: “But Tai Lung has escaped” (But Corona has escaped!)

Oogway, the w turtle: “Oh, That is Bad News!”

Oogway & Shifu

As human-beings, we are always forward looking. We want to set forecasts for corporations, we want to predict & measure, and when all of these things are fluid, it is understandable to feel unmoored. 

We want to know we are in control of things, only rarely do we realize that Control is an Illusion. 

Walking past rose bushes one evening during this time, we stopped to admire the buds ready to bloom. I thought about the beautiful poem by Mary Oliver. A poem I often think of when the human calls of productivity and being busy beckon. 

Roses, 🌹🥀  Late Summer – Blue Iris 

 – By Mary Oliver

I would be a fox, or a tree

full of wing branches

I wouldn’t mind being a rose

in a field full of roses.

 

Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.

Reasons they have not yet thought of.

Neither do they ask  how long they must be roses, and then what?

Or any other foolish question

rose

 

Nature’s Shows

This article was published in The Hindu Open Page: The Art & Charm of Shoshin

If anyone has spent time watching pebbles make ripples across ponds, they will know what I am talking about. If not, I encourage you to take on your person a couple of pebbles and hike up the high hills and mountains, or cut through the pristine forests, in search of a puddle, pond or lake of reasonable size to cause ripples. Then, with the hand held flat, proceed to skip the pebbles into the water. The skillful amongst you may get the pebble to skip and skim the waters in the first few attempts causing beautiful rippling waves as they go along. I did not. Watch for the word skilled in the sentence – pebble throwing is an art that isn’t appreciated enough.

The son attempted a large stone throw and I held onto him lest he launch himself with the stone. Size matters: large stones and small boys could cause the cannon to fly with the missile. This is the kind of thing that would have made Newton come up with complex mathematical calculations to support the theory of pebbles and ripples, missiles and cannons, and extend it to comets and stars. We, on the other hand laughed, and substituted a flattish stone is his hand. Father and son threw pebbles and I sat watching mesmerized at the beautiful rippling effect it had on the water.

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It was a lovely bright day, one of those gems that present itself in the midst of a rainy stormy week. Much as I adore watching the storm rage around me, and the wind whip the bare branches to breaking point, it doesn’t make conducive walking environments. I tried. I went out for a walk during the raging storm that had flights circling the air space multiple times before attempting to land, and I must say that I was wetter than water. It took 3 days for my shoes to start feeling damp again. The daughter shook her head sternly and said I was going to come down with a pneumonia if I continued on this idiotic path of loving the rain. “Are Pluviophiles Pneumoniophiles?” I asked her, and told her to be crazy and feel the rain, love the rain and watch the rain. She watched me with love, and a strong feeling that I was crazy. Oh well.

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I raised my face upwards towards the sun and my thoughts drifted once again. As I sat there thinking of this and that, a beautiful thing happened. The mind snapped out of the mundane and omnipresent things that occupied it, and went into a lovely, meditative state. Watching the sun sparkles drift meditatively on the waters was marvelous. The world seemed to be throwing these tiny diamonds into the water for our enjoyment and they drifted obligingly with the tiny waves, Little shimmers bobbing up and down, dancing and shining in the sun’s rays, set to the perfect rhythm of the breeze rustling through the bare winter branches of the trees nearby. The earth was bursting with new shoots and moss lined pathways.

Ducks, coots pelicans and geese were bobbing on the waters in the distance. Birds were chirping and swooping -I enjoyed the swift elegant swoops of swallows as much as the impressive regal swoops of the hawks overhead. Some people were biking, some others walking. The clouds – white today, drifted lazily across the skies, as though they too enjoyed the sunshine and did not want to hide the sun. The air smelt fresh and clean with little wafts of eucalyptus and fir scented drifts.

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Nature’s shows are marvelous. For a moment I forgot about the to-do lists, the worries and tensions that a concept of a New Year brings, and enjoyed the free show in front of me feeling revived and refreshed in spirit with every passing moment. All my senses keen, alert and marveling at the wonder around me. I looked at the little fellow enjoying himself by the waters, and hoped that he would remember these simple pleasures as he grows and takes his place in this frenetic world.

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Edit: After I wrote this post, I saw this excerpt by Mary Oliver on one of my social media feeds: it is from the book, Upstream, and I look forward to reading the book, but this piece of writing spoke to my heart (bolding my own):

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatia . Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones-inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones-rosemary, oregano. Given them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves, and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

My hope is for everyone to savor a moment like that every now and then, to keep the capacity to wonder alive in us. The beauty of Shoshin.

The Degree of Shoshin

I wonder sometimes how the brain works. I mean, some references make us link to something else across the bridges of time and space where no ostensible link exists. Was astronomy the link? But that seems weak given that I ogle at the stars every opportunity I get. Could the 12 degree landing of Insight be the link? But the slopes that my mind linked to were at a 11 degree incline. And we were very proud that our little corner of the world could provide just the right 11 degree slope too – that is why I remember the incline so clearly.

Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maybe it was something to do with the specific angle at which the Insight can land on Mars that brought back memories of a trip to the Radio astronomy center in Mutthorai in Nilgiris – who knows?  The radio astronomy telescope on the slopes of the Nilgiris was magnificent and awe-inspiring. It still is. I remember hearing that the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) had scoured plenty of slopes in India and this humble village was deemed just the right one to capture radio waves. It had the right level of incline(11 degrees), minimum light pollution at nights, and we were proud of our unassuming Nilgiri hills for providing such a marvelous slope.

By Own work – Ooty Radio Telescope, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7463023

 

I remember going to visit the center with the father one rainy afternoon during the monsoon season. We often piled onto his scooter that the kids had lovingly nick-named Street Hawk given it tore through the streets with a ear shattering noise, even if we could run beside it. (I often wonder how it must feel for someone who goes to India for the first time from a country like the US or Canada, and sees a family precariously making their hazardous way through the haphazard traffic – obviously uncomfortable, but looking joyous and confident. Even cars here seem so cranky – “departing lane, departing lane” it goes on like a parrot on caffeine. Fine – relax! Talk about sticking to the straight and narrow path – sheesh kababs.)

Anyway that is how we toured the Nilgiris during our school holidays. We would start out on a supposedly clear day, the brother standing in front, his feet making sure not to come under the brakes foot pedal, the sister on the pillion seat, and self squashed between the driver’s seat and the pillion seat, my face turning a ninety degree angle to make sure I could breathe, and off we would go on our adventures. Sometimes, our Street Hawk could not quite pull up the intense slopes of the Nilgiris such as the Katteri falls, and we would all good-naturedly pile off, let the pater go up the slope on 1st gear, trudge up there, and pile on again. What was life without these little pleasures?

street_hawk

Invariably midway through our trips somewhere, the skies would attempt a volte-face: the sun would dip behind the clouds, a brisk wind would start around us, and the first raindrops would start. Sometimes, if the downpour got heavy, we would shelter at a random farm or village and nibble into the ample snacks packed for the trip, and head out again after the fierce downpour stopped. The dubious weather reports then were listened to with the amusing attitude of one indulging a child, and if it all went towards building the weather reporters’ confidence, it was time well spent was the general attitude. Ours was a forgotten corner of the world, and we loved it just the way it was. 

Off I went meandering around the countryside when I should have been sticking to the Radio astronomy tower as usual. The point is, I remember thinking as a child standing on that steep incline with the monsoon winds buffeting us from all directions, struggling to stay upright, and thinking for the first time how we must be standing at all. We are spinning on a very fast ball after all, gravity is all very well, but what would happen if Earth decided to just let us go for one instant? It was a terrifying thought, I clung a little harder to the pater’s solid hands and redoubled my wonder at how we exist at all. 

That is the beauty of space exploration isn’t it? It rekindles wonder. If retaining wonder in our day to day living is the mark of a meaningful existence to paraphrase the German philosopher, it is no wonder that we marvel childhood with its fresh perspectives, and its great capacity for wonder. The beauty of #Shoshin

“The highest goal that man can achieve is amazement.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe