Posts Tagged ‘Wondering and Wandering’


Run, And Find Out.

June 11, 2011

“[Tell Science Stories] about nature that are true and complex… but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there is a deep and many leveled beauty in the world”

In that vein, let’s start with a story.

Two years ago, I was working as a substitute primary school teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching 3rd Class (8-9 year olds.) I found some time, later in the day, when the work their teacher had left them was done. So I looked at their Science books, and discovered that they had yet to do a science lesson. (3rd class is the first class where Science is its own subject.)

As I flicked through the first few lessons, my eye fell on the lesson which demonstrated that sound could travel through solid objects. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, something flickered. Had this been my first Science Experiment in primary school, 16 years ago? I remembered saying something belligerent, and insisting that I be the one allowed to go outside to verify the results. Sound through solid objects, I thought? Nonsense! I won’t believe it, until I hear it!

So I began, outlining in the simplest terms that sound travels from (for example) the teacher’s mouth to the childrens’ ears. No talk of wavelengths, or even vibrations. That wasn’t the point of this lesson. The point was the question.

“Do you think that sound can only travel through air? Can it travel through solid things, like the walls, or the desks? Hands up who thinks it can?”

The class was evenly divided. Not, as I had expected, along lines of ability, or curiosity, or history of reading. The division seemed random, each child forming their own opinion from their own past experience. I banged my fist against a desk in demonstration. It got their attention. “So,” I asked “When I banged my fist on the desk, the sound travelling from here to your ears?” I mimed a line of sound travelling from the point of impact, through the air to their ears. “No sound travelled through the desk itself?” I asked one boy to put his ear to the other side of the desk. As he did so, I spoke about how Native Americans tracked the movement of herd animals by putting their ears to the ground. Then, I banged my fist against the table again, and the boy’s head flew up in surprise.

“Wooooooah.” He exclaimed, putting Keanu Reeves to shame. “That was waaay louder than before!!!” Surprise to excitement in a moment. And there it was. A moment of wonder and discovery as his idea of the universe’s workings shifted. The other children saw that look of wonder, and mirrored it. Without warning, the classroom descended into chaos, with children placing their ears against desks and urging their neighbours to bang their fists against it. Laughter and gasps filled the room.

What happens to that wonder? It gets trained out of children. In a few short years, getting that enthusiastic about knowing and discovering is going to social poison to them. Some will simply keep their enthusiasm quiet, waiting for a time when they can go to college and surround themselves with other people who managed to retain their passion for science and knowledge. Most won’t. Most will find themselves with a slightly anti-science attitude, one of apathetic avoidance rather than outright rancor.

The Anti-Science Narrative isn’t a monolithic tract that creates extremist anti-science activists. Like so many similar stories, it is told in the form of isolated fragments. Each of the statements above will act on People in isolation, the words creating a collage of ideas never explicitly linked up into an Idea, but rather creating an implicit social context that reinforces a grand story that has never been expressed as such. The same is largely true of sexism and racism. The narrative isn’t presented to us as a manifesto, but rather as a collection of little pieces that don’t seem too bad alone, but thanks to our minds’ ability to pattern form unconsciously, we end up with a tapestry woven from these threads without realizing we’ve done it. Scientists (and other rational minded sorts) find ourselves constantly arguing against the irrational beliefs held by others. Homeopathy, prejudice, conspiracy theorists… the list is long. We try to change minds with facts. Surely, we think, that should be enough to win the argument. We go away shaking our heads in disbelief, knowing we were right and failing to understand how people can be quite so irrational.

It’s because irrationality has the Bigger Story. It has many threads that twist throughout popular culture and everyday discourse. Scientists are cold. Scientists are amoral. Scientists change their minds all the time, you can’t trust what they say. It’s only a theory. Gut instinct is a valid reason to do something. Scientists are uncool. Scientists are arrogant elitists who look down on “normal people.” People would rather elect someone who seems “folksy” than someone who seems “smart.” Scientists dabble in things Man Is Not Meant To Know and the result will be terrible Horror Movie Gene Spliced Monsters or conquest of mankind by Talking Apes.

That story is out there, and there is one way to beat a story.

Tell a better one.


Communicating the facts is vital, no doubt.. Lots of people change their behaviour based on facts. But there are those who don’t. There are those who reject science as a wordview because they see it as Cold. They see it as actively removing beauty from the world by a process of reduction, of breaking down the world into its elemental constituents without a care for the breathtaking majesty of the whole. And sometimes, even we scientists forget that this isn’t true. We reject metaphor and symbol as the weapons of the irrational, and get far too literal minded. To steal from Alan Moore: “We distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place”

Science has a gloriously beautiful story to tell. It’s not a story about a Grand Design perfectly executed, but rather the improv jazz masterwork of a quartet of Weak Force, Strong Force, Gravity, and Electromagnetism. It’s a story about subatomic particles dancing to that tune and building conga-lines of Carbon that started making more of themselves, mass producing the sheet music of life . It’s about Sex and Death, and how they let each new organism put their own ragtime riff on the genome they were born with. It’s a story about how one of these animals realized that they realized and started passing information to the next generation without the use of bodily fluids and starting building our own symbols with scratches on cave walls and arbitrary shapings of sound. It’s a story about layer upon layer of emerging complexity that defies any one mind to understand it. It’s a story about thousands of great minds giving their life’s work to perfecting their own tiny slice of human knowledge, hoping that someday, our picture of reality will fall together, and be beautiful all the way down.It’s a story about a children experiencing the wonder of discovery .


The story we need to tell of science isn’t one about how it’s right. The story we need to tell about science is one about how the scientific picture of the world is more breathtaking and beautiful that one with willful gaps in it. It’s a story that speaks to the curiousity and wonder we all come into the world with, and it needs to be told to those who haven’t had it trained out of them yet, and to the ones who still have it lurking in their memory. Changing the course of a story as told by a whole society is a terribly difficult task, but it starts with a few people telling a better story, moving one or two people ever so slightly. One story is not enough to overcome the inertia of society. It would take millions of little stories of wonder to do that. But science gives us no lack of source material.



Two Beginnings

April 29, 2011

Two things got Sami into trouble with his Mother.

Those two things were wondering, and wandering. He went wandering whenever he could get away from his chores, and he wondered while walking to and from his chores. He had poked and pried and explored every single corner of the Warren. The Warren was a maze of interlinked tunnels, some high enough to fit a human person, and some so small that even Sami, who was not yet a fully grown Goblin, had to crouch and crawl to get through them. If you were to follow the tunnels, you would find hundreds of caverns, like buildings along a street. The small caverns, some of them carved out by Kobs, some of them carved out by nature, were used by Goblin families as homes. The bigger caverns, the ones made by roaring underground rivers and ice flows in the far away past, were the centres of the goblin settlements, where they built their root farms, where they built their strangely on-top-of-themselves marketplaces and taverns.

The thing which Sami loved most about the Warren was the smell. The smell in the Warren was a lived-in smell. A lived in and not cleaned very often smell. It was a mixture of sticky goblin sweat smell, damp earth smell, and a mishmash of spices, roots and cooking meat, and some other smells that humans would generally prefer not to think about. Sami adored the smell. Like other Goblins, he found it comforting to be able to smell the people around him so strongly. The filth just added to the effect, meant the smell was real, made by real Goblins living real lives, right here beside him. In his mother’s burrow, he could smell her and each of his seven siblings. In fact, he could taste them, because the smell filled the air so fully. If you sat near the entrance hole, you could smell the burrows of the families that lived further down the tunnel. It gave Sami a great sense of community, to be able to smell his neighbours living just a short distance away.

Sami was a clever and curious gob, but clever and curious weren’t the virtues Goblins looked for in their children. They preferred cunning to clever, and everything else to curious. Sami’s mother always said that her mother always said that her mother always said that curiosity is even more dangerous for Goblins than it is for Cats. Sami had never seen a cat, but he very much wanted to. He was clever enough to realise that his curiosity to meet a cat was not the intended outcome of his mother’s advice, but curious enough not to let it stop his wondering and wandering. He wanted to see every part of the Warren, and he had seen most. Only one of Sami’s traits was considered desirable by his fellow Goblins. He was very good at sneaking. So good, in fact, that he was able to sneak around without other expert sneakers noticing his sneaking.

Today, however, was different. Wandering alone would have gotten Sami into trouble, but it was the second thing, the wondering, that was most dangerous.  Today, Sami wanted to see something that the Goblins in the Warren had not. After all, curious isn’t something many Goblins were.

Sami sneaked a furtive look around him, checking that no-one who would recognize him had noticed he was there, and slipped away down a rarely used tunnel…

2. Bump in The Night

Like so many ghost stories, this one starts with a child.


In The Dark.

Katie used to like the dark. With nothing else to see, she could fill the emptiness with whatever wonders she could imagine. But lately, the dark had been filled up by other things. Little sounds that spread out into the silence and became very big indeed.

Lying awake, long after bedtime, Katie listened to all the noises filling up the dark. She waited for one noise in particular, the one that started everything.


She started to fill the darkness with scary pictures of what the noise might be, and hoped that she wouldn’t find out if she was right.


Cryptozoological Dreams

January 17, 2011

I have been dreaming some deeply unusual dreams these past months.

I usually enjoy that bit of the sleep cycle that occurs when you wake up mid-dream and you drift in and out of waking and dreaming. While in that state, my dream recall is better and I get to write down what I’m dreaming about when I drift into awake without really waking up. It’s a fantastic palette of strange imagery and events that can inspire stories and games. Some of my best bits of strange storytelling have sprouted from this kind of dream.

But more often than in recent memory (by which I mean “they’re happening at all”) I have been dreaming dreams the likes of which I haven’t had since I was very young – the kind that leave you with that creeping feeling, an adrenaline feedback hum that tenses all your muscles and makes you want to leap for the bedside lamp. The kind that puts sentences in my head like “Do not go downstairs after having a nightmare – they are heavy, like treacle, and gather thickly at the bottom of the stairs to entrap you again.” Admittedly, this line has managed to generate a children’s story that is gathering shape quite nicely indeed. However, it remains an unusual character for my dreams to have.

As far as the “Meaning of Dreams” goes, I am not a fan of any of the “systems” out there. Since Freud, psychology has remained pretty quiet on the subject. Mostly because Freud made it up as he went along. But despite that, I’m still fascinated by the content of my dreams, and often wonder where it comes from. I’ve come to think of the content of dreams (rather than their actual psychological function, which remains difficult to pin down in psychology last time I looked – admittedly, I don’t look often… but I may have a gander now while it’s in my head) as not dissimilar from one’s internal monologue. When you honestly appraise your internal stream of consciousness, you’ll discover it’s a lot weirder than you think. Try sitting and writing literally every word that passes through your head, without thinking about it, commenting on it, or judging yourself for it. (Particularly when you are stressed or excited about something.) If you were to keep that as a diary on a daily basis, any casual reader unaware of the premise would probably think you’re slightly unhinged. It certainly reads the way many writers write pathologically scattered or crazy people. But the words that actually run through our heads on a constant ticker are not often organised or at all linear.  I find that the way in which your internal monologue meanders between ideas to have a not un-dream like quality to it. There are beginnings of good ideas or insights there, and on occasion, actual ideas and insights, but for the most part it’s simply an idle brain firing out arbitrary bits and pieces and trying to paint a picture over it.

And another thing…

I noticed this morning, shortly before I was jolted awake by the aforementioned adrenaline tingle, that dreams have what I can only describe as “the wrong emotional soundtrack.” Those bits of TV soundtracking that exist only to set the mood – the horror movie’s deep vibrating note of tension, the action movie’s rising brass… the “mood” soundtrack. In many of my dreams, the underlying mood of the dream in no way gels with the imagery and narrative that is apparently unfolding. The mood of the dream continues to be light hearted and merry as terrible and strange imagery surrounds you, and the waking happens because you become suddenly aware of the rats swarming out of drainpipes and leaping onto the stairs into your house as you climb them. And of course, they’re the damn terrifying stairs that don’t have risers. Rats have never been a particular fear of mine, but stairs without risers freaked me out immensely between the ages of Learning to Walk and Four, and my first home had a big set of iron steps up from the back garden (kind of like a fire escape.) So, good work, unconscious brain, for dredging up that imagery from the deepest vaults of childhood horror.

Other highlights include trying to escape from a zoo populated by Very Strange Animals. And I would swear  that I was on a perfectly benign tour of Something Indoors But Interesting moments before. Animals involved included a massive constrictor snake with the face of a androgynous person, a kangaroo that leapt very high indeed and then proceeded to have its already substantial feet grow to massive, shadow-coming-down-on-your-head-that you-can’t-quite-escape-from-as-it-descends proportions, and something lizardy with a leonine mane made of strips of golden scales.

And then there’s that dream with the Thing That’s Outside The Bedroom Door that only exists when you believe in it, and you’re okay because you know it’s only a dream, but it’s very fast and nasty so if you forget for too long that it isn’t real it’ll be able to get you before you get to the bedside lamp and banish back to imagination.

It really seems like my dreams are loving the “childhood horror” and “evil animal kingdom” genres these days. Which has been wonderful fodder for a children’s story. But still darned unusual fodder for my usual dreams.

This all inspired me to look back on Tweets I’ve made about dreams… highlights include:

“People using scalpels to extract eyeballs from their abdomens. Also, people vomiting snake hatchlings” Um… not for use in the childrens’ story.

“Dream Diary: “Of course it’s Sarah Palin, the squirrel is playing paddleball”” Um…. Your guess is as good as mine. The only thing I remember from that dream is that “soundbite.”

“Dream Diary: Airport Snafu leads to being at a High Fantasy Style Asian Temple during a service/blood splattery massacre”

“If dreams are rehearsals for dangerous situations, then my brain is primarily worried about Lions, Dogs, Orange Things, and Daleks”

The “rehersal for danger” theory is one fairly popular psychological theory for the purpose of dreams, but given the content of mine, I think my brain is either still stuck in childhood, or working in the extreme abstract. Unless you can feasibly add non existent animals and old schoolmates pretending to be Grimlock to that list. And the predominance of Highlighter Orange as a colour in my dreams which veer towards the scary is a really odd motif.


“That’s funny…”

January 4, 2011

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s funny…” – Isaac Asimov.


I’m  currently reading “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by Michael Brooks. While in search of some airplane reading I came across this and immediately decided I would like it based on the above quote, which opened the book.

The philosophy behind the book is encapsulated in that quote, and elaborated on well in the prologue – The history of science is filled with instances of spectacularly clever people having absolutely no idea what to make of a problem, and being utterly unable to agree on a solution. This state of confusion and bitter, bitter argument amongst experts precedes what Thomas Kuhn described as a “paradigm shift,” which occurs when someone ever more spectacularly clever comes up with a solution that shifts the way science understands the world utterly.

The wonderful nature of a problem you can’t solve is something many people, both scientists and non-scientists, [Tangent: Using the phrase “lay people” in this context is something I’ve seen a lot. That seems a little “priests and their flock” to me, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that construction.] forget or ignore. In the context of the scientific/academic culture, there is a strong resistance to being wrong (and admitting it.) That in itself is far from unique to scientists, but the scientific culture supports this strongly because of the positive results bias in publishing, and because of the nature of funding. There are many incentives to protect a theory you have championed against all attacks. (Not least one’s own personal ego – more than any of the other factors, the wider culture has trained us all to try very hard not to be wrong.) Also, the media is quick to pounce on examples of scientists being “wrong” and often these articles are used to promote, implicitly or explicitly, the idea that we should not fully trust science as a method for attaining knowledge.

But the puzzle, the mystery, the unexpected question… I love it. One of my favourite moments in my own academic history (short as it is at this point) was the first instance where my research threw up a result that was exactly backwards from what I had predicted. There was fear, there was panic, and there was creative cursing that would have given Spider Jerusalem a run for his money. And then there settled upon me an entirely different emotion. A mixture of excitement and calm. Adrenaline and Purpose. And it was fantastic.

After all, isn’t that why science captured my imagination in the first place? I wanted to answer questions about how the world works. How boring would science be if it all fell the way theory expected? If it did, every scientist would move quickly from bored to unemployed. It’s when the questions come up that you really get to be a scientist, trying to explain what you have seen and figuring out how to follow up on those questions and answer them.

Suffice to say, I’m really enjoying the book at the moment, it’s celebration of the unexpected questions and the mysteries that still remain. Because mysteries are fascinating on a primal level. The goal might be complete knowledge, but the motivation? It’s the chase. It’s the thrill of unearthing the unknown. It’s the fantastic feeling that you are working to discover and understand things that no-one has yet.

And it’s a pretty good feeling to start 2011 with. Here’s to a year of getting it wrong, the unexpected questions that throws up, and the thrill of trying to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw you didn’t know you were missing.