Tuesday, August 21, 2012

There is a grandeur in this view of life

This post has been sitting in my drafts for about three weeks, so it will probably go on a different tack than I imagined when I started.

Short version of this post:

I really, really like science. Like, really.

Long version:

When I was young, I wanted to be an artist, or a scientist, or an aid worker.  Of my vague career plans, the only one I knew the name for was 'artist', but the three played roughly equal roles in my imagined futures.

A few weeks ago I finished my degree in zoology, and while I still haven't given up the idea of doing a health science conversion course and running off and helping people (I'm only twenty-two! I have time to do a million things yet!), the idea of being an artist of any description has fallen by the wayside.  The main factors that tipped my hand at the time of making my choices for the CAO were "I probably won't get an A1 in Art, waa," and "Working on a portfolio for art college puts me at risk of not geting A1s in other subjects, waa."

It wasn't just that I wasn't good - that's a matter of work - but I didn't think I could shine. Worse, I didn't think I could contribute. I like to feel I'm leaving things better than they were before - it stems from a combination of helpfulness and insecurity. I didn't think - I still don't think - myself capable of creating something that would change people's hearts and minds and make them see something wonderful in the world.

At the same time, I spent fifth and sixth year falling in love with biology and physics.* I had always read books about nature as a kid, and genetics when I got a bit older, but this gave me more of a grounding in everything. My physics teacher was fantastic, but my biology teacher wasn't anything of the sort, and even that didn't do anything to stifle the thrill of knowing that this was how stuff worked. The fact that we could know these things was so quietly spectacular. If I became a good artist, I could help people see things a different way, but if I became a scientist, I could help people to see things that were there regardless of my part in it. Science only asks for your eyes.

The deciding factor in choosing to study science was that I could be helpful without having to interact directly with the people I'd be helping, because I was seventeen and neurotic and convinced that I would be awkward and people would throw things at me. Being crippingly insecure has worked out pretty well in the long-term though! Reading about what other people have discovered is wonderful, but doing my own research, even if it was my little final year project, is something else.

There are a handful of pieces of art that have made me ache inside. During my degree I got that feeling at least once a day. Both learning how things work and learning how people discovered that makes me happy in a simple, profound way. The first time I saw cells stained with DAPI under a fluorescence microscope was breath-taking. (DAPI is a nuclear stain, used for cells counts. It didn't tell me anything other than that there were cells there, which I knew to begin with. Didn't make it any less beautiful. We had to discover cells, and then microscopy, and then fluorophores, to get there!) My supervisor, who was showing me how to use the fluorescence microscope, was more concerned with the fact that the organelles I was staining for hadn't appeared on the other stains, but I was enraptured.

One of my favourite things about science is that it is not a body of work. It is an approach to the world, and it can be wrong, and that's not just fine, it's vital. All new art movements are a reaction against what's come before, but science builds on itself, discards what doesn't work and improves on what it can. I'm excited to start contributing to that. Even if every path I follow turns out to be a dead-end, I've eliminated one possibility and saved someone else time in working it out.

I'm not sure how I feel about tattoos of text - they can look well, but there's something a but too bald about them for me - but if someone demanded I get any phrase tattooed on my face, it would be "There is a grandeur in this view of life." That is probably one of my favourite combinations of words. Darwin wrote it about evolution, which I think is one of the most elegant theories proposed, and a great example of the simplicity of science - look at the world around you and see what you can make of it. I think this phrase also rings just as true if you take "this view of life" as being "the scientific method" - try to strip yourself of preconceptions, and based on what you can prove to be true, see what you can ascertain about the world. If it's true, it will be true whether or not you discover it, and whether or not it's believed. It won't need the right kind of eyes, and that's pretty wonderful. If I can uncover something new and true, and show it to people who wouldn't have known it otherwise, that will make me happy.

* I didn't take chemistry for Leaving Cert, and having done two years of it in college, it still doesn't hold the same place in my heart. I don't know why. It's missing some wonder.


Jessica Córdova said...

There is more wonder and transcendence in most scientists' hearts than in poets'. :-)

Forkis said...

How is everyone not astounded by at least one natural phenomenon all the time? LOOK AT ALL THE STUFF THAT'S HAPPENING.

A friend of mine told me once that when he was a small child, his response to just about everything was "That's amazing." His mum just thought he liked the word, until she realised he did actually find everything amazing. I think this is about the best possible attitude to have.

Sinead Mercier said...

Ah Jen this is wonderful. I completely understand how you feel about art and it's impotency, its futility. I'm delighted you've doing well and doing what you love while keeping the creativity too! Btw I swear I will get the bowtie I'm so sorry I'm just living all over the place at thee moment and haven't had a chance to get it!! Lovely blog btw, Best Sinead

Forkis said...

Aw, thanks Sinéad! I mostly use it so that I can talk to myself about crafts, I'm always surprised when people actually read it. And I am impressed and self-conscious that you read this far back!

I don't think at all that art is futile, I'd be quite upset if I heard one of my favourite writers was going to stop writing. I just don't that as an artist I could create anything that would be helpful on a large scale. Art tends to be individual projects, and science is largely small individual contributions that add up, so it's easier to be part of something significant.