Friday, March 04, 2016

Finding meaning in life ... even in the lab

I read the following lines, re-read, and spent some time thinking on "the difference between staying and going":
I think that’s the fundamental difference between a plant and an animal, is that if an animal doesn’t like where it is, it can get up and move away. Plants have to stay there and take it. There are a lot of other differences between plants and animals of course, but I believe that seeps into everything about how different they are and I believe that I can look around me and see the things that stay. Better than a person who hasn’t devoted themselves to the same activities I have. I believe I know things about what it means to stay and endure and watch and grow. And I wouldn’t trade that for any other life. If everything I’ve done only brought that to me, if that was the only reward for everything I’ve done, then it would be worth it a hundred times over. You can do it too you know, look around you and think about the things that stay. And when you walk away, they’ll still be there and night will fall and rain will fall and the snow will melt and … in your mind you can inhabit another life and that’s the ultimate transcendence of yourself.
It is a wonderfully simple philosophical statement on life by merely reflecting on that one difference that plants and animals display between staying and going.  And what a contrast to Albert Hirschman's "exit" option on how we humans vote with our feet.

It is from an interview with Hope Jahren, who is:
an accomplished scientist and a tenured professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in Honolulu. She has received three Fulbright Awards in geobiology, and is the only woman to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences.
Jahren has many observations in that interview, on matters that are far beyond the sciences.  I suppose that is the quality that real thinkers have.  Consider, for instance, some that I often end up quoting:  Nabokov the butterfly specialist and a humanist/novelist.  Steinbeck the marine biologist and a humanist/novelist.  Feynman the physicist and a humanist.  Russell a mathematician and a humanist.

Jahren's comments reminded me of Feynman's "the pleasure of finding things out."
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
When Jahren talks about her "a deep affection for trees" she is referring to more than mere trees.  It is the awe and the aesthetic and mystery and excitement and everything else that Feyman referred to, and more:
I don’t think they love me back and I don’t think they know me, and all that kind of stuff, but I love oak trees because there’s pretty much a species of oak that can live almost anywhere. They just seem so indestructible, and they just have so many things figured out that we don’t, like how to live on the planet for 100 million years without substantially wrecking everything or wrecking themselves. I wonder if we’ll be able to go 5 million more. So in some ways I feel like I can transcend all the stuff that human beings worry about, each other and money and how men and women treat each other, and all that kind of stuff. I feel like I can transcend that by looking at a being that figured it out.
A sincere scientist is as much into understanding what this life is all about just as a sincere humanist is.  There is that something that transcends what we see, and to inquire into that makes life absolutely meaningful.


Anne in Salem said...

Huh?? I understood one of the quotes, the one about appreciating flowers on a cellular level. Transcending all the stuff that human beings worry about? What does that mean? And she's going to learn the answers by staring at an old tree?

I agree with part of the first quote as well. I wouldn't trade my life for any other given what I have endured and witnessed and how I have changed.

Way too cerebral for a Friday evening. Actually, way to cerebral for most days.

Sriram Khé said...

More "cerebral" stuff in the next post too ;)
I like Jahren's statement on the purpose of science: "It’s to feed the soul in the same way that art is." Research on trees--old and young--is not merely about the science itself but is also about those larger existential questions.

BTW, Jahren has an op-ed in the NY Times today, on an issue that should concern us all:

Ramesh said...

Loved the first few lines - I reread and spent some time thinking about it too. Very well said.

Going off on a tangent in a direction which wasn't the intent of the post. I would love to go and stay. Go to see the world. Explore. gather new experiences. Learn new things and then come back to stay.

I see that Nabokov has made an appearance in this post. I fervently hope that he will disappear and not come back for another one year :)

Sriram Khé said...

The Russians will keep re-appearing, my friend ... brace yourself ;)

Yes, there is a bit to be learned from "rootedness" ... and at the same time, we will also miss out on understanding the world if we never left our places either ...

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