Friday, December 18, 2015

A couple of excerpts from Pieces of the Plains, regarding microscopy.

If microorganisms could write, their story might also seem vaguely familiar to a work also laden with metaphorical baggage. With your lenses, you have fallen, Alice-like, into a round hole, and just as Alice-like, the results completely alter your perception of reality. At first, the denizens of this tiny world reveal no sense of purpose, no sense of direction, no awareness of past, present, or future, nothing that connects them to any familiar sign posts or behavioral traits by which we negotiate the realms of money, health, military adventure, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion. You do not belong in this realm you have just entered; you have no idea what processes actually govern its existence, what its inhabitants do for a living, or how they got there.  Only your education prevents you from deciding, like long-ago ancestors would have done, that they simply appeared spontaneously. Slowly, very slowly, your evolved internal wiring, established neural circuits, and past experiences, begin to re-assert themselves. You are, after all, a human being; if you have any power at all, it is to impose your will on nature, at least in terms of interpretation. They eat; they mate; and, they fight, just like I do, you think. Suddenly they sort themselves out into a pattern you recognize: thousands of them, all vibrating and smacking into one another, have gathered around an air bubble. Oh, you think; they need air; they want air. You have absolutely no idea whatsoever what they need; they are incapable of want. Your conclusion is fantasy. Five minutes have now passed.  What you have seen through this lens is an irresistible drive to impose your own guiding mythology on the natural world and thus believe that you have, in fact, also imposed your will.
But you cannot control what happens in this jar of grass, water, and time without creating a human work of art. You can kill everything with heat or hydrochloric acid; you can change the community makeup by adding a handful of rice or fish food; you can decide whether to let the water evaporate or keep it filled to a certain mark; and, if you’re really a masochist, you can try to isolate one of the community members in “pure” culture. But once you perform any of these acts, you’ve created something that would not have otherwise occurred naturally. The blasé ease with which you add that handful of rice mimics our approach to nature in general, whether it be mowing the yard, planting trees, digging a ship channel through the Mississippi River Delta, or burning Amazon forest at the rate of fifty acres a minute, year after year. Eventually the infusion culture will collapse, no matter what you do. Eventually there will be no more movement under the lens. The difference between your jar and the tropical forest is one of the big take-home lessons: you can start another jar, generating that mystery at will, but you can never replace the biological diversity lost when that forest is gone.

The epigraph from chapter 4, Through a Lens
But what’s to come of it?  Nothing, as far as I know: because most students go there to make money out of science, or to get a reputation in the learned world. But in lens-grinding, and discovering things hidden from our sight, these count for naught. And I am satisfied too that not one man in a thousand is capable of such study . . . And over and above all, most men are not curious to know: nay, some even make no bones about saying, What does it matter whether we know this or not?
—Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1715, in a letter to Gottfried Leibniz explaining why he is not training people to grind lenses.

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