Stumbling toward a vision of reality

Perhaps my most lasting experience during my term at Stanford in 1961 was attending a lecture on DNA by Arthur Kornberg, a 1959 Nobel Prize winner. I’d heard vague stirrings of DNA while at Penn but paid it almost no attention: The wretchedness of my chem and bio courses in high school (endless balancing of chemical equations in the first, tortured Latin nomenclature in the latter) had so completely blasted my interest in the study of the structured world that I managed to graduate from Penn without taking a single course in science or math.

That wasn’t easy to do in those days of heaped requirements, but I was a clever lad: In my freshman year I enrolled in symbolic logic, simply because it wasn’t mathematical. I skipped the rest of physical science by sidling through lots of anthropology.

Along with his lecture at Stanford, Kornberg brought out a big physical mockup of the helical DNA structure. I was riveted. So this was what biology is really about! I’d never realized that scientists actually did that sort of thing.

Though it took me a couple years after my return to Philly to get around to it, that awakening led directly to a summer (1964?) when I enrolled in catch-up courses at Penn: one term of biochem, two of organic chem (I was a disaster in the lab) and two of calculus. I aced them all with ease.

The realization of all this chemical stuff happening inside me affected my comprehension of my body. I could feel the blood coursing in my veins, listen in on what my neurons were muttering. 

At someone’s behest (probably my own), I toured the Richards towers at Penn, an architectural triumph by architect Louis Kahn, dedicated to biological research. Kahn had created a superb clutch of buildings but had shown little sense of the needs of experimenters. Technicians had to plaster the windows with aluminum foil to keep out the ravening sun, and much of the lab work overflowed into the hallways. It had the kind of chaotic, dynamic ethic I love.

At that time, I was working for little more than minimum wage as a reshelver at the Penn book store, and I schlepped from one place to another in ragged clothes. Yet, despite my wobbly-at-best background, I applied personally to Dr. Robert E. Davies, who headed the molecular biology department, for entry into his program.

To my everlasting amazement, based solely on my interest, he accepted me. Even in today’s looser academic times, that just doesn’t happen. Back then, it was close to inconceivable.

After a week of agonizing, I told him I had decided to stay at the bookstore (which I later came to run). On the surface, that’s inexplicable. Here was my one chance in life to become a nameable success, and I dumped it like a bowl of succotash. 

Maybe I realized that my mercurial and dilettantish approach to existence would not have worked in the structured environment of academic science. I have drive, yes, but a faulty gear shift. On the road of life, I’ve taken many rattling, unbanked turns.

But my interest in science has never flagged since; in fact, it’s expanded over time: I especially want to find out how my mind works (or doesn’t) and why. 

Some of the questions and observations that have come up along the way:

• If I wander ten feet off the main path in our limited Sullivan County woods – with which I have a 20-year daily acquaintance – then swivel perhaps 45 degrees, I become completely disoriented. Other folks I’ve known could be thrown in a padlocked gunny sack and still tell you which way was north.

• My eyes are crossed, which leaves me with double vision and little depth perception. I can’t lay a clean line of spackle or wallboard joint compound because it requires the ability to visually identify a 1/8 inch-thick applied layer. (I’ve watched Polish plasterers lay perfect surfaces for hours.)

• Preparing dinner in the kitchen, I reach for a knife on the magnetic holder and ram my hand into the wall. 

• I drop things I think I have a firm grip on and blunder into doorways.

What the hell is this all about?

Granted, none of it makes much difference in the broader context of life. For crap’s sake – some people have both legs shorter than the other! But for me, such personal oddities have two far-reaching consequences:

First, they send me into towering rages.

Second, they quiz me as to what combinations of physical traits and neural misalignments link all these errors and deficiencies?

Let’s consider the rages: As my family know all too well, the slightest impediment to achieving what I want to accomplish brings on a profanity-laced explosion. There’s usually no latency between cause and effect – not a tenth of a second lapse between asinine error and response – so no time to “control” myself; some inoffensive obstacle gets in my way and a Krakatoa of anger balloons like a mental airbag.

Our family doctor once suggested I may have Tourette syndrome. Listening to my repertoire of Anglo-Saxonisms and personalized bellows for annihilation, I might think so too – except that I don’t have the recurring facial tics or other physicalities that saddle Touretters. 

My wallpaper-peeling rants are almost never directed at someone else – it’s a magma of self-hatred overlaid by a lava-flow directed at the inanimate world: the hammer that mashed my thumb, the screwdriver that removed my knuckle-flesh, the awl that did it all.

And most of this biliousness is sung, a venomous litany set to patriotic tunes and old pop ditties, as though Lewis Carroll had burst into parodic vituperation while tumbling down a cliff.

So it’s become important to me to develop a profile of where and how my brain goes astray, in hopes that it might be helpful, not just to me, but to humanity in general – OK, not often “humanity in general.”

(Years ago, a young communal housemate on Baring St., one of the brightest people I’ve known, at age 13 described her even more brilliant younger brother as “physically stupid.” Yes. That identification fired all sorts of slumbering neurons in my head and has stuck with me.)

Most analyses of brain function have sprung from case studies of aberrant conditions, and with good reason: They’re like keys to the basement when you’re looking for a leak in the plumbing. Once you’ve found the leak, you can perhaps repair it, but more important, you’ve discovered where the pipes are, how they snake through the walls, and where they branch off. By the time you’ve turned off the flashlight, you’ve gained at least an understanding of your local water flow. In my case, I accumulated basic texts on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy and peripheral material on how the melded brain/mind/nervous system might work.

And when all that exhausts me, I liven myself up with forays into particle physics. Oh, I’m lousy at math (I could do that calculus, but I had not the least idea what it was good for), but I pretty much understand the abstractions.

I especially love the idea of infinite regression – one that most physicists and cosmologists seem to reject, if they consider it at all. The concept (well, my concept) is that there isno smallest particle or essential subdivision of existence.

Since the ancient Greeks, reality’s fundamental units has continually shrunk. Matter was first described as composed of four basic elements – earth, air, fire and water. Then Democritus added that there might be small, basic constituent units – which he termed “atoms.”

By the 19th century, as microscopes expanded the examination of the minute, cells were discovered and the equivalent of molecules posited.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we could seriously burrow into the “invisible,” breaking molecules into atoms, dividing atoms into a nucleus circled by electrons, splitting the nucleus into protons and neutrons, splintering the protons and neutrons into quarks.

String theorists go further, saying that all forms of physical stuff – from quarks on up – are manifestations of tiny vibrating filaments, threads so itty-bitty they make quarks look like King Kong. Do these strings really exist? That’s a long way from proof so far, but ain’t it amazing to us lay folk that anyone would think they might be the stop-the-presses groundwork of all physical reality?

But if we do suppose they exist, why should they be the smallest? The string theorists make reasoned arguments that their version of minutia lies at the final limit – just as did the champions of atoms, nuclei and quarks. What, if anything, is next?

One thing the particle physicists know for sure is that most of reality is… emptiness. Molecules consist of atoms looping around each other at a questioning distance. Atoms, often simplistically pictured as mini solar systems, feature itsy blips of electrons circling a nucleus way down there in 99.999999% empty space. 

Protons… Solid? Nope – three quarks, consorting. 

Quarks… Solid? You bet! – unless they’re higher manifestations of vibrating strings, sub-Barbie necklaces without necks to encircle.

Calculus developed within mathematics to manipulate the concept of the “limit,” an end-point that any numerical (or other) sequence tends toward but never quite grasps – just as numbers themselves or straight lines approach the end of the line but can’t reach the final station. (“Where’s your damned perspective going, Mr. Leonardo?”)

To me, the idea of ever-smaller smallness suggests that there may be no essential unit of construction, that every decreasing level of smallitude that we reach can be further re-smallified – again, and again, and again. Until it’s gone.

Looked at that way, the limit of “something” becomes… “nothing.” Which, philosophically, reframes the question of why there is something (the universe) rather than nothing (the unpopulated void). 

Over a thousand years ago, the Buddhists of India and Tibet crystalized a central tenet that translates roughly to “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” – active reality is the Janus-face of passive nothingness. These days, cosmology suggests that “something” exists because “nothing” can’t remain nothing; certain elementary particles pop out of nowhere, take a quick look around, then schlep back into non-existence, waiting for the next time.

Something is nothing; nothing is something… at the limit of infinity, one and the same.

Ain’t that somethin?

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