Art and Science

Lately, Teacher has been working with me on dynamics.  Loudness is, of course, one of our universe’s seemingly infinite continuums.  The loudest loud can always be shouted down by something else; the softest soft can be softer.  An infinity stretches between.  Within the oeuvre of just one man, dynamics help create the delicate dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries, the puffed up national pride of the cannons of the 1812 Overture, and the emotional journey of a spectacular violin concerto.

The delightfully diverse and understated weekly newsletter Brain Pickings by Maria Popova is an exploration of the breadth of humanistic dynamics that has landed in my inbox on Sunday mornings for years.  As I was reading this morning, I realized why, especially lately, her work has been such a breath of fresh air in my personal information stream.

So much of our collective information stream is driven by absolutes: The Greatest, The Worst, The Only, The Right, The Wrong.  To me, entertaining the existence of those extremes is both exhausting and disheartening.  If you have “the greatest,” then what’s to look forward to?  If a person is “the worst” then what can redemption mean?  Increasingly, the prose I find worthwhile doesn’t provide answers to life’s greatest questions, rather it dances around data and, in the end, answers questions with more questions.  Brain Pickings does that.

I do understand some of the logistics of the alternative, the “twitter-verse.” if you will.  I have some knowledge of the biology of black and white, of the fact that stark categorization is a useful tool for humans as we try to make sense of the shades of gray that drive the real universe.  But as we develop our categories, we need to do so with an understanding of the limitations of our tools – a visual cortex that can only perceive a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, ears and noses that dogs would consider worthless, and tactile perceptions as unhelpful as phantom limb pain – these sensory limitations just scratch the surface of the reasons that dealing in absolutes is an exercise in hubris.

Humanism is about the journey.  We write concertos and poems, operas and novels, blogs and, yes, tweets.  We run marathons and we cut hair.  We create architecture, we paint cars and canvases and walls.  We harvest rice and beans and broccoli and goats and human hearts.  We stand up in front of people and try to make them laugh, and we hug our friends and we bond with strangers over catastrophes and shared experiences like earthquakes and lost love and cancer.

But at the center of our shared knowledge is questions.  Questions are the solution to the human equation – questions that meander toward more questions.  We started calling the solution “science” a couple of centuries back.  Popova’s newsletter, like Tchaikovsky’s music, is one of my favorite digests.

Thanks for reading.


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