Saturday, April 15, 2006

when it is seemly and when one is fit to receive

The title's from James Lovelock's The Ages of Gaia; Lovelock is the English tinker-scientist who developed the Gaia idea while at NASA JPL. The quote in full:
When I first saw Gaia in my mind I felt as an astronaut must have done as he stood on the Moon, gazing back at our home, the Earth. Thinking of the Earth as alive makes it seem, on happy days, in the right places, as if the whole planet were celebrating a sacred ceremony. Being on the Earth brings that same special feeling of comfort that attaches to the celebration of any religion when it is seemly and one one is fit to receive.

(I don't know enough to have a position on Gaia, for or against or inbetween, so leave me alone with your crystals.)

What strikes me about the passage, and about other scientist/science-writers' excerpts in a strange little MIT texty-anthology called From Gaia to Selfish Genes, is that it does not carry a sense of breakneck speed. It's also literary. True, it's about ecology, and as I noted in my reply to Michael, ecology writing is the one place I've reliably found science writing that's slow and poetic. But the excerpt I've read so far in this book are from the 70s through the early 90s, and they're reminding me of other, older scientist-writers who are, or were, not so much ecologists as humanists: Jacob Bronowski, Roald Hoffman, Carl Sagan. Speed is not the great mark of their work, I don't think. So I wonder how far this current sense of speed is simply a recent fashion. Frankly, I wonder how much of it is in imitation of Feynman, who has a very quick prose and the kind of urging-on feel you get from people who are extremely bright, the kind who are impatient with the slowness of words and people who are slow to grasp the obvious. But I have never gotten the sense, reading Feynman, that he was agog at the science. I don't hear what Midgley calls the "mad cheerfulness" of Dawkins and many other contemporary science writers. Again, fundamentally, he sounded to me like a humanist, with a profound sense of human experience, and a sense that there would be no point to doing science or anything else without it.

The mad cheerfulness is, to me, still quite appealing. I like it in Dawkins and Brooks; I like in in Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic, too. There's a springiness and a sense of every day a birthday, and that's altogether lacking in literary fiction, which seems to require misery.

I am thinking of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium, the lectures he was working on just before his death for the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in '85-86. They describe and support the literary qualities he thought important at the end of his life, and the five completed essays were on lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity; there was to be a sixth on consistency. Mad cheer is not one of them, and neither is naive delight, but the recent popular science I've read does certainly strike me as either quick, light, and alert to multiplicity, or ploddingly trying for those qualities. I read the essays long ago and don't remember them; I'll have to reread them now.

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