different ways of peeling an onion

This is my first reflection on the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, exactly a month late:

After the last meeting session, I felt an inexplicable sadness.  It wasn’t until later that I recognized the feeling as one I used to have often, during my freshman year of college, when I was a music major.  I often felt this sadness of withdrawal after performances, especially after performing with my string quartet, which was my favorite kind of performance.  Coming off of such an euphoric high– performing chamber music is an experience that barely allows itself to be shaped into images, let alone words– I would often sit in the dressing room after a concert, at a loss.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I couldn’t fathom just going on with life as usual.  I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time.

I was so sad that the meeting was over.  I know it might sound silly, but these meetings really are important events for me.  They are largely responsible for the momentum of my career and my love for science, as well as inspiring my general outlook.

Being Valentine’s Day, many of the sessions talked about the evolutionary basis of love, which I think is glorious.  The unraveling of such abstract things as emotion, the mapping of emotions and senses and feelings to neurons and regions of the brain, the ability to talk about things like love and compassion in dispassionate terms, makes them more real to me, not less.  The reducing of nature to its mechanical parts and describing them dispassionately makes everything more beautiful to me.

A lot of people disagree.  For them, to study such sacred things as love by reducing them to their biological mechanisms and evolutionary origins is to ruin the beauty of the intangible.  I can understand where they come from.  As a music major in college, analyzing scores and breaking apart symphonic structure seemed at times to diminish the beauty of what actually occurs between a musician and her instrument or what actually enters a listener’s ears.  But there are different ways of peeling an onion.  Analyzing a musical score and identifying its structure is only one way to understand a piece better.

There was a Mozart concerto that I played in college and worked on for an abominably long time.  Not because it was technically difficult, but because for all the time that I spent on its theory and technique, there was something about it that I just wasn’t grasping.  I practiced this piece for months and months.  I knew its structure and its skeleton inside and out, but I didn’t know what was inside it.

It was very slowly that I began to glimpse the soul within it.  For a few weeks I could see just a glimmer of what might be there.  Then one day, after spending several hours working on it, my practice centered around one particular passage, then finally one particular measure.  I circled and circled around that measure, trying to find an opening.  Knocking repeatedly on the door of one particular note.  Finally, that one particular note let me in, and I discovered the world within it.

On LE I wrote about my baptism, its preciousness to me as the one pure beautiful thing I held on to at the core of my Christian identity.  As a musician, that particular note, that particular measure of that particular concerto was the same kind of precious treasure.  The world within that note became for me a landmark, the core of what I knew music to be, the thing that I knew I could always reach back to when I needed to remember.

In science, just like in music, there are different ways of peeling the onion.  You can dissect and over-analyze phenomena to the point of killing them.  Or, after you have uncovered their skeletons, you can discover the world within them.  After you have dissected a cell or a neuron, you can knock on the door of its understanding and hope that it will let you in.  And every layer you uncover is bigger and more magnificent.

Science is my thing of beauty.  My life is scattered with landmarks that are precious to me.  Like my baptism was, and like the world within that one note of Mozart, science has left landmarks and gems.  The things of beauty that I see in science are no less than art and music in their insight and inspiration.  And as a science educator, one of my greatest hopes is that my students will discover these landmarks for themselves and experience what it is like to peel the onion of science for the first time.


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