He would start at the blackboard, and behind his back they would roll their eyes and make faces as he droned on about partial pressures or infrared rays. Then one of them would see an opening and begin the game. He was helpless before it. He would say something like, “In nonshivering thermogenesis the body produces heat using futile cycles,” and one of them would raise a hand and say, “But why, Sax?” and everyone would stare hard at their lectern and not look at each other, while Sax would frown as if this had never happened before, and say, “Well, it creates heat without using as much energy as shivering does. The muscle proteins contract, but instead of grabbing they just slide over each other, and that creates the heat.”Robinson gets at something important here about the way science explains the universe. What’s particularly powerful about this passage, I think, is the sense it conveys that this repeated stepping-back along the chain of causation, this re-iterated ‘why?’ is simultaneously something childish—kids love this kind of game—and at the same time profound, and profoundly unsettling.
Jackie, so sincerely the whole class nearly lost it: “But how?”
He was blinking now, so fast they almost exploded watching him. “Well, the amino acids in the proteins have broken covalent bonds, and the breaks release what is called bond dissociation energy.”
Blinking ever harder: “Well, that’s just a matter of physics.” He diagrammed vigorously on the blackboard: “Covalent bonds are formed when two atomic orbitals merge to form a single bond orbital, occupied by electrons from both atoms. Breaking the bond releases thirty to a hundred kcals of stored energy.”
Several of them asked, in chorus, “But why?”
This got him into subatomic physics, where the chain of whys and becauses could go on for a half hour without him ever once saying something they could understand. Finally they would sense they were near the end game. “But why?”
“Well,” going cross-eyed as he tried to backtrack, “atoms want to get to their stable number of electrons, and they’ll share electrons when they have to.”
Now he was looking trapped. “That’s just the way atoms bond. One of the ways.”
A shrug. “That’s how the atomic force works. That’s how things came out—”
And they all would shout, “in the Big Bang.”
They would howl with glee, and Sax’s forehead would knot up as he realized that they had done it to him again.
‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]
‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.
There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.
Wednesday, 24 July 2013
There’s a nicely written scene early in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994) in which schoolchildren, learning science, taunt their teacher by replying to all his explanations about the physical universe with the question ‘why?’