May 27, 2009

Opening Directly into Starlight

While Margaret Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead has now come vividly to life in Afghanistan, and some here at home some are arguing that being female is a disqualifying bias for a Supreme Court nominee, the quieter work of pushing awareness forward goes on. 
Last week I went to a lecture given by Dr. Patricia Burchat, an experimental particle physicist and chair of the Stanford Physics Department who also studies antimatter at our local linear accelerator in her spare time. Dr. Burchat works on and thinks about interconnections, and is particularly interested in figuring out the make-up of the fundamental constituents of the universe, a subject about which she says we have "vast ignorance." She explained in her lecture the processes used to determine how much of what is out there is out there -- how much luminous matter, how much dark matter, and how much dark energy -- and the research being done to find out what the what is made of. 
So far, based on how we currently measure, we can surmise that our universe is made up of about one-third visible/knowable stuff and invisible-but-reacts-to-gravity stuff, and 70% invisible, almost immeasurable, pulls-the universe-apart stuff. Also, space itself is like an ever-expanding gem-studded Slinky, and our planet a rhinestone stuck on for the ride. 
On the same day as Dr. Burchat's lecture, IBM officially announced that it has developed a new software (System S) that analyzes disparate data sets concurrently, in a stream, allowing researchers to quickly track the interconnections between things like financial data, current events, and weather patterns...or gas clouds, particle movements, sun spots, and cell phone disruptions.
Contrasting these advances in human understanding of understanding itself with, say, the Taliban's wholesale elimination of education for girls, or the rejection of the idea of evolution, or the push for hetero-only marriage, makes me think about whether we define reality correctly, or whether that is a subject about which we have vast ignorance as well. 
Or perhaps these contrasts just highlight the push-pull of comprehension. It often seems (from my own narrow perception) that what new knowledge can be comprehended by some will be comprehended in the here and now, and ideally be comprehended later by many more, and what old knowledge is comprehended by many now will be questioned by some, and ideally reframed, later. But its always a fight. 
I just don't know why its a fight. I mean, I don't comprehend why the infusion of new knowledge about humanness (like that women can have intellectual heft, that information can be poured into a stream of interconnection and be clearly understood, that educating girls has positive practical impacts, that marriage can be defined as a commitment beyond parenthood) is met with resistance at all. Ever. 
Surely this resistance has a purpose, but what is the overall purpose? Preservation? Some inherent aspect of evolution? Noise making? A time-allowance to express emotions about change? A desire to hold on to one's own inch of turf? A fear of offending a vengeful god? 
I can imagine that all of those forms of resistance are, for those resisting, quite valid. 
But in truth, I do wonder how much all that resistance matters...if after all we really are just denizens of one of the billions of gems in a BeDazzled Slinky universe that is itself being pulled apart by vast amounts of weird, amazing, impossible dark energy.

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