Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Belief in things not seen

Today is the beginning of Ramadan, and to celebrate, the Muslim Students' Association at KU is having a Fast-a-Thon. For every person who pledges to fast from sunup to sunset, area businesses will give money to the Lawrence Open Shelter (a homeless shelter/food bank). Everyone, no matter their religion, can pledge to fast, and then to break the fast with the Muslim students at sundown.

I've fasted before, a few times for Yom Kippur, and with Unisia for Christmas. It's a surprisingly spiritual experience. There's nothing inherent to hunger that should be religious, but on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, going hungry forces you to constantly reflect on the mistakes of the past year, and the errors you want to correct in the coming year. It's a reminder that the physical need not dominate the unseen.

The narrative of the last few weeks has been about “values.” There's a battle brewing in Georgia, soon in Wisconsin, and eventually in Kansas, about whether science can tell us anything about events we don't see. (The Cobb County school district is putting a warning on science texts that evolution is just a theory, and no one has ever seen evolution at work. False, but an interesting tactic.) Things unseen have never been more visible.

First X-ray, hand with ringThat's why I was so fascinated to find this image in a gallery of anatomical art put together by the NIH. Roentgen initiated the modern era of non-invasive imaging by taking this X-ray of his wife's hand. The flesh dissolves, but the wedding band stays strong. Assuming he wasn't just shielding himself from a burnt hand, this is a touching act, sharing the moment of success, and commemorating the timeless.

The X-ray is a tool that makes the unseen visible. So are the Hubble Space Telescope and the telescopes at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, which found the first intermediate sized black hole in the galaxy. (The subtitle on the Nature article is “Seven stars orbiting the region identify the invisible object.”) Society exists on the knife's edge between things unseen and the known. Everything we do, from trusting voting machines to driving on the right side of the road, is predicated on our willingness to accept that certain things work even if we don't see them.

Science is a tool we use to help look over that cliff. It's a desire that the NIH exhibit above demonstrates is not a recent development. People have always wanted to be able to see into the body.

Science isn't dry, dull stuff, and it isn't so blinkered as to ignore the world around it. I think that Mrs. Roentgen's hand is both scientifically fascinating and artistically stunning.

In my teaching, I try to give a sense of this. I try to show that people do science because it's fun, because it's awe inspiring.

To get back to the election, and “values,” I'll just say that not being Christian doesn't mean you don't have faith. It takes spectacular amounts of faith to believe that humans are capable of making themselves more perfect, but that's the foundation of liberal democracy, and some strains of Christianity, too. When Madison and Jefferson and Adams were haggling over how to structure the new government of the US, they had already taken a leap of faith by trusting democracy. They lived in an age when only the rudiments of scientific knowledge existed, the Enlightenment was still just a glimmer, but they believed in science fervently. They believed that people – illiterate bumpkins, wage slaves and all – could take knowledge and apply it to decisions that would shape the nation. Jefferson refused to believe that God would interfere in human affairs, even went so far as to edit the Bible, but was willing to believe in human perfectibility. He was proven out ultimately, but people of lesser faith got shaken by the French Revolution.

The faith in human potential is what motivated the Apollo program, and it was what allowed the Allies to win the second World War. The president said “Build it. Make it happen.” And people did. You can't separate that from the “ask not what your country can do for you” spirit. The sense that people are capable of great things is a faith that progressives share, and that conservatives lack. Conservatives believe government is the strong father figure, that it's role is to curb and punish unacceptable behavior. Progressives believe in the nurturing mother government. Punish if necessary, but try to channel the bad energy to a good cause. Channel the fear of the Soviets to a desire to achieve peaceful excellence in space. Plant Victory gardens. When you lose an election, don't give up, the system works, and in a little while, you'll be back on track.