the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

with 3 comments

Here is my first podcast in the new series, which I hope to continue with into the future, having worked out a simple format.

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

Hi, my name is Stewart Henderson, and this is my introduction to fountains of good stuff, a series which will explore all sorts of things we’re learning about the brain, the galaxy, the past, the laws of nature, the strange behaviour of humans, and anything else that happens to take my fancy and which I think may be of interest to, well, somebody out there. In my fantasy world, I’d love to be constantly immersed in all this good stuff, learning about it, reading about it, talking to clever people about it, picking people’s brains about it, arguing about it, and just generally wallowing about in the stuff. Okay, with a dollop of sex thrown in occasionally. It’s a kind of lifelong learning thing, because you know, you’re never too old to learn, and learning is the best way to keep you young and enthusiastic, and to maintain the plasticity of your brain, apparently.

Now it just so happens that I myself am very very old, so I think it’s most appropriate that I should be presenting this ‘fountain of youth’-type series which I’m hoping will flow on and on and on unto oblivion, you know, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. And I’m hoping you can follow me along the downward spiral. Should be fun, n’est-ce pas?

So what’s the purpose of all this? Well, in my dotage, I’ve become very interested in knowledge, in finding things out, and also thinking about how we know things. Not in a philosophical way, but in a naïve, childlike way – a sense of wonder, often confusion, sometimes excitement, and sometimes skepticism. And maybe, this is philosophy, I don’t know. It seems to me that, as I get older, I become almost panic-stricken about how little I know about anything, as if I’ve wasted my life, or as if haven’t sufficiently explored and exercised this amazing thing I have inside my head.

There’s a funny story told about Pliny the Elder, a great Roman intellectual who had a servant follow him around all day, reading to him from works of natural history, the science of the time, so that when he was in his bath, sitting on the dunny, or at the dinner table, none of his time would be wasted, he’d be absorbing information during every waking hour. How he’d have loved the modern world of podcasting.

Of course, this is based on the notion of the brain as a great big bucket which you can pour contents into until it’s full up and you know everything, but the brain doesn’t work like that, and Pliny would’ve been well aware of that, he would’ve known that memory is unreliable, that we forget more than we retain and so on, but I can certainly sympathise with his hunger for more knowledge, perhaps in the hope that it would all somehow combine together in his mind, and even that his mind would transform it into more than the sum of its parts, like an oven does to the ingredients of a soufflé. Incidently Pliny, Jupiter bless him, was exactly my age when he died, overcome, so it’s said, by the fumes of Vesuvius, on the same day that it buried Pompei under its lava and ash.

Now where was I? Knowledge. I’m no scientist, in fact through most of my life I’ve been an arty-farty bludger type, but I’ve always been impressed, in fact in awe, of the achievements of science, and I’ve certainly always been interested in the questions science seeks to answer. What does it mean to be alive? Why do we sleep for so much of our lives? How did the world we live in come to be? What do we mean by ‘the world’? Is that an obsolete term or does it still have its uses? How is it that my pet cat has the same shape face as a lion, or a tiger? Exactly how is it different, and how the same? Why does my shit smell so bad, though not as bad as that of other people? Why am I so struck by the beauty of women, while noting that beauty’s infinite variety? How long will our species last? Is there life elsewhere in our solar system?

The number of questions is infinite, of course, or potentially so, and some of these questions we already have answers for, though there may turn out to be better answers, and there are some questions we’re close to finding answers for, and some questions that are unanswerable, or badly framed, or not worth worrying about, or too much of a worry. There are questions we can answer in a jiff via Wikipedia, and questions we wonder if anyone has ever asked before.

Whatever the questions, they all have something to do with knowledge, and it seems to me that science can always be let in to lend a hand. I don’t think science is anything mysterious or scary, it’s simply the way to knowledge. At least, the knowledge I’m interested in. Science is whatever generates reliable knowledge about the world. I’ve heard people say that ‘science doesn’t know everything’, as if science was a person, probably male, obsessive and slightly mad. They say this as if they think this science bloke is getting too big for his boots and needs to have a wadge of humble pie stuffed down his throat. But if you just treat science as an attempt to arrive at reliable knowledge, you’ll see how absurd this statement is. People try to arrive at reliable knowledge because they don’t know everything. And I would say that the vast majority of scientists are happy to admit that they don’t know much about anything. That’s what makes it such a challenge and so much fun, that there’s so much to learn and so much to think about. And if you can think of any other approach to knowledge that is of any use at all, please let me know, I’d be fascinated.

I know some philosophers say there’s no such thing as the scientific method, and I agree. There’s nothing you can point to, or write down, or put into a formula, and say, there’s the scientific method. I think of science as using an open-ended set of methodologies, each one more beautiful than the other, for arriving at reliable knowledge. They generally involve a lot of prior knowledge, a fair degree of creativity, and a balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. Now, I think I understand the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection. I can’t say that I fully understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I know enough about it to be pretty sure that the methods Einstein used to arrive at his theory have pretty well nothing in common with the methods of Darwin and Wallace. In fact I’d say that even Darwin and Wallace arrived at much the same theory using different methods, according to their different natures and experience. That’s the beauty and creativity of science, and there’s plenty of that around.

Science is essentially a way of life, and it’s the best diversion from the perils of self-absorption ever devised.

So I want to celebrate science and its achievements from my lay perspective, very much in the spirit of Bill Bryson in his wonderful book ‘A short history of nearly everything,’ and I immediately identify with Bryson when, in the beginning of his book, he recalls a text-book diagram from his school-days, which cut through the Earth’s inner layers, and the text told him that the inner core was made of molten nickel and iron, at a temperature something like the surface of the sun, and he asked himself – how did they know that? And still asks himself, as I do. How do they know that light travels at about 300,000 kms per second? How do they know that Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us apart from the sun, is 4.24 light years away? How do they know? Well, it’s not really a mystery, and I’m hoping, as maybe old Pliny did, that it’ll all come together in my mind one day. With a bit of work.

I won’t always be talking about scientific knowledge, though, and how we come to know things. I have an interest in history, in biography, and in religion, its psychology, its history, and its claims to knowledge and influence. I’ll be talking about important and fascinating figures in intellectual history, from Hypatia to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to Harry Hess. I’m doing it for self-education and for communication, so if you hear any of these talks, and think you’ve learned something from them or been stimulated by them to learn more, I hope you’ll recommend them to your friend. And some people, I hear, have more than one.

So that’s my introduction to these fountains of good stuff. I hope it wasn’t too discombobulating, and I’m hoping that one day, if I get rich, or meet someone who’s a techno wizard with a bit of time on their hands, that I’ll be able to add a few bells and maybe even a whistle or two, to make it all sound really cool.

Meanwhile, I hope you tune into my first fully gushing podcast, which will be about dolphins and their brains. See you then.

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Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2012 at 1:15 am

3 Responses

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  1. its late , I´ve made a note..I will read all you can tell me..I think Pliny realised that the acquisition of knowledge prepares you for death, although in my case I ´working oin a novel hoping it will influence young people and create a new age of chivalry..What a dreamer…Mais..look at engels and marx, rael mess they made..but it happened..the idea.Paul OGarra zanadu101@gmail.com

    paul ogarra

    December 3, 2012 at 9:20 am

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m not sure about knowledge preparing you for death. Death’s just death, nothing really prepares you for non-existence. Anyway, drop by again – when you’re less tired?

      luigifun

      December 4, 2012 at 5:08 pm

  2. […] that ‘criticism’ in my introductory ‘fountains of good stuff’ podcast, transcribed here, but I feel the need to go further in dealing with this odd line of attack, because it annoys the […]


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