Science is boring. Or that’s what I thought during my early years at high school, even though I achieved good marks because it was rote learning and I had a good memory to regurgitate the knowledge I was supposedly learning. In reality, I learned nothing; never appreciating the wonders of our natural world with all their mystery and complexity. Indeed, I couldn’t wait to drop the subject, failing physics (the only subject I have ever failed) because I stopped learning things off by heart as I just couldn’t get my mind to master the Laws of Motion out of a textbook. The pages of print I was supposedly forced to remember simply seemed unrelated to real life; indeed, all my science education had consisted of was so distant, so removed and so irrelevant to my daily existence that I made no intellectual effort to even try and understand it, much to my father’s displeasure as he had studied engineering and was something of a whizz at physics. For me, it meant nothing; far more interested in the realm of politics, the arts and literature not to mention sport all of which mattered in my fumbled attempts to understand the world I lived in. The creation of our world, this universe, just was – and for me, what was important was our history, our societies and the evolution of human endeavour. Our deeds, our minds, our ideas and thoughts. I was just so very ignorant about what role science played in shaping human destiny. It just never seemed to impinge on all these other aspects I considered more significant. But how ignorant I was!
Last week, I watched renowned physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss on a TV discussion program. I was excited by his eloquence at explaining what science was really all about; theories, facts and evidence, no longer abstract and obtuse, but real and relevant. Moreover, his brilliant communication skills in unravelling the complexities of how our universe came to be resonated with my simple mind making it all seem so accessible. I didn’t have to read a boring textbook to grapple with his concepts; he made it all seem so obvious and more importantly, so creative and enlightening. Salient facts about our very existence; the how and why of our walking on planet Earth and how our brains take centre stage in the quest to acquire knowledge about the universe we call our own. He has recently authored a book called A Universe From Nothing and I rushed to the library soon after to borrow this book; hoping I might be able to get my mere brain around some of his thoughts and ideas. Realising about the power of science was not a new revelation for me. A few years after leaving high school and travelling to the UK to work, I was employed as a researcher on a national science program, a question and answer format about medical matters, physiology, natural history, botany, physics and chemistry. As a researcher, myself and my other colleagues were mostly responsible for originating the questions and finding out the answers by picking the knowledge of expert doctors, zoologists et alia around the country and by phone abroad as well as reading lots of books, magazine articles and papers written by these eminent scientists. When I was first hired for this job, I had many misgivings; I had found science at school utterly drab and dreary and I reflected on whether maybe I just wasn’t clever enough to understand this scientific knowledge and hence found it wanting, so would I be able to handle the research required to do my job well. But there was something about the program idea that not only interested me but also offered great intellectual challenge; it was about questions and answers to do with the real world; the science of the here and now with an historical context and future destiny; so I embraced it with enthusiasm and wondered what it would portend. To say it was the best job I have ever had is something of an understatement; it changed my life in a way I just could never have imagined.
I remember reading a magazine article at that time by an American scientist Robert Ornstein who talked about the two hemispheres of our brain; the left side and the right side; the logical, analytical and rational albeit scientific hemisphere and the emotive, intuitive and creative albeit artistic hemisphere respectively. According to a 21st century Google website, this scientific explanation of our brain has proved to be inaccurate with an overlap of human action and thought across both hemispheres. Yet, for me, the few years I worked in science forty years ago, enabled me to tap into some aspects of my brain that had, I believed, hitherto lain dormant; unstimulated; unexcited and unchallenged. It was as if a whole new world opened up for me; I walked around zoos looking at animals in a way I never had before; wondering why the water in an elephant’s trunk didn’t just fall out when he bent down to drink or why a giraffe, with such a long neck, didn’t suffer from high blood pressure because the heart would have to pump so hard to get it up to his head and why penguins didn’t get frostbite from standing on ice all day and night. I wandered around botanical gardens examining leaves, flowers and trees with a much keener appreciation of their intricate and life giving design and even ventured into medical issues asking why some people had such bad tempers and others were so much more temperate. Why some men went bald and others didn’t and why and how could some people eat like a glutton and stay skinny while others just had to look at a cream cake and they poured on the pounds. On and on it went… what made the sky blue and the grass green and where did rainbows come from? Why and how could a mere mortal break a brick with his bare hand? A friend once asked me what I was ‘on’ during those years; as if an illicit drug would explain to him the sense of wonder and amazement I felt anew at discovering a life I never knew or certainly hadn’t appreciated before. The reality was I was seeing, learning and realising so much (and I hope understanding some things) about a world right before my eyes that I was blind to for so long. The incredible and miraculous world around me was my drug; in some way like David Attenborough when he communicates so excitedly to his audience what he’s learned about the world he loves; the way the physicist Krauss talked on TV last week; science is part of our living breathing daily existence and school just never even went close to giving me the high these passionate people do and the way I started discovering it for myself.
And therein lies a big problem with our education system. School too often seems irrelevant to our lives as adolescents; be it science, history, maths or the literary classics; sure, there are some subjects now like psychology, sex education etc that may seem important for some students; but according to a friend of mine who is currently a science and maths teacher at a Melbourne secondary college, science is still taught by rote learning maybe even more so than in our time more than four decades ago. Schools just don’t make learning and knowledge appealing; they don’t acknowledge the importance of ideas and thought however unusual, radical or unconventional they may be; they don’t appreciate questioning the world around us because it’s too confronting, even disturbing to their maintenance of the status quo. Just learn the facts of history; or science without understanding the why and how this or that happened; just accept what you’re told (and that’s the important word, really) and don’t dare question teacher authority or what their so-called knowledge is based on. If they got it out of a textbook, so must you! The reality is that much of what we call science – be it medical, psychological, philosophical and of course, political and economic, can be so inexact; the eminent academics et al who study these disciplines posit lots of theories that are often found to be spurious; these professionals can only guess at some of the mysterious workings of our world. Testing their theories for evidence and proof is what all rigorous research is really all about. But one of the issues for me is that far too often, teachers and of course many doctors and political pundits present their knowledge and perspective as if it’s all irrefutable; infallible truths that defy more profound questioning and analysis. Axioms in their own right. Oft they are victims of their own hubris; refusing to acknowledge their uncertainty and doubt. I remember researching the medical matter about why some people can stay skinny and others gain copious weight from eating the same foods and while the experts I consulted could tell me HOW metabolism worked in our bodies and that some people had what’s commonly called fast metabolisms and others much slower, they could NOT explain WHY this was the case. People just metabolised foodstuffs differently even though our physiology seems to be much the same for all humankind. And it’s also always been curious to me how some people can drink a lot of alcohol without obviously being seriously affected while others can consume just one glass and appear legless! It is one of the most mysterious aspects about our human make-up; and why? I certainly don’t know, but this variety is part of what makes us so individual and unique. There is still so much unknown about human brains and the world around us, so much to question, so much to learn, but recognising what we don’t know or are unsure of as much as what we do know is often not part of the school experience. We are told over and over again to just rewrite what’s gone before as if the past had all the answers. The truth is the present is still uncovering so much; but living with uncertainty as Krauss explained on TV last week, is not what many people want, and I believe, certainly not what our education system adheres to. But uncertainty underpins all science; all discovery, all creativity; it pushes our minds to seek the truth, to find some certainty and some clarity in this world of ours.
Too often, our education system forces us to focus on just a couple of academic areas – as we progress through high school we have to choose between the humanities, arts or science and maths; so part of our brain remains untapped and uninspired. How much could it benefit humankind if we could embrace all these studies; and how I believe it could help improve our world and human existence; sharing and cross fertilising ideas, knowledge and expertise across more academic specialities. Indeed, in my layman’s ignorant position I posit yet another theory; that challenging our own intellectual capacity across more and more boundaries can enrich our lives in a way we could not imagine. Mental boredom has been said to be a far more detrimental hazard to our overall health and well-being than too much work (of the right kind); for me, it resulted in depression and sadness as I could feel my mind atrophy and shrivel; a kind of inertia that was casting me headlong into despair. I spent many years feeling SO bored and trapped in jobs I found so unchallenging; just eking out a living because there was no other choice. And I can only compare that state of mind I had to the one I enjoyed all those years ago working in science (I was still reading literature, listening to music and pursuing other artistic avenues at the same time) when I was on a natural high because I wasn’t at all bored. How much worldwide depression is caused by intellectual boredom? Even more importantly perhaps, I contend, many people don’t even recognise they’re intellectually bored because they have never seen themselves as bright, capable and intelligent; and sadly, neither do many in the educational and medical profession in our societies. There was a film made in the late 1980s called Stand and Deliver based on a true story about a group of senior high school disadvantaged students who were all heading for failure in the educational stakes, particularly in math. These students came from troubled and dysfunctional families, trapped in poverty with little commitment to hard work and even less self-belief. What happened to these students as the year in math played out was truly remarkable; thanks to their teacher and a school who supported him. By sheer hard work, dedication, effort and some psychological understanding, he turned these future misfits into successful young boys and girls who excelled in the subject they had once hated and failed dismally. He inculcated them with a strong belief in themselves; in hard work, study, discipline and effort and recognised there was really no human being who was innately dumb. He was so positive when others before him had been so consistently negative to the students that the students had become negative about themselves. They had written themselves off as failures, too; just as the broader society had done. But he completely changed their lives. It was one of the most inspiring movies I have ever seen and as with much of my reflection(on past success at work,) soul searching and learning to stay positive when most others had written me off too because of my mental ill health 30 odd years ago, the film did wonders for my own personal disposition. For me, our minds are absolutely paramount in determining not just our intellectual well-being, but also our psychological and physical well-being. At least, that’s my theory as it even affects what and how much we eat, how much we drink alcohol and take dangerous drugs and a myriad of other social ills.
Of course, there are many other complex factors that determine how we live and function; but using our minds to the full or at least trying to stay enlivened and inspired and challenged intellectually is for me a fundamental and key aspect to living a fulfilled life. We’ll never know what we’re really capable of until we try! Expand, explore and experiment with yourself, energise your intellect as often as you exercise at the gym or indulge in the brisk morning run, reach out to others and the great wonders of our amazing world! You don’t know what might happen or what you could do! The unexpected is often the keynote of joy.