Walking Across America

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Andrew Forsthoefel. There was something about the way he listened and engaged with people that I instantly liked and made me curious about him. He had this way of drawing out of me and others around him the important parts, the parts we don’t often speak of with people we’ve just met. When I heard his story, I realized that he’d had lots of training.

One big important part for Andrew was what he learned while walking across the United States, from the east coast to the west coast. He wore out several pairs of shoes — five? six pairs? And he wore a sign that said, “Walking to listen.” He recorded conversations he had with people along the way.

When I listened to the part where he sees a bunch of young men ahead of him on the tracks, and he strides forward to talk with them, despite feeling a pang of apprehension, I couldn’t help but think of a similar experience described by John Muir, more than a hundred years before.

The part where he gets giddy with the freedom of the open road before him and starts singing is wonderful.

And the stories and advice and songs and gifts of the people he meets are also wonderful. And how he shares what he’s learned without hitting you over the head with it, because he’s still in the daily process of figuring it out, forgetting, remembering those moments of grace and beauty that he witnessed, was, and is part of.

I highly recommend the radio piece, “Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man,” about his walk across America.

n=1

[This is a post I typed up during the summer, after a talk at the Unitarian Church by astronomer Dr. Michael West. This post only peripherally touches upon his discussion, at least at first, but it was definitely prompted by it.]

I was chatting with biologist Ola Fink —  who studies ephemeral creatures, the mayflies — and she mentioned how one biologist she knows is a staunch Episcopalian. A very literal-minded one at that. For instance, he believes in The Virgin Birth. When she had worked up enough courage to ask him how he could possibly reconcile such a literal belief with his training as a scientist, he answered, “n=1.”

In other words, for him, if something happens only once, then something we don’t understand could be going on. Even a miracle.

I’d never heard that argument before, and although I found it dubious, I also found it captivating. Dubious because you could say n=1 about anything that doesn’t make sense, and dismiss an investigation into the underlying mechanism. Captivating because… well, perhaps because the n=1 argument touches on what we can know and how we can know it.

Parsimony is the simplest explanation for something. The more simple and elegant the explanation, the more likely it is to be the right one. Parsimony is embraced by science. But sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the correct one. I’m oversimplifying parsimony here probably, not giving it the credit it deserves. Parsimony offers a great guideline for making elegant theories for how the universe works.

What can you say about something that only happened once? Well, not much… the sample size is too small to make any larger claims about how the world works.

But, according to Dr. Fink, one scientist actually went out to survey people to ask if virgin births occurred in the population. Okay, you might already be thinking, how could the survey tell whether people were telling the truth? Before, we cover that component, let’s look at some real life examples.

There is a phenomenon in biology called “parthenogenesis” in which a female essentially clones herself, giving birth to a female without ever having been fertilized. I have heard about this occurring in komodo dragons. (Perhaps people knew that the female was not fertilized by another komodo dragon because she was kept in captivity.) The sample size for parthenogenesis in komodo dragons is greater than one. Okay, but what about human beings?

In the survey, the scientist found many women who claimed to have had a virgin birth. Out of half of the women who claimed that, however, they had given birth to sons. Which doesn’t happen in parthenogenesis. The female always gives birth to another female. So clearly, according to what we know in modern science, people were lying.

But… whether a miracle occurred, or a metaphor, I still find this n=1 argument fascinating, kind of like Hume’s critique of induction: Just because the sun rose yesterday doesn’t mean it will rise again tomorrow.

What’s the word for climbing a mountain and looking from a higher perspective on the way something works, and then descending the mountain so you’re back in it? That’s the word I’m looking for to describe a kind of logic that transcends parsimony and induction. Is it deduction? Or something else? What about wisdom? If you know a word for this, let me know… for now, let’s call this wisdom of the hills, or misdom. Mountain wisdom. It’s got a touch of the mystical in it. Hill climber wisdom.

Wisdom is another discussion. Is there a concept of wisdom that is not anthropocentric? It seems that wisdom is almost always associated not only with knowledge but with compassion, which includes but is not limited to human beings. Kind of like the recognition Michael West touched on today in his talk that we are made from the ashes (or atoms) of stars, and that when we die, we diffuse back into the environment. We aren’t separate from it.

N = 1. Whenever there’s something that only happened once, it’s hard for science to tell us much about it. I’m not saying I believe in a literal Virgin Birth. But there’s something to the n =1 argument.

Two book recommendations from Dr. West’s talk:

Sum, by David Eagleman

Accepting the Universe, by John Burroughs

And a concept coined by Eagleman:

“Possibilianism”

From the NY Times article by Burkhard Bilger:

Eagleman was brought up as a secular Jew and became an atheist in his teens. Lately, though, he’d taken to calling himself a Possibilian—a denomination of his own invention. Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, he told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—“essentially an alien computational material”—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. “And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.” Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in “Sum,” as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? “Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,” he said. “As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”

Two questions to ask yourself, your students, and your friends every day

My friend Kyle has a contagious delight in the natural world. For instance, when he described how bumble bees co-evolved with daffodils, I shared his wonder. The bumble bees’ wing vibrations cause the daffodil to tremble, and their whole bodies get dusted with pollen when they enter the flower.

He asked two questions of his students at the end of each day:

1. What did you learn today?

2. What was your favorite part of the day?

Today, I learned that the maple tree in my backyard has buds exceeding one and half inches in height. I predict that the leaves unfolding from the larger-than-expected buds will be larger than I would have expected prior to seeing the buds.

My favorite part of today is right now. All of the moments of the day are coming together as I reflect on the moments: a thoughtful sermon by Linda Simmons about the anthropic principle and a story of how she heard of another pronoun for an animal, “kin” instead of “it”, and how instead of her friend looking at her like she was crazy, the friend got it; walks with friends (the first walk with friends in person, another on the phone); enjoying a glass of red wine, and sitting down to write.

This poem was sent to me today by Harry Haines, a man I never met but whose wife I met in a library in Errol, New Hampshire. I overheard her talking about poetry, we started talking, and she told me that her husband sends out a poem a day. I’ve been enjoying daily poetry ever since that fortuitous encounter in 2010. It’ll be five years this summer.

Swallows
by Leonora Speyer

They dip their wings in the sunset,
They dash against the air
As if to break themselves upon its stillness:
In every movement, too swift to count,
Is a revelry of indecision,
A furtive delight in trees they do not desire
And in grasses that shall not know their weight.

They hover and lean toward the meadow
With little edged cries;
And then,
As if frightened at the earth’s nearness,
They seek the high austerity of evening sky
And swirl into its depth.

 

I love this poem because it is inaccurate. Or rather, accurate in its inaccuracies. “A furtive delight in trees they do not desire/ And in grasses that shall not know their weight.” Basically, they are flying about, enjoying flight itself. Do the trees and grasses desire to get closer to the swallows, to know their weight? Of course not. They are trees and grasses. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking of unrequited love. Watching people falling into something they love joyfully with their whole being, it’s easy to fall in love.