I Am Not Inspired

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.’

Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memorium A.H.H

If sentimentality was measured in weight, there wouldn’t exist scales large enough to gauge Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous little adage.  As with most of those literary excerpts handpicked to become ‘inspirational quotes’, Lord Alfred’s couplet from In Memorium is effortlessly pithy, charming and soothing. To me though, as a supposed source of inspiration, it’s infuriatingly flawed. Really, it’s just crap.  I wish it were possible for me to say ‘screw you’ to the laws of quantum mechanics, travel back in time to 1850s London and deliver a precision karate-chop to the back of Tennyson’s bearded neck as he lowered his quill to the the page. Nothing against old Fred, but I’m sure he’d forgive my extreme measures if he knew how carelessly his words are tossed around today.

‘Better to have loved and lost’? Really? Let’s put it into practice then. Imagine you are handed the best ever chocolate-mint gelato cone the world would ever see. I mean, the best. Ever. One lick of this singularly perfect frozen dessert sweeps you off to a euphoric realm of sugar and dancing pixies. It is without question, the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted. You are so engrossed that around you the world slows to a blur and a hum. But, suddenly , a lose paver meets your foot and the sudden jolt bursts your scene back to reality and you watch, powerlessly, as that delicious icy scoop of your hopes and dreams escapes your grips and plummets down to the earth, splattering over an ant’s nest which has a dog turd on it. You stare at the scene in disbelief, completely shattered. Now, apologies for introducing such a morbid thought and I pray this never happens to you, but let me assure you, it hurts. It hurts like a bastard. One second life is but a weightless ascension to choc-minty nirvana and the next, it’s a sickening thud into the dirty ground of broken dreams.

Now, if you had never been handed this gelato, you’d have been as happy and content as before ‘The Incident’. You will have been blissfully oblivious to the agony of being robbed of what instantly became your definition of perfection. You’d suffer no lamentation, no desperate low – because there was no giddy high. The splattered green remains of the gelato covered in ants and dog poo is a much harder sight to bear when you know just how delicious and joyous it was. Without that knowledge, it would be little more than a typical spilled dairy product, which we all know is nothing to cry about.

Am I belittling the deeper wisdom of the phrase with a hypothetical smashed ice cream? Maybe. Well yes. But is lingering heartache and terminally-unrequited yearning a fair admission price to experience the dizzying thrill and passion of love but for only a brief, momentary spell. I genuinely don’t believe it is. No other thought can grip even the sturdiest mind and violently shake it into fragility than that of rumination – the dreaded ‘what if’ –in love or any other avenue of existence. It is of course just another human truth; about consequence, lessons, growth and Scrubs-style inner-monologues. But there’s no point trying to suture a wound with flimsy musings. The contradiction in what many interpret from Tennyson’s words only feeds the helpless, grasping feelings of frustration and injustice. It doesn’t make anything better. It only makes you want to time travel and karate chop history’s greatest wordsmiths.

Then again, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. I mean – the choc mint may be gone, but consider that in your state of despair you forget that clasped your other hand is a big scoop of vanilla caramel,  melting away, unseen and untasted…

Deep, huh.

Putting my cynicism and sarcasm aside, I truly do love a great inspirational quote as much as I love the combination of chocolate and mint in gelato-form. Great thinkers and writers are trusted teachers to me. I don’t need to have ever met them , but every word they’ve penned or uttered shines with the immeasurable value of their reputation and their proven wisdom. There’s a reason why great philosophers, writers and leaders command such influence over people, even well beyond their deaths. Their mastery of words and their insight into the human experience is timeless. One of my personal favourite phrases is: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life,” said by the brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle well over two millennia ago. Immortalising those words into life-affirming proverb is the fact they are direct from the mind of Aristotle: the man who studied under Plato, who studied under Socrates – a product of three formidable intellects and equally formidable beards.

However, with Tumblr and Facebook and Pintrest and the like, the realm of inspirational quotations has been hijacked by melodramatic teenagers with Instagram and first-world problems. Search ‘inspirational quote’ on Google Images and you’ll see nothing but self-help drivel scrawled over silhouettes and fake lens flare. Worse yet, you’ll encounter a famous historical quote, but it will be superimposed on a picture of a barefoot woman in a billowy dress standing on black and white train tracks. And spelled incorrectly. And credited to Justin Bieber.

Intelligence and wit that is applied with kind intentions, completely free of arrogance is one of the best qualities you can find in a human being. Little else is as admirable as an altruistic desire to teach, and to learn so as to teach. The only way we can learn today from the greatest teachers who ever lived is to read and understand the words they left behind, especially those that that escape the pages of tomes and stand out on their own accord, throughout ages. Unfortunately though, the idea of these succinct, inspirational quotes is now the domain of tumblr-keeping teens whose biggest crisis in life was that harrowing time their BFF didn’t reply to a text for like, two whole hours. The important thoughts and works from the likes of Goethe, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Wilde, Nietzsche, Twain and so many others have been sucked into this world that spins on an axis of melodrama and lack of self-awareness. I wince at the thought that thanks to this online phenomenon, out there somewhere, someone has interpreted the wise words of Socrates – ‘Know thyself’ to mean ‘I like holes in my stockings becoz my style is like, soooooooooo individual.’ How cruelly ironic.

So why does ‘better to have loved and lost’ really infuriate me? It’s not Tennyson who deserves a karate chop, not at all. It’s those who repeat the phrase without understanding its true meaning (it was a lengthy meditation on mortality and hope following the death of a dear friend) and in doing so, push it closer towards superficiality, robbing the author of the respect it deserves. Thankfully, even the weighty tribulations of teenage life cannot weaken the poignancy of timeless wisdom. I’m frustrated because it’s disappointing to see great historical works misunderstood because so few in this online generation pause for reflection. These words are not meant to be ‘catchy’. They’re not meant to be photoshopped onto an overexposed picture of a tyre-swing, nor scrawled on a post-it note. They should exist only in your mind and heart, an arm’s length away for when that time comes when you really do need a little comfort or inspiration in your lives, wherever you are. If, as Aristotle said, the essence of life is an energetic mind, then feed it with the wisdom of others and invigorating ideas, think about the words, know them – don’t waste them in a rush to post up on your Facebook wall.

Faux Wisdom

Here are some ‘inspirational quotes’ I collected in a quick Google Image sweep. I learned a couple of things. One, lame metaphors and whimsical (and completely irrelevant) photos are a match made in heaven; and two, some people really should have kept to their day jobs and left the aphorisms to the pros.

No, the oak tree is a living organism that requires nutrients and water to survive. Much of this is absorbed by its roots. As the tree grows larger, its need for nutrients increases, so too does the length of the roots that burrow further and deeper in search of fertile, nutrient-rich soil. Storms are like, in no way related. Stick to being a priest, Herbert.

I’d love to know how Oprah Winfrey ends up being described in future annals of history. I sincerely hope the word ‘philosopher’ or ‘poet’ never appears in the same sentence as her, unless the word ‘faux’ appears before it. There’s no doubting her feelgoodmakey talents and justifiable status as a positive female role-model; but when she serves up nauseatingly saccharine cocktails of mixed metaphors like this, you remember why daytime TV is the  tenth circle of intellectual Hell. Oprah would have been excellent writing cards for Hallmark, but for existential humanist wisdom, I’m afraid shouting in tone-inflections and celebrity friends won’t reserve Oprah a spot in the pantheon of thinkers.

I appreciate the championing of modesty over self-exaltation and integrity over glorify in this statement. But, then almost all credibility disintegrates when its originator is revealed. It’s certainly easy for you to say, Mister Albert ‘Greatest Scientist of All Time’ Einstein! It doesn’t help, either that this particular image is from a Tumblr entitled: ‘I’m the perfect mistake’… by someone called: ‘Melody’…

Unforeseen happiness in life is a comforting concept. Though, I don’t see why Barrymore’s door metaphor is so popular. If anything, it seems to encourage lax home security procedures. I can only think the illustrious Hollywood icon was in cahoots with a shady Los Angeles burglary syndicate, and was subtly persuading fans to not worry about locking their doors at night, so ‘happiness’ (probably the sardonic name of the syndicate) could sneak through and thieve all the jewelry and silk throw pillows and ornate lamps they wished. It’s the only logical conclusion.


The Thrill of Discovery

On the morning of 3 September, 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from a month-long holiday to his dusty work bench, deep within the bowels of St Mary’s Hospital in London. A veteran medic of World War One, Professor Fleming came back ready to clear out a stack of old petri dishes containing colonies of the boil-causing Staphylococcus bacteria that he left and failed to disinfect before breaking out his Hawaiian shirt and sandals. But just as he set about tossing  what he considered ruined specimens, he noticed something peculiar in one of the dishes. A stinky little blob of mould. He peeked in closely and noticed that the area surrounding this mould was clear. The bacteria was absent where the mould was present – it had killed the germs. Completely by accident, Fleming had discovered Penicillin, the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives and won him the Nobel Prize. Thanks to Fleming’s mouldy lab supplies, a sneeze is no longer feared as a death knell. It’s one of the most famous stories in science – not least for the discovery’s profound influence in medicine, but for the fortuitous circumstances around it.

Some 83 years later, scientists working at the Swiss physics laboratory superpower, CERN and the Gran Sasso lab in Italy announced they may have discovered particles that travel faster than the speed of light – by accident. This news in September shook the science world to the ground – someone was actually saying they just disproved Einstein’s famous theorem – that no object can travel faster than light. None. Ever. Full-stop. But the gospel according to Albert is now under scrutiny after these recent claims from the scientists. Basically, neutrinos (sub-atomic particles) were shot down a huge subterranean tube into a particle detector some 730 km away. When the scientists registered the results, the data showed – shockingly – that the neutrinos had arrived at the end of their journey in a brisk 2.43 milliseconds – some 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. The results are still in dispute, but the incredible part of this story (well,  maybe the second-most incredible) is that the scientists weren’t conducting the world’s tiniest race between light and neutrinos, they had actually set the experiment to try and convert the neutrinos into another type of neutrino. Testing the little particle’s top-speed was never part of the road test; this experiment was never going for glory. Unlike Fleming’s world changing work eight decades ago, this kind of  accidental discovery is getting rare in high-end modern science.

Alexander Fleming's lab

Alexander Fleming's lab. (PHOTO: TheStar.com)

Science is the beautiful pursuit of knowledge. The endeavour of science can be laborious to be frustrating and can sometimes be overwhelming. But human inquisitive instinct forbids us from abandoning the chase for enlightenment – and the paths it takes us (opposed to path we try to take) are breathtaking. Discovery is the scientist’s opiate – an addictive, all-consuming habit. Every new microbe discovered through the lens of a microscope; every detection of an unusual orbital path of a planet’s satellite; every new piece fitted into the genetic puzzle – it all goes towards the great bank of human knowledge, expanding as fast as the universe it is chasing.

This year is the International Year of Chemistry, last year was the year of Biodiversity, 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, so starchy foods and science are clearly at the top of the global agenda. Discovery is the force driving a scientist, but with it carries a paradox that is as old as recorded science itself. How are you to expect the unexpected?

Greek philosopher Plato argued thousands of years ago, that true originality is impossible to achieve without chance. In Plato’s Dialogues, Meno throws a curly question at Socrates:  “How will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?” Socrates serenely strokes his beard and responds, sagely, “A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Unfortunately for those gunning for some Nobel bling, Socrates’ logic is acute. While other legendary thinkers such as Aristotle and Michael Polanyi point to things such as tacit knowledge (think riding a bicycle, or speaking a native language) as a fly in Plato’s paradox ointment; science as a discipline is somewhat of a prison for knowledge. It requires boundaries, rules, precision, control. Big money for research grants comes with big responsibility. Scientists can become accountable to fidgety investors who bear little tolerance for uncertainty. the  very kind of serendipity that lead Fleming to penicillin. There are few these days who’d happily hand over their money to your typical, frizzy-haired mad scientist. Predictability and control is safer.

As if in some exclusive club of science – in order to be a ‘fact’, an idea or theory or thing needs the backing of other, certified, facts. Without it, the numbers at the end of an equation will be worth nothing more than the chalk dust it’s scribbled in. By logic, if a scientist proves their hypothesis – does that warrant a new discovery, or is it simply theoretical confirmation? If they do not, is that a failure in the labs? Well, as most things are when discussed in that wonderfully grey philosophical realm – yes and no.

CERN laboratory

Meanwhile at CERN... (PHOTO: Scientific American)

A pioneer of molecular genetics, Max Delbrück , coined the  handy principle of  ‘limited sloppiness’,  which suggests researchers shouldn’t balk at making a minor miscalculation, or forgetting to disinfect a petri dish. “If you are too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions,” said Professor Delbruck, “But if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling you… nail it down.” It deftly sidesteps the knowledge paradox by placing just a little of the responsibility in the hands of fate. ‘Sloppiness’ isn’t an encouragement for scientists to just abandon the measuring beaker and just dump the whole bucket of acid in to ‘see what happens’, which, in most cases would probably be death or hideous scarring and irreversible blindness.  Rather, Delbruck meant there needs to be a degree of flexibility – to make sure that there is indeed room for the unexpected and to be perceptive enough to notice it – rather than dismiss as a failure to hit a hypothesis, and draw a line through it.

None have summed this idea up better than Claude Bernard, the brilliant French physiologist and early influencer of modern biomedical research. Bernard, described by historian Bernard Cohen  as one of the greatest scientists of all time, stressed the importance of free science some  150 years ago:  “Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations,” he said. “Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim.”

While this ideal still sits somewhat out of place in the measured and sterile world of modern science, it’s those researchers who recognise the pivotal role of chance who are better equipped to achieve their goals. Pure, random chance is rare, but opportunity is ever-present. Professor Fleming was, after all, deliberately searching for new anti-bacterial agents, and Charles Goodyear, the man who stumbled across the technique for vulcanising rubber by nonchalantly brushing his hands above a heated stove, had been furiously seeking such a thing for years. Archimedes (yes, another ancient Greek) was tasked with the tricky task of determining the density of a gold crown without melting it down. He famously bolted down the street sans toga in excitement when he twigged onto the theory of displacement by simply setting into his evening bath, probably to ponder about his conundrum. Had any of these men not possessed a ready and open mind, these windows of profound opportunity would have been lost in a laboratory bin, the bottom of a sponge, or underneath an ancient Greek rubber-ducky. It’s almost as if providence – a sworn enemy of science -cheekily lifted the covers off what they were looking for, but didn’t let them know when, nor where, nor what until that enlightened moment of ‘Eureka!’

Serendipitous discovery is responsible for some incredible things we take for granted today. Without a bit of fate we’d not have discovered the x-ray, plastic, radioactivity, pacemakers or helium. The world would be a lot less sweet (and the dental profession would go out of business) without coca cola, ice blocks, choc-chip cookies and artificial sweetener. Parties would be far less debauched without the accidental discoveries of brandy, LSD, Viagra and vaseline. In fact, the Nobel Prize itself may not even exist had Alfred Nobel not have clumsily spilled some nitro-glycerine onto some sawdust to discover dynamite (immediately after changing his soiled long-johns).

These discoveries literally changed the world. And it’s rare to use that phrase as fact, not cliche. Today, experimentation seems to be more about confirming a theory and less about sheer curiousity. The term: ‘modern science’ sheds the romantic connotation cultivated in the Enlightenment and replaces it with the sterile lab. Scientists are no longer hands-on visionaries but pedantic in goggles and lab coats. We’ve somewhat lost the idea of the scientist working for the joy of discovery and not with the burden of investor expectation upon their shoulders. It’s hard to imagine a researcher at CERN trying to explain the principle of limited sloppiness to those who have invested millions into the Large Hadron Collider. Will we ever discover this mysterious Higgs-Boson – the so-called god particle – exactly as outlined in their hypothesis? Or are we going to need a bit of luck to discover the origins of the universe? How can you look for something if you don’t know what it is, and then how do you find it if you can’t recognise it as what you were looking for?

Maybe it’s time the folk at CERN took a holiday, and maybe forget to turn the Collider off for a while.