Open Wide and Never Stop Gasping
"We have no idea what's going on down there." --Biologist Stacy Kim, on exploring deep, subzero waters in Antarctica
I am completely in love with endless jaw-dropping forehead-slapping heart-stopping bursts of insatiable, inexhaustible, completely unknowable mystery.
I am completely in love with the notion that, were you to place everything we know about life, existence, this planet, each other, the heart and mind and breath, skin and spit and blood, all of the science and accumulated data, facts and figures into one enormous bathtub, and everything we do not know, have yet to know and very likely might never ever know over here in this other enormous bathtub, the latter would dwarf the former like a blue whale to a goldfish, the Milky Way to a speck of lint, boundless ever-expanding deep space to your next quick fast flabbergasted gasp.
Every single day, we find new evidence of our completely wonderful ignorance, the sheer impossibility of ever knowing anything for absolute, irrefutable certain.
The quote you just read up top of this column? It's from a biologist who was part of a NASA-led research team working in the still-frozen north, a comment made shortly after dropping an unassuming little probe through a tiny hole in a massive Antarctic ice sheet, a little camera on a cord sliding 600 feet down into freezing, sub-zero, sunless waters where no measurable life of any note or substance will ever be found, because that's just the way it is.
What do you think they found?
Here's what they thought they'd find: maybe a few microbes. Some sturdy little specks, a few tough, single-celled things that can somehow handle those brutal, impossible conditions, because nothing else really can.
Instead, they found Atlantis, an entire gleaming, glittering megacity stretching for 1,000 miles in all directions, teeming with life, lights and enormous, golden undersea temples with lasers, talking dolphins and hyperintelligent, bioluminescent, mind-reading jellyfish with 10,000 heads and 14 hearts.
OK, maybe not. But they might as well have, for the depth and scope of the insane possibility, for the sheer sense of who-the-hell-knows-anymore.
What they actually found was simply a large, happy shrimp and the yanked-off tentacle of a squid (apologies, good sir) apparently living and frolicking even further down in the icy depths. These two rather astonishing creatures, to existing knowledge anyway, had no business whatsoever being anywhere near that spot, given the hopeless conditions, the sunless cold. The likelihood of such life surviving there, science thought, was absolute zero.
Big deal? Well, yes. For thus changeth, once again and for the billionth time, our fundamental understanding of the Way Things Are Supposed to Work. Such simple-but-shattering findings amplify exactly what the biologist mentions: when in comes to the bigger mysteries -- and even a few million of the smaller ones -- we still haven't a goddamn clue. It's a big deal because it proves once again that life is far more messy and unpredictable than we tend to assume.
But most of all, it's a big deal because it provides yet another key to further unlock the imagination. What the hell is down there, really? How infinite and fluid are the notions of life and dimension? We truly have no idea. Or maybe it's more accurate to say: We have just enough of an idea to know we really have no idea.
In fact, so frequently does this happen in history and science, you might say it would require some sort of preposterous gall, some flavor of egomaniacal, solipsistic chutzpah, to assume we can set concrete rules and proclaim childish religious doctrines that presume to understand such fluxive notions as love, gender, sex, faith, God, organism, orgasm and life itself.
I've a lovely friend who's also a supergenius Stanford neuroscientist; she spends much of her time scanning brains and theorizing about how the thing works and then coming up with wildly fascinating experiments to test those theories.
Like what we know of the deep ocean floor (i.e.; almost nothing), she guesstimates that, in her field, they've successfully mapped only a small fraction of the brain so far, a few regions more than others, none anywhere near completely.
Of course, that's just structures and the neurons, the careful identification of wayward parts. How all the layers interplay, communicate, dance, imagine, dream and then remember where you parked, what your great grandmother smelled like, and the taste of fresh oranges on that warm summer day in 1983 when you first fell in love? Still a giant, mesmerizing shrug. What's more, she says as soon as they figure out one mystery, 10 more open up as a result. Indeed, the more we know, the less we understand.
But then she mentioned something even more phenomenal. She said that right now, new evidence is emerging that, despite all existing research and data, the brain might not actually be the center of all creation and human function and cogito ergo sum after all.
It's just a hint and a whisper of an idea so far. But it turns out, when measured electromagnetically, the brain isn't the organ that gives off the strongest, most complex or dynamic signal. It's the heart. By a factor of, oh, about 5,000.
In other words, so strong is the heart's signal, so overwhelmingly dominant in the body is its pulsing electro vibe (its rhythmic field "not only envelops every cell of the body, but also extends out in all directions into the space around us," says one summation), it's possible that we all have a completely different powerhouse processor/informational hub, potentially even more illuminating and influential than the mind, the function of which we have yet to begin to conceptualize. How gorgeous is that?
We still don't know why whales hum and whistle. We don't know how Monarch butterflies survive their insane 2,500-mile annual migration, much less how the hell they land on the same tree every year to procreate. String theory to quantum physics to dark energy, the G-spot to the magic of the Fibonacci sequence to why human beings kiss one another? Still not sure. Still trying to figure it all out. Hey, it's just what we do.
And of course, nature looks upon our attempts to measure and quantify her, and just smiles, beckoning us in further and further with one hand, while gently, lovingly flipping us off with the other. Hey, it's just what She does.
© 2010 The San Francisco Chronicle