Science and the Elephant’s Child by Bronwyn Mills


Part I: Science and the Elephant’s Child

If, my dear Reader, you remember the story of how the elephant got its trunk, as told by Rudyard Kipling, you will recall that the Elephant’s Child, “full of ‘satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions,” stuck his short snoot in one too many places until a crocodile  grabbed it.  In an effort to break free, the Elephant’s Child pulled and pulled and pulled, stretching his little snoot into a l-o-n-g proboscis. And that, O Best Beloved, is how the elephant got its trunk.  Curiosity, unlike in the instance of the cat, did not kill the elephant; curiosity simply helped create a unique instrument. Furthermore Kipling did notElephant-comparative_anatomy need to go far from genuine fact: when an elephant calf is born, it does have a shortened trunk. Then, in a miracle of early childhood development, the trunk grows rapidly within just a few days, though it takes some training not to trip over, and to  use, it.  A combination of lip and nose, with no bones and over 40,000 muscles, this scientific marvel aids the animal in satisfying its need to know about its surroundings, to lift heavy loads, and to make music. If, metaphorically, an elephant’s curiosity has produced such an advantageous tool, what about us? Is the combination of opposable thumb and sapient brain not our “trunk”? is not our brain, and our curiosity about all that is around us, critical to our survival, our humanity?

When I was only four, my family moved into a partially restored old mill. We first arrived on a warm summer evening; and my father seated me at the kitchen table where I ate a bowl of Rice Krispies and looked out a window that had not yet been glazed. One by one—what was the evening star then? Venus? at the horizon, then other stars came out, brighter, brighter as the sky grew darker and darker. Later, I became fascinated by the idea of the solar system. Though congentially impractical, my artist parents placed a high value on wide-ranging curiosity and its satisfactions; and I kept a notebook, illustrated with naive drawings and water-colored planets and stars. As I found out more, I added handwritten notes to my sketches. Mars was, yes, red. Saturn had lovely, symmetrical rings.  Then, Pluto was still a bona fide planet, just far away, dark and gloomy. Eventually, I wandered off into other expressions of human endeavor and imagination. But the celestial still astounds; and tonight, here in my mountains, far, far away, I step outside my cabin door and voila!—Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Sirius the dog star, Jupiter, Orion… What to us is Orion’s three-starred belt, outlined for the ancient Maya a cleft in a turtle’s back, with one star that connected to two nearby, thus making three adjoining hearth stones. The Maya saw these formations as precursors to the rising up of the World Tree (the Milky Way) that, with still other constellations, retold the Mayan creation story each year.

It seems a long, long time since I hitchhiked around Crete and camped on a bluff overlooking the sea, where I had to tilt my head askew to orient myself. All the constellations, bright enough to touch, were somehow in a different place than they were at home.  I smile, too, remembering when my son was little, and he and I sat on our sofa, positioned to see the night sky; he fell asleep with his head in my lap; for I had gotten us up at 3:00 A.M. to watch an eclipse that was not supposed to happen like that again, not in our lifetimes.

What got me started this time is news of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft as it approached a comet,[1] not so poetically named Comet 67P/Churymov–Gerasimenko, and released Philae, Rosetta’s lander, onto that bumpy surface.  Rosetta has been traveling for ten years to engineer this feat; and immediately Philae’s science lab started performing scientific tests, sending the results to earth, and thus informing us about the beginning of the universe and our own planet. That organic, i.e., carbon based, matter has been found there, that we, whose lives are not even the blink of an eye in the grand cathedrals of space, that we might encounter dust from the beginning of time—is that not a wonder?

Like the Elephant Child tussling with the crocodile, though, there is risk in knowing. In seeking. In satisfying curiosity. To go where the willfully ignorant fear to tred. Stereotypically, cartoon mad scientists emerge from their experiments with singed eyebrows and burnt trousers; explorers encounter venomous snakes and contract exotic diseases.  More sinister is the serious inquirer’s encounter with authority: “Do not rock the boat,” it says—then, with a tautological flourish “This is right way because we say so; and we say so because this is the right way.”  Indeed, the creative and the curious live perilous lives; or as Langston Hughes put it, facing uncanny intelligence, “Nobody loves a genius child”:

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?

Wild or tame,
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him—and let his soul run wild!

Among Caribbean folk, if one says that someone has “science,” that means they have recondite, even mystical, knowledge and sagacity. Haitian konesans. The Obeah man. The Old African of Zobel’s Black Shack Alley and the subsequent film version, Sugar Cane Alley. Olive Senior’s Mister Burnham in

Herbalist's Hut, outside Abomey, La République du Bénin, West Africa.  Photo by author.

Herbalist’s Hut, outside Abomey, La République du Bénin, West Africa.
Photo by author.

“Discerner of Hearts,” who keeps white doves, a full pharmacopeia of natural remedies, and conducts “services” to pagan spirits. More than anything, though, Mister Burnham is wise in matters of the heart; he helps a young woman come to terms with having a cad impregnate, then dump, her.  These folk of “science” are the guardians of old, very old, traditions, of a sometimes idealized, old, old culture before servitude and colonial domination. This “science” is, in fact, oral, an artifact of the days when the storehouse of knowledge was in one’s head, rather than written down,[2] where we can look at the evidence of our thoughts, ponder, and think again. Nothing—nada—about this literature and its authors, however, dismisses knowledge and judgement.

Indeed, it is an odd place and people that disrespect intelligence and those who use it, where the acceptance of empiricism and testing one’s observations is regarded contemptuously by those who should know better. Yet such ignorance seems to have a long history in the West—consider Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe…and, now, eminent astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently slammed by the literal minded right.

Asserting the value of knowledge and judgement today, Tyson’s revival of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has brought a breath of fresh air to these no-nothing times; and, in the same vein, Britain’s Brian Cox delivers even more oxygen to our souls. Cox’s recent BBC Human Universe series focused on the unique marvel that we human beings are, how our intelligence evolved, and at the same time how the universe itself was born of the Big Bang. While Tyson puts Carl Sagan in HD, is brilliant and informative, the whoosh-slam-bam special effects and cartoon luminaries makes me yearn for the flesh and blood human. Which is what Cox delivers: he makes sure he is among the most interesting people, in the most interesting places, on earth—India, Morocco with its stunningly clear night skies, the Great Rift Valley. In a cave in Spain, he shows us a 43,000 year old handprint of a Neanderthal child, paint spatter clearly and deliberately blown over the long extinct hand itself to create the outline. We see a bunker for U.S. nuclear warheads, now a huge vacuum chamber, where scientists replicate Galileo’s famed Pisa experiment with a lead ball and a feather: stunningly, in an airless environment, both do fall at the same time. With his genuine, but adult, sense of wonder, Cox reminds his audience that science, in its truest form, is the rigorous pursuit of genuine knowledge for its own sake and that that pursuit is what makes us human, ever prompting us to journey further and further. The journey is neither plodding nor unimaginative.


Higher Order Thinking Skills:  the Earth Moves around the Sun

Several years ago, there was first published in Rome a salutary edict which, in order to obviate the dangerous tendencies of our present age, imposed a seasonable silence upon the Pythagorean opinion that the earth moves[3].  There were those who impudently asserted that this decree had its origin not in judicious inquiry, but in passion none too well informed. Complaints were to be heard that advisors who were totally unskilled  at astronomical observations ought not to clip the wings of reflective intellects by means of rash prohibitions.

– “To the Discerning Reader,” in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems–Ptolemaic & Copernican. Galileo Galilei, trans. Stillman Drake, Forward, Albert Einstein. Orig. written 1629, published 1632.

Justus Sustermans' portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Justus Sustermans’ portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Both writers and readers, I believe, have some responsibility neither to extoll nor promote ignorance, so I try to do my part and not read crap.  I do read eclectically; and lately it has been Galileo’s  Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems, that enthralls me. In it, Galileo examines the mathematics of Copernicus and Pythagoras and proposes, in classic dialogic fashion, a heliocentric universe[4] not a geocentric one as promoted by the medieval Catholic church of his   day. Considering the portrait of Galileo as an old man (left) and reading his thoughts, written nearly 400 years ago, and well after Ming dynasty navigator-explorer, Zheng He’s Pacific voyages, after Bartholomeu Dias, after Colón, Cabral, after Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Andres Ochoa Urdaneta—who really did find the East by sailing West—after Magellan, and after Portugal opened up Japan, is a telescopic experience. Telescopic in the sense that, being aware of anti-intellectualism in our day, the subsequent persecution of this brilliant man is sadly familiar.[5]

Long before Galileo, in the 4th to 3rd centuries B.C., Aristarchus of Samos correctly identified the earth as revolving around the sun; and in the 3rd century B.C., Eratosthenes the Alexandrian figured out, quite remarkably, a near perfect estimate of the planet’s circumference with the aid of geometric calculation. In the first century A.D., another Alexandrine, Ptolemy posited that the Earth’s orbit was a perfect sphere, and that the universe was geocentric. We know the earth’s orbit is neither perfectly round (it is elliptical) nor the center of the universe, but Ptolemy’s geocentricity, ideologically speaking,  later became useful to the medieval church.

The so-called “Age of Exploration” represented a departure from the slump that medieval science descended into, and, however crudely, some empirical attempts at observation and experiment rather than rote repetition of armchair theories of the phenomenal world. Yet, and though likely that he knew of Eratosthenes’ figures, El Colón[6] based the estimates of his journey’s distance on the work of Ptolemy. Why? Here we enter the grey area between reason, ideology and mysticism. Did he choose the party line to avoid Church censure? Ships of his day were not thought to be fit to make the journey that Eratosthenes’ figures suggested. Did he choose Ptolemy so as not to lose the Spanish crown’s support by suggesting a longer voyage? Had he chosen Eratosthenes’ figures, he might  have claimed to have discovered a new land mass rather than, to his dying day, claiming he had reached China and the Malay Peninsula.

Colón was not an idiot, though: one cannot navigate by theory alone. As he sailed west across the Atlantic, he had to abandon his instruments–the astrolabe, as it rocked too much on the open sea; and so, too, his quadrant, which was rendered similarly useless. In the end, lacking the formula for latitude, he calculated distance by dragging a log behind his ship; and his direction, by the stars. We know that he deliberately reported less than the actual distance traveled to his crew, so as, he said, not to discourage them. Eventually he may have even posited that, yes, Ptolemy was a bit off. Unfortunately, however, he then proposed that the earth bulged, like a breast, near the Gulf of Paria. That notion set Colón’s detractors rolling on the floors of Ferdinand and Isabella’s palaces; and they dubbed the “bulge,” “the breast of the West.” Still, Colón’s practical attempts, I suppose, were a start.

By the time of  Discourse on Floating Bodies (1612,) and though Galileo’s ideas in that book were clearly developed through mentation—logic and reason—Galileo had brought empiricism and genuine scientific experiment to his methods. Some have dubbed Galileo the “father of the scientific method”; and indeed, Floating Bodies is a model of that method, elegant in its scientific rigor.  Later (1632), in the dedication to his Dialogue, Galileo declares that the proper study of philosophy is “the great book of nature.” Thus he announces a major paradigm shift. According to the eminent science writer, Stephen Jay Gould,  in a famed follow up Galileo asserted, “This grand book is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures.” The “grey area” of reason mingled with ideology and mysticism—that fog begins to lift with Galileo:  instead of static ideas and superstition, what he was at least implying, was that one ought to observe the phenomenal world, not just take what others pass on to us in blind faith.

Slowly, slowly science in the West—and perhaps elsewhere—science, which first began with alchemy, myth and, I suppose, magic, separated itself from those same endeavors to become devoted to careful observation of the tangible, phenomenal world. By the time some of my ancestors had settled in New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau were observing the natural world with an eye to what can be learned from it.  Then, while they may not have discounted  scripture, there was another book—nature itself.[7] Science was an “interpretive key,” as my friend Ed Foster writes; like theology, it was “exegesis”; and “science and theology were two branches of the same tree.” Foster goes on to say that

The notion of a direct personal route to truth, an unmediated knowing, without reference to empirical evidence [emphasis mine] is, within the literary tradition discussed here [Transcendentalism], an absurdity, prized by solipsists who in fact do not know and who simply imagine and assert. [8]

This is a far cry from what otherwise admirable poet, Kenneth Patchen, wrote in one of his picture poems: “Love (which includes poetry) is to science as the free and beautiful catchings of a child are to the vile and unreturning throes of the hangman.”  Oh, Kenneth.  Look at the world around us!  Writers need to pay attention to the world, not just recite by rote platitudes and clichés, arriviste fads, the received wisdom of the day.

Many of us are less pious today than those old Congregationalists, perhaps less mystical than Dickinson; and we experience science and religion as less enmeshed. Still others, such as Anglican priest and Dean of Guildford, UK, Victor Stock, as he soothingly asserted on one of Brian Cox’s BBC radio programs, believe that science does not negate the divine (let alone love.) Let those who are concerned about such things carry their discussion on into the wee hours of the morning; what concerns me is that creativity, knowledge and science should not be sundered apart and cast in exclusive camps.

Excepting the abstractions of symbolic logic,  we now tend to think of philosophy as separate from scientific research and mathematics, not its parent:

Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti. Photo taken by Ricard André Frantz.

Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti. Photo taken by Ricard André Frantz.

philosophy is intellectual calisthenics, training in the careful weighing of ideas, logic, thought behind law and civic institutions, ethics, and so on. Not scientific research. Though one of its branches is aesthetics, philosophy does not control creative endeavors; however, more than a century before Galileo, art was friends with mathematical science. Florentine, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 – 1455), the first to investigate linear perspective in painting, intimately linked this art with mathematics and  discussed it in his Commentaries. The last two of the three doors at San Giovanni Battista were Ghiberti’s and he so manipulated his medium to reveal the use of perspective similar to that employed in painting. Of his second door (finished in 1452) Michelangelo said, it  was worthy of a gate to Paradise.  



Lethal Literalism

The task of science was to judge preponderance of evidence, rather than to discover final truth.

                – Stillman Drake, one of Galileo’s translators

I once taught an otherwise delightful literature class at Stevens Institute of Technology, and introduced Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal to my students. To remind readers, Swift writes that the solution to the Irish potato famine might be to fatten up Irish babies for human consumption. Obviously, Swift made this outrageous suggestion to goad a sluggish Parliament into thinking more urgently about this crisis. “That’s AWFUL! How could anyone eat babies?” my students cried, not understanding that it was satire. Mind, these were bright kids, largely majoring in one form or other of the practical applications of science.  I confess, I was stunned.

Maimonides, as I’ve said elsewhere, asserted the only way we can speak of the unspeakable, the incomprehensible, is through simile. He meant the divine, of course; but what I take from his work is that thinking requires simile. Further, thinking requires an understanding of simile. I would even go so far as to say, without the capacity to create, employ, and understand symbol—the basis of language, writing, and mathematics—one cannot think at all. In Discourse of Floating Bodies, even Galileo, lacking Newton’s theory of gravity, pays respect to metaphor, to “Moment [which] signifieth that Vertue, that Force, or that Efficacy, with which the Mover moves, and the Moveable resists.”[9]  He adds,  “Moment” is “a Metaphor, I suppose, taken from the Mechanicks.” Of course I think of Dylan Thomas:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Eternity is like the serpent Ouroboros biting it’s own tail; and it is its symbol. The illuminated dust and matter spewing out from a comet is also a “tail”; we speak of the “birth” of a star, even star “nurseries”—is there a literal womb?  When we write fiction—according to Camus, “the lie through which we tell the truth”—we build a suspension bridge of metaphor between idea and the world inhabited by the human. Hopefully we do not seek The Truth, just as scientists do not seek The Truth but through observation, truthful, open-ended investigation—what if?—hope to add to knowledge, to provoke others to seek more. Reading that elusive good book, that superb poem, we gain insight, perhaps, but more than that, we are left thinking, mulling, over what it means to be human in a very complicated world, brought to life by the writer. Anything short of that seems, to me, cruel, a delusion.

In 1612 when Galileo wrote Floating Bodies, the Church’s ears perked up; and though he attempted to soft-pedal his espousal of Copernican concepts, he eventually got into trouble.  In 1633, soon after Dialogue was published (1632,) Galileo, frail and in his 70s, was ordered to Rome by the Inquisition. He was forced to appear in penitent’s garb, recant and then put under house arrest. Though able to pursue his studies as before, he was barred from teaching.

Ignorance disguised as religion did and does did horrid things: the  Inquisition burnt “heretics” at the stake, some young as 12 years of age, it drew and quartered Jews, Cathars, others. The so-called Aryan Nations/Church of Jesus Christ Christian[10] in the U.S. continues to be a vile outpost of white racism. And nearly four centuries later after the Inquisition, we can hear the clash of medieval weaponry in the background as human intelligence suffers ignorance’s official attack:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills … values clarification…critical thinking skills and similar programs… which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

                                – Texas GOP party platform, 2012[11]

Sadly, even now, thinking has been simplistically cast as the enemy of faith and authority; and, as it employs simile, so, too, with creativity, vilified by the literal-minded. Only a few decades ago, modern heretics had their phones tapped by Hoover’s FBI (now I suppose it’s our internet they peruse.) The KGB, Soviet bloodhounds, carried victims off to Siberia. The perceived crimes were not profane, but political, all about mundane power which, I believe, most edicts such as the above are. Thus, in 1934, when Osip Mandelstam composed a little ditty mocking Josef Stalin, shortly thereafter the KGB burst into his home in the wee hours of the morning, and took him away. Mandelstam’s wife, in order to preserve her husband’s work, memorized his poems; and Mandelstam, twice arrested,  died en route to a Siberian prison camp.  He carried a worn copy of Dante’s Inferno in his pocket.[12]  In the 50s and 60s, FBI pawed over Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent speeches; and today, fatwaed Salman Rushdie, and now Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, have and are presently suffering from ignorance’s onslaught of in the form of lethal literalism. I cannot but maintain that science, art and creativity are not enemies,[13] not to us, not to each other.  Ignorance is.


Sapiens et Eloquentia, Wisdom and Eloquence

Oho.  Like it starting, oui?  Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best.  I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you a little bit with one anansi story:

            – Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber[14]

So how do we deal with the wonder that science puts before us? On a camping trip somewhere in the Smokies, some time ago, I pitched a tent near a large exposed rock that, if you went to its edge, plunged suddenly and precipitously several hundred feet straight down. I am afraid of heights, less so living in my present mountain refuge; but that night I crept warily out on the rock—none too far, as it was dark—lay flat on my back, and looked up.  Unlike Galileo with his telescope, I saw less detail—a star that wasn’t a star, but a planet; a semi-blur that was not a nebula but the lights that huddle together to form my old friends, the Pleides, in Taurus. And there was Taurus’ red eye (Aldebaran) glaring at Orion. The Pole Star, reputedly in a slightly different spot back in 1492; and oh what a glittering expanse hanging above me!  To edge toward the cliff would set my teeth on edge; but the night sky did not and does not frighten me. Not at all. Rather, I find it comforting. Light years in duration, the cosmos goes on with or without me. Perhaps there are other intelligences out there if, worst case scenario, we earthlings soil our nest beyond repair. As Cox has queried, how can you look up at the cosmos and not  feel a sense of wonder?

True science, as opposed the work of kept scientists, is as wondrous as it gets; and it is sad that 21st century dictocrats expect knowledge to be only utilitarian—craft that does not rock any boats—rather than philosophy, art, and exploration, a valued goal for its own sake. Similarly barren, in fiction, is craft without curiosity, rendered prosaically, with no care for the intelligence of the reader. Though perilous, the art of reasoning—i.e., thinking—need not obliterate joy, deep feelings, or imagination. As Cox points out, human intelligence might be a unique phenomenon of nature, our elephant’s trunk. We might be the only life form in the galaxy with such gifts. One must not dismiss them. And that, by the way, includes the human imagination and the pyrotechnics of human language, without which we might not be able to tell a story, propound a theory or imagine an invention. Or put up with a loved one.

What is life?  It is a flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. 

– Crowfoot, orator for the Blackfoot Confederacy, on his deathbed. 1890.


(This is the first in a two-part essay.  Next “Fly Me” will address speculative fiction.)










[1]Galileo was wrong about comets, , though he approached the subject with reason.

[2] Or, ¡que lastima!, stored in a computer or one of our “devices.”

[3] To say that the earth moves, in this instance, was to say, ipso facto, that  it must move around the sun.

[4] In reality, a planetary system; for, early men of science were not yet cognizant of other universes, galaxies, and so forth.

[5] The 21st century argumentum ad hominem of the church—well, he was a bit arrogant; well, the church was a bit too intractable—is a timorous argument indeed:  “One thing is clear: Galileo overstated his case, and Urban VIII reacted with more rigor than we have come to consider appropriate. A less arrogant approach on Galileo’s part and a more genuinely spiritual outlook on the pope’s side would have led to a less dramatic outcome.” from a review of Jules Speller’s Galileo’s Inquisition Trial Revisited. The review appeared on The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 96, Number 3, July 2010, 568.

[6] Columbus, as he is also known.

[7] This thinking was called “the two books theory.

[8] In “The Children of wrath,” on gnostic poetry and the Transcendentalists in Talisman: Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, #42.

[9] Resistance? Friction? The oldest definition I could find refers to a system of parts, relating to manual labor via the Greek, mēkhanikos, Latin, and Old French. From “Definition V.” of the Thomas Salusbury translation offered via Project Gutenberg. Drake adds a simile: like pushing one’s way through a crowd.

[10]  Non-religious though I am, I see no other fit term for naming such an organization but blasphemy.

[11] Acronyms and such terms omitted.  Reads fully: Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Valerie Strauss byline, The Washington Post, 07/09/2012.)

[12] See Yale’s Wai Chee Dimock, who introduces her article, “Literature for the Planet,” with this story.

[13] In the 1950’s C.P. Snow made a name for himself claiming that scientists and artists couldn’t  talk to each other as the former knew nothing of Shakespeare and probably weren’t reading any novels, anyhow; and the latter didn’t even know about the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Snow’s solution was to solve social ills by encouraging more practical science–not quite a non-sequitor, but a bit naive, in my opinion.

[14] Unlike so much of contemporary science fiction, Midnight Robber, which inhabits its planets with prominent figures of Afro-Caribbean Carnival, is written in Caribbean English—poetry on foot.