BC SealBoston College Magazine Fall 2003
current issue
Linden Lane
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
. Prologue



The Unified Theory
of Little Guys

My strongest memory from three years of required high school science is of the moment Mr. F, a pale and ineffectual chemistry teacher, poured something into a beaker that already contained something he didn't know about, with the consequence that about 30 of us boys were showered with glass shards and acid that burned red dimes into our skin and holes in our shirtsleeves.

Nor did college bequeath me substantive scientific memories. Patching together a bachelor's degree from courses picked up at six institutions of higher education in two non-contiguous states, I dodged most of the degree requirements that it seemed in my best interests to dodge, including a laboratory science course. In fact, except for a brief season of post-college employment as the most disinterested laboratory-animal caretaker ever to hoist a 60-pound sack of Purina rat food or hoochie-coochie a frozen-thawed white mouse in front of a sleepy milk snake, I have managed to avoid firsthand encounters with research science literally all my life.

And so it should come as no surprise that to this date, my contributions to a deeper understanding of our cosmos have been rather slim: a set of children who actually do comprehend the stuff but don't care to explain it to me yet again; a (shaky, admittedly) hypothesis in thermodynamics (or something sort of like it) that explains why the left knee on my jeans always gives way first; and the Unified Theory of Little Guys, which postulates that just about everything we encounter in the natural world is the work of guys we can't see as they go about their business or mischief inside internal combustion engines, gall bladders, and septic tanks, to name three mysterious systems to which I've had occasion to devote serious, systematic thought.

Some of my deficiencies as a scientist are no doubt attributable to nurture: too many years spent in schools staffed by bunglers like Mr. F. Some are the fault of nature: a brain that won't sit still long enough to get to know one thing really well.

But surely not all the blame falls on Mr. F or my wiring. Science itself is a problem. In 1959, the British novelist C.P. Snow published an essay that lamented the gap that had developed between "the two cultures" of science and literature, particularly as the former grew more complex and specialized. That essay is famous and in print (unlike all of Snow's novels) because science since 1959 has grown even more complex, specialized, and troublesome.

I am not referring to the moral precipices to which we've been driven again and again by technological advances, or to the charge from some quarters that science, by permitting itself an inherent principle of uncertainty in all observation, has ultimately brought about Tarantino movies, critical legal studies, and the general debasement of reason. I'm referring only to the impossible intellectual and language puzzles posed by contemporary science: the finding, recently published in Nature, that the universe is "a Poincaré dodecahedral space," or the related theory, reported on in the New York Times, that the universe "is a kind of hyper-doughnut, or so it would appear to a four-dimensional being standing outside of creation and viewing it whole"; or this sentence, from an article--attractively titled "Just Say CO" --in Science, a journal aimed at a literate lay audience: "[A]n enzyme called CK2 can activate HO2 by sticking on a phosphate group. CK2, in turn, is activated by protein kinase C, an enzyme that is turned on whenever a neuron fires." Eureka.

There is no solution to the complexity problem. Academic science has set up shop in a distant galaxy, and it isn't coming back. Looking through our telescopes, we can make out certain powerful or diverting signals: proposed cancer cures, robot vacuum cleaners, amazing tooth whiteners, and the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are annually awarded by the Annals Of Improbable Research to honor scientific discoveries that "cannot, or should not, be reproduced." The 2003 winners include a Dutch scientist who documented, for the first time, homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks, and a New York academic who has published more than 80 precise studies of modern life's trivial annoyances, such as the percent of people who violate supermarket express-checkout restrictions on number of items. Unlike the Nobel Prize ceremonies, this year's Ig Nobels were televised on cable to the entire country.

Our story on the mysteries of science in Higgins Hall begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

. .  
Alumni Home
BC Home