This post is in relation to the previous article here at 1389 Blog titled, “How science is pursued versus how science is perceived“. It features a TED lecture by Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein. The video is provided below for anyone who has not already viewed it. More to follow.

First off, thank you, 1389, for continuing to make science a regular feature at your blog. Far too few people have even a cursory knowledge of science itself, much less the scientific method.

Now, where to start with this dose of Pop-Sci? Let’s begin with this: Stuart Firestein is a self-described neuroscientist who, evidently, is dealing with olfactory sensation. If the human brain is one of the least understood biological constructs on earth—which it most definitely is—then olfactory perception (the sense of smell), is definitely one of the most enigmatic aspects of that construct’s supporting infrastructure.

As an example, the human nose is capable of detecting and identifying far more different aromas than the eye can with respect to shades of color. To place that in some perspective, conservative estimates place the dietary caloric budget dedicated to maintaining our visual cortex and associated apparatus (e.g., retinas, optic chiasm, lachrymal glands, etc.) at ten percent. More liberal estimates range anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-three percent. That is somewhere between a tenth and a third of your entire nutritional energy intake being consumed by this one visual faculty despite how its ability to perceive shades of color is far outstripped by the nose’s discernment of various odors. In fact, there is additional speculation that olfaction may be more evocative of stored (or remembered) information than vision itself. To wit: How many of you are instantly transported back in time to your grandmother’s kitchen by the smell of baking bread?

Other species are far more reliant upon olfactory sensation than humans. Some two-thirds of a shark’s brain is dedicated to processing smells. Such sensitivity allows it to detect concentrations at “1 part per 25 million”, an indication of the shark’s legendary ability to detect dissolved blood from “a third of a mile away in the open ocean”. Land lubber canines are similarly prolific in their schnozological (my precise scientific term) abilities. If you wear well worn leather-soled shoes, the amount of sweat left behind in a single footprint is seventeen times a dog’s threshold of detection. Your footsteps, literally, glow in the dark for an average hound.

While not exactly nasal in structure, perhaps even more striking is the male polyphemus moth whose antennae have 120,000 sensilla (or sensory hairs) bearing a total of 300,000 receptor cells between the pair (see image and link).

This array is so sensitive to various portions of the female’s pheromone secretions that the male’s sensory apparatus can detect a single molecule of that chemical compound as it wafts upon a gentle breeze.

So, when Firestein starts mentioning unlit rooms that contain supposed black cats, please keep in mind that he, for one, is stumbling about in one of the least illuminated chambers that remain in the scientific world. In particular, his black-cat-in-a-dark-room analogy demeans the preceding “fourteen generations” of scientists, some of whom gave their very lives to shed a little light—or at least affix some braille tags—upon those structures that they had been able to grasp in their time.

As modern science closes in on, for instance, the Higgs Boson or “God Particle”, the “Theory of Everything” or Einstein’s “Unified Field Theory” begins to approach within one trillionth of a second after the start (T=0 or T sub zero) of big bang. Slightly muddling this are continuing debates over the mass of a photon. Still, there is emerging more agreement than discord as, what are known as, “indeterminacies“—Werner Heisenberg preferred this term over “uncertainty”—begin to get weeded out from measurements, especially of the Higgs Boson itself. All the same, science is working overtime to unravel some of the universe’s most subtle and challenging mysteries. An unlit room, indeed!

While Firestein’s “farting around” might be amusing, it is far from accurate. His ostensibly light-hearted but serious inversion of the formula as Knowledge -> Ignorance really does not embrace the more likely method whereby we discover what something is by isolating or ascertaining what it is not. While this process may, indeed, represent some way of identifying our own ignorance, it is just as well described as more a matter of shedding light upon those ill-lit gaps in our knowledge. Fortunately, Firestein later introduces a graphic of Knowledge -> Questions, which is as it should be in that—as with music or chess—no matter how skilled (or knowledgeable) we are, we can always become better.

Will what we do not know always outweigh what we do know? Quite possibly. Even a properly functional Theory of Everything may not be capable of answering every last one of mankind’s questions, especially those of a metaphysical nature. Heisenberg’s speculations have pretty much assured that there will never be a physical tool which can adequately resolve the universe’s most infinitesimal dimensions. However, as Robert Browning put it:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Indeed, what would astronomy mean to us if our mind’s reach did not exceed its own grasp of things much less our physical ability to grip the material world around us?

Perhaps my greatest objection is in giving darkness the upper hand. While there is most certainly more darkness than light in our universe, life does not thrive in those nether reaches. Whereas, in the scant districts of brightness, life teems in abundance. Hardly any sort of sterling commendation for darkness.

To his credit, Firestein finally does get to the real nub of all this when he begins to bristle about how schools teach. A county supervisor of education once told me, “If it isn’t tested for, it isn’t taught”. Imagine how much that leaves out of any given classroom’s curriculum. Moreover, Firestein slips a bit when he talks about how we must teach what is out there beyond the boundaries of knowledge. Saddest of all is how close he comes to the real answer.

Fact-based knowledge is all well and fine insofar as it goes, which is not always far enough. As with book-learning, much of that rote memorization drops away rather quickly when one is out on the real battlefield. What emerges is something entirely different, sometimes referred to as “knack” but is really “wisdom”. Exceptionally difficult to obtain and, probably, even more difficult to teach, wisdom’s primacy over knowledge has, in recent times, been thrown under the bus. Even Firestein notes this with his chart of X = Nothing versus Everything and Y = A Lot versus A Little. What he really identifies is the, too often, deleterious process of specialization.

In a career marketplace where academic and job specialization is rewarded above almost everything else, what does this say about the current value being placed upon wisdom? Do the thoroughly liberalized halls of Academia reflect this discounting of wisdom? Are our university taught government politicians equally reflective of this?

I hope that this explains at least a little about the problems that currently beset us, not just in the West but around the world. An incurious mentality is probably one that most completely contradicts the nature of human spirit. Yet, our schools, mass media and, to a lesser extent, even the Internet are all militating against the promotion of curiosity. Whither wisdom?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 1389 October 1, 2013 at 7:54 am

Thanks again for your regular contributions to 1389 Blog!

I’ve had a lifelong interest in science. But I never got into it as a career because, even in my youth, I noticed how dirty were the politics of academia. I couldn’t deal with it any longer. (If I had it to do all over again, I most likely would have studied geology.) I’m also very interested in the workings of the brain, on account of the fact that I’m a brain surgery survivor, but that happened long after my college years.

When I get too burned out on the political scene, I post science articles, animal/nature articles, and the like. Sometimes we all need a vacation!

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