By Madeline Johnson
As I emerged one late-summer morning from a dream about Barack Obama giving a poorly attended talk at Hillsdale, I found my mind (despite the inexplicable dream) perceptibly clearer for having spent the weekend at my parents’ house on the Mississippi. For hours on end a broad, deep sky had flooded my small frame with gold light and heat. The surrounding flora’s green was forceful as a full choir singing. The placid river, thief and cobbler of colors, slid slowly beneath eagles, hawks, and swallows. Night brought a ghost world, sky and earth mute in the pallid, piercing gaze of the moon.The mind can trap itself, interior verbalization and the lurking shadow of All That Should or Could Be Studied crackling along the creaking infrastructure of consciousness until clarity and simplicity seem to have been left behind with nightlights and picture books. When I awoke this particular morning back at my weekday digs, all that clutter had been swept away by the sun and leaves, and there was an unfamiliar, dispassionate solidity to my day’s first, wordless gesture toward prayer. I found myself thinking of the conversation I’d had the week before with biology major Claire Schumock, ’17.
I’d asked how studying the natural sciences had impacted her general sense of the cosmos. “I’ve found the world to be governed by a set of laws that you can observe and practice,” she said. Her clear, careful words highlighted the universe’s underlying order in a way that reminded me of the behind-the-scenes features of an animated film: underneath a character’s empathetic facial expressions is always a net of precisely calculated angles.
“The world is also fallen and broken,” she continued, “and you can observe that as well. Entropy exists; things decay. The laws you observe in the sciences are the laws you observe in the humanities: people do not get progressively better; society does not naturally improve.” She enjoys that her studies have her learning not only abstract formulations of the laws of nature, but their heft in practice as well: “Science is about predicting what’s coming next, in order to test those laws.” This intelligible order, as Claire sees it, is inextricably linked to its Creator: “In both the sciences and the humanities, we’re looking for something constant, and I think all of Hillsdale, whether the students realize it or not, as we look for the good, the true, and the beautiful—we’re looking for God, who is good, true, and beautiful. These laws are how he governs his creation.” Hence a weekend in wordless nature, away from the books and blogs, could wash me up on the shore of a Monday morning closer to, not further from, my Maker.
I’m still sore from the mental workout of my cellular biology class last year, which left me with an enduring wonder at the hardy folk of campus’ northwest quadrant who can, at the drop of a hat, shift from colloquial English to a dialect of hyphenated numbers and flapjack stacks of abstract syllables. What is it like, I often wonder, to be able to utter a sentence like “A keto-enol tautomerization in the carbonyl of thymine causes a single point mutation from an adenine-thymine to a guanine-cytosine base pair,” and really mean it? I tried to get inside the technical side of Claire’s head a little bit.
“When I’m really enjoying something”, she said in answer to my queries about her study time and lab work, “it’s a combination of puzzle-solving with adventure and discovery.” This made a page of those chemical diagrams sound like a little forest bursting with trolls and fairies. “I think ‘discovery’ is probably the key word of science as a whole, and maybe even all intellectual pursuits. You learn to the brink of what has been discovered and find the holes that open up to further investigation.”
“How about when you’re most challenged, and it’s really difficult?” I asked, thinking with some chagrin that this romp of childlike delight was not terribly relatable to my own experience with glycolysis.
“You can get lost in the basic computations and brute memorization and forget how beautiful it is,” she conceded, “so I try to focus on the beauty of what I’m doing and how much I actually enjoy learning and studying it.” She paused, and the grin that undergirded her next remark gave me a glimpse of the cheerful hardihood that was probably her secret to O-Chem success. “I usually make myself a cup of tea, and work through it.”
Moving from the abstract to the concrete, I asked if she could share a story of a particular encounter with natural beauty.
“The first thing that comes to mind is actually an experience from middle school,” she said. “A cousin and I were both homeschooled at the time, and our moms took us on a trip to the John Day area, which is in eastern Oregon. We had a guidebook that took us through different geological formations. One time it had us drive out on this little road and said, ‘Now you’re at a limestone coliseum.’
“It was just this huge formation of natural limestone in the middle of eastern Oregon. It was massive; it was like a coliseum; it was beautiful. And I’d never heard of it, and I don’t know anyone who’s heard of it.
“I am constantly amazed at the things I find—even on Pinterest, when I’m just browsing pictures—of the beauty that’s been discovered by some, but is new to me.” Her next words encapsulated the wonder at What Is that has moved man to study the cosmos ever since Adam named the animals. “There’s just so much more to explore and investigate,” she said simply. “Adventure and discovery never end.”
Hoping for a take-home lesson that could help me cultivate some of the same capacity for joy in the natural world that animates Claire’s commitment to her studies, I asked for her input on the divide that sometimes settles between the natural sciences and the humanities. “What should any well-educated person know in order to be more conversant with the natural sciences? Are there some basic frameworks we should all be familiar with?”
It was a good thing I was asking, because her answer proved my questions to be, alas, a little naïve. “Science is both very broad and very interconnected. I love that about it, but the truth is, in order to talk with a biochemistry major about what they’re studying, you kind of have to know a lot about biochemistry. It’s like any other study: if you want to converse more deeply with someone in that field, then you have the opportunity to study it and come up with basic frameworks for each field.
“But science is still something that everyone experiences. You have a body and you breathe air, so you experience science. I think a person’s individual experiences bring a lot to a scientific discussion.
“My mom kind of led me to that conclusion,” she continued after a pause, “because when I first started pondering the question I said, ‘Well, carbon is important!’ and my mom said, ‘Really, Claire? You’re talking about carbon?’”
“Well, tell me a little about carbon!” I said.
“Well,” she began in a voice that betokened her transition into live translation from the language of her field, “carbon is a very important atom, especially in organic chemistry. Of course, the deeper you dig into biology, the more you realize how dependent it is on chemistry, because biological processes, the deeper you dig, are chemical processes. So most organic material is made up of carbon structures with functional groups. Carbon forms the backbone of organic molecules because it has four electrons around it, and in order to fulfill its octet, it would like to covalently bond with four other groups. So”—this was where carbon’s material conditions paid off in an intelligible special status—“that means that there are a lot of options for what can bind to it.”
“Remind me,” I interrupted, “—a covalent bond is one in which the electron is shared?”
“Right,” she said, and continued her lesson on the social life of organic molecules. “Carbon is often bonded with halides, which are iodine, bromine . . . that column of the periodic table. They have seven [electrons], and they want eight, so they share that seventh electron with one of carbon’s four. So to bromine it’s like having eight, and carbon will probably bond to that bromine, so you’re at five, and then three hydrogens, and you’re at eight. So carbon and hydrogen are very important.”
I took a moment to ponder these infinitesimal entities whose delicate predilection for the equilibrium of Eightness is the subtext of all our physical existence—each atom with its unique primordial inheritance of protons and electrons and neutrons, its essential capacities and lacks, duking it out with all the others in search of perfection. “I suppose if we all took the periodic table pretty seriously, that would be a good layer to add to the lens through which we view the physical world,” I suggested. “It’s something I don’t think about very much.”
Claire politely demurred, explaining that the “blur of information” that can be one’s experience of general chemistry has little chance of becoming anything else unless followed up by more intensive study. General knowledge about covalent bonds, electrons, and the structure of atoms doesn’t quite have the chance to manifest its earth-shaking significance outside the context of the questions one asks in organic chemistry, where, and only where, “it actually is important if you know whether something is an S-orbital or a P-orbital and how it bonds.” Once again Claire emphasized that the way is always open for independent inquiry, but concluded that, despite the fundamental importance of chemistry, she’s “not going to go on a crusade proclaiming ‘Everyone must take general chemistry in order to understand their world!’”
If I was likely never to gain her perspective directly, I at least wanted to keep participating vicariously. What unique insights could this particular specialty bring to her other studies?
“A major story of connection between humanities and science is that one time I was in art history class and the teacher mentioned head lice, and then head lice was also mentioned in my chemistry class, and I felt very itchy all day,” Claire deadpanned, then conceded seriously that she saw particularly dynamic connections in her history classes. There, one can “see how the science impacts thinking and therefore civilization;” Darwinism is a clear example. Natural phenomena also impact the course of history directly: the plague of Athens in 430 B.C., for example, “totally changed the outcome, seriously affected” the course of the Peloponnesian War, and therefore of western history.
“I think, in some ways,” she concluded, “science lays the foundation for society, because your understanding of medicine or technology—say, sanitary measures—will impact life expectancy and dependence on authority, and potentially open doors to totalitarian governments. It makes a big difference where people are in scientific understanding.”
I thanked Claire for sharing her perspective and said goodbye, a renewed sense of the order and intricacy of my surroundings accompanying the regretful consciousness that unless I switch my major or sprout a second brain, I’m not likely to become any sort of natural scientist myself.
All the more reason, then, to keep talking to the ones I know.
Madeline Johnson is a junior studying philosophy.
Image courtesy Elena Creed.