Sunday, March 28, 2010

Time Travel

Time travel is possible.  I know this because I've just returned from a trip to the past.

For just few brief minutes the other evening, I found myself returned to my childhood. Though absent the literal proximity with the earth, and perhaps some of the acuity of vision that I enjoyed in adolescent days, in every other way it was indistinguishable from those long ago and seemingly lost forever moments.

I fell into this all-too-brief reverie while on a recent walk with Loki.  This phenomenon is actually become something of a common occurrence for me of late, and in no small way because of Loki.

Loki's ever-present 'present' state of mind is wonderfully contagious. It happens when we are just us two together on a walk in the greenbelt.  Off leash, Loki darts from one side of the path to the other, immediately as deep in smell as I have been in thought.

This is where the transformation takes place, for as I watch him--so utterly and unconsciously absorbed in the moment--I am somehow pulled--transported, literally--into that world of his where only small things happen, and they happen very close to the earth. Suddenly I am on my knees in the dirt, poking at an ant pile to see what they will do (I know) or examining a tiny yellow and white field flower to see how it is made (I still don't know).

That's what it is like to be a child (or a dog): always lost in the moment and always very close to the earth.

Children are, by nature, scientists from birth.  At first, they have no choice but to gather empirical data about the world in which they find themselves suddenly and without explanation.  Much of it has to do with proximity, for they are still physically close enough to the earth examine it closely.

And, talk though their parents will, the sounds the grownups make are just a small--even miniscule--part of what children must interpret of their own devices.  It's a literal flood of information that every child must gather, sort and make sense of from the first breath outside the womb.  So, no matter how much parents talk, children simply have lots figuring out to do on their own.

Of course, once children are capable of understanding and talking, the process of learning moves gradually away from direct observation.  This is inevitable but not necessarily a good thing, for the process of gathering and analyzing empirical information as a way of understanding the world does not end with childhood.

Or, at least, it shouldn't.  Alas, in fact, most of us give up our interest in 'basic' research shortly after puberty in favor of 'applied' research with some tangible goals, like sex and money.  Though our social interests seem to quickly supercede our empirical ones as we age, as living creatures we begin life knowing instinctively that basic knowledge is no luxury. It is about survival.  We all start off as basic researchers because our lives depend on it, literally.

We turn to applied research as soon as we are able, in most cases.  But not everyone trades in their their inner scientist at thirteen for girls (or boys, sometimes), fortunately.  Many generations of scientists have never stopped looking at the world around them as they did when they were children.

Though, as in most things, in science I am yet a dilettante, on occasion Loki and I travel back in time to the day when I took my research seriously.


d2 said...

I remember how magnets picked up wonders from plain dirt; how pillbugs and sand lions were endlessly fascinating; how rocks tasted; how trees sounded.

I wonder, though, if we merely move from scientific curiosity about the earth below, to broader cosmological curiosity. I think one of your points was the child-like contemplation of our earthly person, to a wider consideration of others and our place within a larger society.

Once we look up from the earth to the skies, we never again look down.

bc said...

Well said, d2, but I think the point of Phlip's essay is the joy of living in the moment; it's the only moment we have, after all.