Visualizing History and Science

Yesterday, I walked across the Beringia with a branch of Ancestral Native Americans, ancestors to the First Peoples. Later, I boated with them down the western coast of North American, several thousand years earlier. In both cases, I took note of what I saw around me, even though none of that was described in the article I happened to be reading in the May issue of Scientific American. I marveled that this was all happened 15,000 years before what history books typically describe as history. I watched as some of the people stopped to form settlements while others continued south. I watched their struggles a they emerged from colder climates into more mild ones. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I saw an occasional smile, heard and occasional laugh, or a shout of anger.

I can only speak for myself, but this is what happens inside my head when I read. Whether it is a novel, a book on the history of computing, or a science article on genetic and archaeological discoveries about how the Americas were populated, they somehow come alive in my mind. Reading an Isaac Asimov essay on, say, an electron, I am swept into its orbit, where the electron itself appears as a big world. Reading an article on supernovae, I don’t see the words, but instead, I’m hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the unfortunate star, impervious to harm, but able to witness the blast, and see the shock waves forming.

Thinking about those people crossing the land bridge into North America, I imagined them seeing deer flitting about. In my mind, their reaction wasn’t much different than the reaction I had this morning when several deer crossed my path on my morning walk. I paused to observe them, I watched their movements, curious about their behavior.

Maybe this is what is meant when someone is said to be a visual thinker. It is just how my mind has always worked. Science isn’t a bunch of equations and theories in my mind. It is a narrative, a story that unfolds as I read, and one that I see as clearly as I see the stories that unfold from novels, or history, or virtually any other type of reading I do.

When I think about evolution and genetics, it is less about the theories, though I think I understand them quite well, but more about the practice. There is Darwin, hip-deep in muck, collecting samples. There is Mendel, bent over his garden, gnarled hands touching every budding pea plant.

In science articles, timescales often become incomprehensible. How it is possible to imagine 15,000 years, or 14 billion years, when I haven’t even lived half a century? My mind plays little tricks to convey these distances, but I doubt any of them really get the message across in a comprehensible way.

There is so much history and science to read that it seems impossible to come close to scratching the surface on most of it. Perhaps one of the most profound and delightful reveries I have when considering these vast histories is that they are just a spec in the potential histories out in the universe. If other intelligent life exists somewhere else, just think of the histories they carry with them, multiplied over and over again. Are there common threads? Is Romeo and Juliette a uniquely human story? Is the struggle for rational thought a battle fought again and again, in those rare and delectable places, as Throeau once wrote, “in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance”?


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