Saturday December 23, 2006
Christmas isn’t an easy time of year when you’re employed to say horrible things about people. I too have feelings of warmth towards my fellow man, and that’s why I’d like to take a special moment, to try to understand anti-science sentiment, not to attack it. Clearly my brain has gone soft.
The key mistake people make with science is to have expectations that are too broad. Science isn’t about love, or the meaning of life, and on both it will disappoint you. Science is, in fact, a branch of the entertainment industry.
When was the last time you saw an insect breathing, really close up? Amoeba in motion? When you stand on the heath, alone, do you find yourself remembering, from school, how plants move to follow the sun, how photosynthesis works, how stomata open and close, the reproductive strategies of plants, the sexual mixing, the purposes of the structures of a seed, of a flower?
People don’t believe in that stuff, in the way that they believe in a God: they like science. I don’t buy scientific explanations for real world phenomena just because I think they’re accurate, or because I think I can stand them up against the arguments of some wily creationist or social theorist in a squabble (I can, by the way).
People who like science usually just happen to think that the story it can tell us about the world is more interesting, more intricate, and more beautiful than anything anyone could make up and put in a holy book.
But look, this isn’t a fight, it’s Christmas. I don’t blame religion for wars, any more than I blame the Wright Brothers for carpet bombing or the Costa del Sol. I’m just not very interested in religion. Maybe if there was a religion that was invented after the enlightenment, after the invention of the microscope, the discovery of the atom, that incorporated a bit more of what we knew, it might have a bit more oomph.
But when you stand up “made in seven days” against the amazing findings of comparative anatomy, and everything that suggests about convergent and divergent evolution, the way that my hand is the same structure as a bat’s wing, the way that the green toed sloth has a symbiotic relationship with algae that provides it with green camouflage against a forest background, and more, I’m sorry, I know whose books I’m buying this Christmas.
From the moment we started to work out what was going on with the stars we realised that we weren’t the centre of attention in the universe, and the rules had to be rewritten. From a starting position of glorious pointlessness, we generate meaning for ourselves. You may not be the centre of the actual universe (you’re not, by the way) but maybe you can still be the centre of your girlfriend’s universe, or your kids’. And also, perhaps more importantly, even if you’re not important to the Milky Way, the Milky Way can still be important to you.
I’m not suggesting you should rush out and buy a cheap telescope. The maths to make it interesting is all far too complicated for Christmas. But microscopes have been around for 400 years, and I’m willing to bet good money you don’t have one in the house.
The shops are still open. You can imagine it’s Christmas in 1706 if you want to make it even more exciting. Argos do one for Â£24.99 and it goes up to 1200x magnification. At 400x magnification, just for perspective, you can see your own actual sperm (or those of a friend) wriggling on a slide. And that’s a pretty good way of getting some perspective. Don’t trust me, I write for the papers. Have a look for yourself.
Update from the comments (CDavis):
I went into Lidl (be calm, people) a week ago and bought a â€˜Bresser Biolux ALâ€™ microscope for about Â£40. I expected a crap tin thing. Thatâ€™s not what I got.
This is an extraordinary piece of kit, and although itâ€™s not as well-polished as a Â£1,000 pro scope itâ€™s orders of magnitude nicer that the crappy 300x devices that were around when I was a kid. The image is crystal clear from its 20x to the max 1280x. It has LED illumination from below and from the side, both dimmable. It comes with 3 objectives, 2 eyepiecesand a Barlow. The slide stage has X and Y controls to move the subject. Itâ€™s housed in a wooden box complete with slides, cover slips and a kit of well-made tools for preparation – including a little microtome!
And the punchline: it has a USB CAMERA! This allows clear images at CIF resolution to be captured straight to a PC, and you can even make bloody movies! Still examples at
Apologies for the outrageous plug, but I feel sure that Iâ€™d never have embarked on my life of sin if Iâ€™d been given one of these as a kid. Iâ€™m unconnected with the company or the device, which appears to be made in Germany for Meade, by Bresser GmbH. Their UK service centre is GeoLogistics Ltd., in Feltham. 0208 9173102.
If your kids donâ€™t want one of these theyâ€™re defective and should be replaced.