Julie Spector (04/08/04)
I felt our discussion on the nature of exploration was insightful. I particularly agreed with the point made that a primary instigator of exploration is the human desire for power. If you discover something, it becomes “yours” and once you “own” it, you control it. Consider the conquest of North American land. When the Europeans voyaged over, they felt they had conquered both the Native Americans as well as the land, that in fact they could do something as preposterous (to the Native Americans) as buy the land. I think the desire for power in this example is extremely self evident.
A more interesting aspect of exploration, to me, is the range of human response to exploration: from fear to apathy to excitement, people's reactions are incredibly variable. I think this is an important issue to discover, especially in light of genetics. While socially acquired traits are not passed down genetically (as in, you have to learn that is the social norm to have both a salad fork and an entrée fork; it is not a fundamentally biological thing ingrained in your DNA to have two forks), I feel that the argument “the desire to explore is at least partially related to genetics” can be made. Exploration helps preserve a species. For example, if every human were concentrated within 2 m of the coastline of a bay in Japan, and along came a tsunami, the potential for every human life to drown is great. Or if every human depended on a certain crop from a certain region in order to survive, and unexpected circumstances destroyed that crop, every human would die—except for those that had wondered away from the field before the catastrophe occurred just because they felt a desire to! These people reproduce, another “catastrophe” could occur and only those who felt the natural desire to explore once again survive. After a long period of time, that exploration tendency occurs at a very high frequency in the species, because only those who have it, overall in the long run, survive to make babies, who will have a higher probability of receiving the gene since both its parents had the gene. Why then aren't people running around, rioting because we haven't gone to Mars and the desire to explore within them just can't take it? Because, as far as we know, there haven't been any near total human catastrophe's yet; only small ones in localized, regional areas, that have only a slight, infitesmally small effect. Yet infitesemally small things add up, as we know from integrating.
Some would still respond that exploration is just as social as having two dinner forks, but I still disagree with that, because having two dinner forks has not helped preserve a species for over 2 million years. Two dinner forks, or whatever trivial social norm you can think of, is a socially acquired trait. If you were hell bent on saying that some trivial social form can be passed down (though the laws of genetics clearly disallow this), consider the life of silverware social convention. It is at most on the order of millennia (what culture was the earliest to have silverware manners?)...but this is irrelevant, since millennia are negligible compared to millions of years of human life (so if in the event the manners were genetic, they can't have had much of an effect) and, for a more minor reason, silverware manners change quite rapidly and have not remained constant since they were first begun. Regardless, it is a socially acquired trait; it cannot be passed down. Exploration preserves a species, that tendency will be passed down.
Having made the argument that exploration is essentially biological, and feeling that everyone is virtually afraid of the unknown, I wonder about the people who embrace that fear, that adrenaline rush, the being the first to reach the South Pole. Is it something in their nurture (versus nature) that causes them to embrace the fear, or is it also purely genetic? Over spring break, as I caught up in issues of Scientific American , there was a fantastic article on glial cells and Einstein's brain. Who is to say what we can or cannot show when it comes to genetics and brain science? Especially since brain science has barely scratched the surface of the subject area. Perhaps its not socially relevant, but I think it would be so interesting to have a genetic “map”, if you will, of human tendency and how that is physically manifested in our bodies.
We barely broached the subject, but when I asked you about the slightly different ways to view science (as exploring the unknown for the sake of learning versus figuring out the unknown so we can predict the future—very similar, but the latter has more of a pessimistic, dogmatic, power trip twist), I was shocked by several of the reactions. People exclaimed, and not in a good way,“that's making it the physics way!” I mean, I was really shocked. Maybe it's just my opinion, but I think physics is the king of science. Not because it's the science I want to specifically study, but because when it comes down to it, every mechanism in the universe is controlled by a physical law. Whether it's continental lithosphere riding on top of oceanic lithosphere in seafloor spreading (a function of density…oh yes, density is an aspect of physics!) or whether it's the way two molecules in our bodies interact (which is controlled fundamentally by the interaction between electrons, etc, which is physics) or whether its receding galaxies or aerosol spray cans (pressure) or computers (play off electromagnetic phenomena), physics is the heart of it. Why? Because physics explains how things move and why they move. When it comes down to it, F = m a . You want a religious text? That equation says it all, so eloquently and simply. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but mathematics is the language of physics. So, yes, all phenomena can be mapped out mathematically, no matter how complex or chaotic or subject to change (instantaneously, even!) that equation is. And if you have a reasonable model, you can predict the future. Perhaps not successfully (wahoo chaos and complexity theory!!), but you can still do it. And I don't see why this changes the spirit of science—discovering the unknown—as the reaction of some of my peers seemed to indicate. But discovering the unknown means that you can try to predict the future, and it depends on the individual scientist's thoughts if the science is exploration or prediction.Other stuff: the space club trip sounded great!! Congrats on getting the data, space club.