Reading Books and Living Life

File_000

In the immortal words of Jay-Z:

They read a bunch of words, I’ve lived a bunch of life”

Several times in the past year I have come across scenarios, whether in writing or in conversation, where I have been asked to comment on what should be seen as a false dichotomy between book knowledge and hands-on experience. Within academia, there seems to be a premium placed on book knowledge. However outside the auspices of higher education, there seems to be a skepticism, or at the very least, a disinterest, in book knowledge.

This notion of one form of learning being more important than the other should be quickly rejected. If we are to pursue knowledge, to seek truth, then we must seek book knowledge and hand-on experience. Books, or more simply the ability to communicate complex ideas and information to large groups of people and between generations, has been proposed as one of the reasons that the human race has outpaced all other species. Books, specifically written language, has allowed us to build upon the work of those before us and to work in collaboration with others who are spatiotemporally isolated from us. Airplanes, architecture, GPS, medical innovation, and countless other technologies that are taken for granted today, would not have been possible if books describing the work and innovation of our predecessors were not available. No Newtonian mechanics- no flight. No publication of scientific findings- incremental and uncoordinated scientific research and medical innovation. No writings on special relativity- no GPS. Conversely, the importance of practical experience cannot be overstated. As pertains to the study of medicine in particular, one could memorize the book on anatomy but be wholly unequipped to take hold of a scalpel and remove a tumor from the brain of a patient. One of the criticisms of education in general has been that students are taught to memorize and take tests but lack the practical skills to reason and problem solve. The ability to take tests well is excellent, but must also be coupled with the ability to engage real world problems, to cut into a patient, to fly an airplane, to climb a mountain, or to build something new. While examples ad nauseam could be used to emphasize the importance of combinatorial book knowledge and practical experience, the driving of a car is one of the best. When learning to drive a car, one must both learn the rules and the basics from a book. However, that book knowledge will not translate into the ability to gently accelerate, brake automatically, or turn gracefully into  a parking space. Instead the book knowledge opens the door for the building of practical knowledge. To attempt to do one without the other would be foolish. So too, excellence in many areas of life requires building up of  book knowledge and practical knowledge together.

For most of us this means pushing us the direction we are uncomfortable. If we love curling up with a book but despise the dirt between our toes or the intricate details of building something with our hands, our challenge is to go out and live life to gain practical experience. If we love trying things without the book, foraging ahead with little knowledge of the field or of those who have gone before us, our challenge is to pour a cup of coffee (or tea), and curl up with the book our counterparts left us. 

Therefore, instead of proposing a dichotomy to learning, how much better it would be, when all is said and done, to be able to say…

“I have read many books, and l have lived a lot of life.” 

Empathy Over Entertainment, Compassion Over Consumption, and Love Over Luxury

2011-06-04 20.42.43

As we reflect on the rise and fall of great empires of the past, numerous markers of a declining society have been proposed. While some of these markers are almost certainly innocuous, others may be the harbinger of a failing civilization. Although we may be caught up in chronologic snobbery, the erroneous perception that we at this end of history are more advanced and above the problems of the past, we should be wary of considering our civilization insulated from the incessant ebb and flow of great civilizations of the past.

One marker thought to be a harbinger of the end of the greatness of a nation or civilization is a fascination and obsession with entertainment. As we look back at the great empires of the past, they began with what we could call grit-the willingness of the people to sacrifice, to work, to build, and to suffer, believing that they could become something great. As the empire became something great often the members of the empire lost this grit, instead prioritizing comfort and entertainment over persistent work and a willingness to sacrifice. Whether this prioritization was the cause or simply accompanied the failing of the empire could be debated, however we must recognize that essentially no great empire of history has gone without a period (as short as it may have been) of luxury and decadence, before the often rapid decline and decimation of that civilization.

In a day of the globalized economy and the rapid recognition that truly no man or nation is an island unto itself, and in light of the fact that a large portion of the world’s population lives in historically unprecedented wealth and health, we should be wary of the changing of the tides of greatness as these affect every member of planet earth. Particularly in the developed work, there is an obsession with entertainment and luxury. This is not to say that there are not many people working to become better and to better those around them, but it is to emphasize that the amount of time and money that we (as the developed world) spend on entertainment through TV, video games, books, sports, games, and a host of other activities is unprecedented and rapidly escalating. More people than ever are hoping to make a living utilizing one aspect or another of the entertainment industry whether that be in music, TV, YouTube, or the plethora of other platforms available. This trend is troubling and is only getting worse.

The hope is this. Many of the platforms by which we entertain ourselves with frivolous consumption can be leveraged for much greater benefits in education, in developing new technology, and in relating to one another in more diverse yet intimate ways. It is to this end that we must strive. Both to keep the grit that pushed us to advance, as well as to leverage our advantages for the good of our knowledge and benefit of all people.   When we choose empathy over entertainment, compassion over consumption, and love over luxury, that is when we will have found true, sustainable greatness personally and societally. 

Special (pt1: a small part of nature)

DSCN0030.JPG

From a scientific point of view, the ’specialness’ of the human species means very little. We are one of but a vast array of species who have only arisen in the last blink of earth’s existence.  As we gaze at the galaxies surrounding us and focus on the proteins and cells within us, we realize that we are but a small part of our universe composed of the same tiny molecules that compose everything else around us. A small part of something big, made up of the same materials that surround us.

Physicist Richard Feynman said Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We should not fool ourselves in thinking that we are more, or less, than the world that surrounds us, perhaps not in a religious sense, but in a sense of the interdependence and the sharing of a mutual habitat. We are not special in our level of consciousness, our love for other members of our species, or our ability to work hard. Technology has given us a tremendous advantage as well as a tremendous responsibility to use our tools for good. No species can change and mold the environment around it to the extent that human beings can. Therefore it is our responsibility as impactful, but not special, members of this planet we share to modify our habitat in a manner which benefits all, not just some.

Real and Genuine

IMG_0687

Over the past several days I have been going back back and forth with a researcher in a nearby lab over what is “real” or relevant in the systems that we study. In short, are the high doses of chemicals we give our cells in culture relatable to the conditions that those cells would see in a healthy or diseased individual? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. While this is a problem that has plagued basic biological science and biomedical research for decades, it should also spark a similar question for each of us as we study life through the lense of the camera.
More than any other time in the past, we spend a large amount of time taking in and digesting information from a screen. The information and entertainment that comes through that screen has been carefully sculpted to convey a message and change our perceptions. This is not to raise conspiracy theories or become an alarmist, but rather to point out that what we see on TV and the movies actually colors how we see the world around us. In some cases the message is accurate; however, in others the message is not. So the question to consider is this: Is what I see on the screen relatable back to life? We must pick “systems” and entertainment that communicate truth. The damaging effects of dishonest depictions of life are easy to see around us:  violence played out on streets and playgrounds as learned from videogames; a selfish view of love and sex as learned from movies and pornography; a lifestyle of consumerism motivated by an endless stream of ads; a need to appear fake as all we see are smiles and successes on social media. This is the struggle in life: to pick out the real from the fake, the genuine from the forgery.  

Meaning and making marks

IMG_0682.JPG

 

Often when faced with the ephemeral nature of life, people express the desire to ‘leave a mark’.

 

Perhaps our desire, our joy should not be in the futile quest for permanence, but in the impressions we leave on those around us. Those who are just as fleeting and ephemeral as ourselves, yet who have all the same fears, dreams, hopes, and yearnings.

 

Our journey is short and our mark light.

On this adventure of life, may our goal be to journey well, as curious and gracious sojourners. May we value personal interaction over distraction,  intimacy over accolades, and strive to fully devote ourselves to loving and learning.

 

Composing and comprised of

2011-05-14 18.36.08

“Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

 

-Rabbi Sacks

 

In general, the approach of science has been to take things apart in order to understand how each part works. Tissues and cells are taken out of the body and studied in isolated systems. Even specific proteins are extracted from cells to study how they interact with individual proteins outside of any outside interference. Data is compiled and then analyzed from many angles to try and delineate meaning.

 

True, some fields such as epidemiology study large systems, but even in these fields the basic line of reasoning has been to take apart complicated systems and organisms to isolate and study individual elements.

 

Perhaps the most concerning implication of this approach is the underlying premise that an organism, including people, are only the sum of their parts.

 

Conversely, the general approach of religion has been holistic, inclusive, and focused on the system or whole organism. The closest that most faiths have to investigating the components making up to the individual is to speak vaguely and generally about the “essence” of an individual, such as that making up the spirit or soul.

 

Perhaps the most concerning implication of this approach is the seeming indifference to the role components making up a system.

 

Perhaps this is why both faith and science are important: providing a varied approach to understanding who we are, what we are, and why we are here. Alone scientific or religious explanation is inadequate. Accepted as complementary, they can become a powerful tool for understanding our place in the universe.

 

To provide an example, consider a car. We must be concerned both with the components and the car in its entirety to get a good understanding of the purpose and capabilities of the car. Components tell us how the brakes facilitate stopping of the car, how the accelerator is tied to increasing speed, and how the steering wheel moves the front tires. However the components cannot tell us how it will feel to drive the car or much about the inventor of the car. For an understanding of these, they require personal experience behind the wheel and an interaction with the inventor. As J. Lennox reasons, one cannot say that either Henry Ford or the combustion engine are responsible for the car; rather both Henry Ford and the combustion engine are responsible for the car.

 

Using faith and science in tandem as powerful mechanisms of pursuing truth, we can better understand our role and our place in the grand scope of the universe and the astounding adventure of human life.

Of Men and Microbe

Of Men and Microbe

2015-06-11 13.43.31

Classic biology teaching had been that we are outnumbered on the cell for cell basis 10:1 by bacteria. Certainly bacteria, especially the microbiome of the gastrointestinal system, are an important component of the body needed for homeostatic maintenance of health and prevention of disease. However a recent article published in the journal Cell (Sender et al. 2016) presented the finding that the ratio is much closer to 1:1. In the words of the authors:

 

“The B/H (bacterial to human) ratio is actually close enough to one, so that each defecation event…may flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.”
Interesting in it’s own right, this also demonstrates the importance of revisting “old”, accepted principles as new technology and techniques come about. The beauty of science is a progression and building of knowledge in which even old ideas and concepts can be challenged for a better understanding of truth.

 

References cited

Sender, R., Fuchs, S. and Milo, R. Are We Really Vastly Outnumbered? Revisiting the Ratio of Bacterial to Host Cells in Humans. Cell 164, 337-340.

About This Blog

“Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”

Niels Bohr

 

The pursuit of the correct questions is the meaning of life. One which we cannot seemingly perfect and can barely even optimize in our limited time on this planet. Whether laboratory science, religious experience, personal emotions, and logical contemplation are all methods by which we try to ask, and answer, the questions of life.
This is the grand adventure in which we find ourselves. A place to ask question, ponder truth, and share in every moment.

 

This is the purpose of this blog. A space to think . To write. To ponder. To adventure together. To share life with.