General 12-31-2004

Seeing the Light

At the hinge of the year, Michael Fallon thinks macrocosmically.

Michael Fallon

A few weeks ago, as I was driving to a friend’s house, I noticed a strange greenish glow in the post-dusk northern sky. While I’m not particularly sure why I was looking up when I should have been paying attention to the road, I figure sometimes it’s best not to question such things. Fascinated, I pulled over to the curb for a moment in order to watch the light show more closely, and I found it only passingly odd that no one else seemed to notice what was going on.

At my friend’s house, I stood on the porch and pointed to the sky. “Are those the northern lights?” I asked. She said she didn’t know but grabbed her jacket and followed me to the backyard where we watched sky for a good half-hour or so, dazzled by the flickering fingers of green light.

I’d heard of the aurora borealis as a kid growing up in sun-blinded Southern California, but it had always sounded like a thing of legend–like reindeer and jingle bells and seven-foot snowdrifts and black ice. In my seven years in Minnesota I had not seen the lights, even when I escaped the city and waited around like a fool in the dark countryside, my neck bent backward and my chest full of the sinking feeling Linus must feel during a night in the pumpkin patch. According to what I read later, when confirming what we had actually seen, the northern lights are “caused by electrically charged particles emitted from the sun during periods of high sunspot activity. Those particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field–producing the light shows.” This explanation led me to wonder what sunspots were exactly: “Dark spots, some as large as 50,000 miles in diameter, (that) move across the surface of the sun, contracting and expanding as they go.” Scientists are not exactly sure what forms sunspots, though there are theories.

In ancient times, there were many legends, myths, and superstitions to explain the lights. Some experts think the early dragon legends of China and Europe originated from the aurora. Also in China, the aurora was believed to predict forthcoming births. Some cultures regarded the sighting of the aurora as the precursor for war or a sign of the spirits of the dead. Popular belief in Scandinavia linked the aurora to dead women, especially to dead virgins. The Sámi believed that the northern lights had supernatural powers to resolve conflicts. The Eskimos of North America believed that if you whistled at the aurora it would sweep down and take you from the earth; by clapping your hands you could force it to retreat. Up until the Enlightenment, the northern lights were viewed with fear or reverence and were associated with the concepts of heaven and hell.

Ancient cultures were more in tune with the magical aspects of life; they appreciated the wonders of the world and made up stories about them so that they could understand and hold onto them after they’d gone. Predictably, when the so-called rational European explorers of the Enlightenment first encountered the ancient peoples of the New World they scoffed at these stories. For instance, they reported back to Europe, perhaps chuckling at the quaintness of the idea, that people here believed the sun “had the power to grow crops.” Still, because of this worship of the magic of the skies, the Mayans carefully observed and recorded the changing arc that the sun inscribed in the sky throughout the year, forming calendars that were more accurate and detailed than the Europeans’. And, as it turns out, they were right about that power to grow crops thing…

IN MODERN TIMES, WE DO KNOW HOW TO RESEARCH AND THEORIZE, but as a rule we scarcely notice the wonders of the world. And while we moderns might in some ways be justified for mocking the ancients for their fantastic and wildly inaccurate stories to explain the unexplainable, I wonder if we really are any better off for our ability to explain the facts the universe and not the magic and beauty of it?

I suspect I’m not the only one who finds science and reason lacking at times. The inability of science to address everyday magic may explain recent events such as the attempt to diminish the teaching of scientific theory in favor of religious doctrine in such school districts as Dover, Pennsylvania. Dover is where, you may know from news reports, the school board recently decided to introduce an alternative to evolution in parts of its biology curriculum.

Of course Dover is not the only place where the folks have launched a major push to get a religious doctrine—that is, the biblical version of God’s creation of the world, which is now euphemistically termed “intelligent design”–taught as an alternative scientific theory to evolution. At least 40 U.S. states have faced such legal challenges in recent months. In Cobb County, Georgia, textbooks have had stickers stuck inside them telling children that evolution is “theory, not fact.” In Grantsburg, Wisconsin, new rules direct teachers to analyze the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution, as well as allow for the study of other theories. In Ohio the state school board has sought to open the way for the teaching of opposing theories to evolution. The Missouri Legislature will consider the introduction of “intelligent design” into its classrooms last year.

The existence of life on earth and in the universe is one of those wondrous, inexplicable things that theories like evolution cannot help us begin to fathom. It’s probably no accident that despite the fact that the theory of evolution is accepted as fact by the vast majority of scientists around the world, and despite archeological evidence that details aspects of evolution, a Gallup Poll last month showed that 45 percent of American believe God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years (!). I don’t want to be in the position of defending science, considering what I’ve just said about its lackings, but it’s difficult to use science as a justification for the misinformed half of our population. The fact is that it’s just as easy to go overboard in the opposite direction—into ignorance and superstition—when trying to come to grips with something science can’t help us understand.

The sad aspect of the case in Dover in particular is that this battle is less about which theory is correct than it is strictly politics—an attempt by conservative groups like the Thomas More Law Center to shore up political support of like-minded people. Consider how conservatives speak of this issue as though it’s yet another political campaign. Said Richard Thompson, president of the law center: “We are going to win. It is a free-speech right for students to receive alternative views.” Christians over the country are being encouraged to join school boards and lobby to get intelligent design in the curriculum. “We have as much right as the evolutionists to be on our school boards,” said Patricia Nason, of the Institute for Creation Research. She and fellow creationists believe Bush’s victory gave them a chance to get their “agenda” into schools. “I feel that if we don’t make progress in the next four years that window of opportunity will close,” she said. Bush himself, a born-again Christian, has stated: “On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth.”

To this all I can say is, yes. Yes, Mr. President, the verdict is out on many mysterious things. The verdict is out on how exactly life came to be. The verdict is out on the magic of the aurora borealis—just what made such a sight so beautiful to me on such a night. The verdict is out on the meaning of art and beauty. The verdict is out on the reasons for that prickly gooseflesh feeling when my lips touch a glass of red wine at a candlelight dinner. The verdict is out on the cause of the effect of a Beach Boys song on me, which always takes me back to that time I was 16 and the sun shone down on my shoulders and the girl next door smiled at me. The verdict is out on so many things, and while I have thoughts and theories about many of them, I certainly am not going to force my ideas as scientific truth on a classroom full of impressionable kids.

My only suggestion, creationists and scientists, politicians and demagogues, is to leave the science to the scientists, the religion to the religionists, and keep politics out of both things. Maybe we all just need to seek a balance between truth and understanding. From this point forward, I intend to keep my neck craned upward to catch the visit of the aurora borealis. I will do so in solitude or together with anyone else who might be interested. I will believe things and wonder about things and theorize about it all, and not force my ideas on you or your children. And I will listen to your ideas about it all, if you’re willing to share and can keep the dogmatism in check.