There I am, eleven or twelve years old, some age thereabouts, hunched over a test tube on my back porch, carefully following the instructions in my science kit that said, "Conduct this experiment in a well-ventilated area."
Good advice. Because this, thankfully, was before the days when anal-retentive product safety types could stand between a boy and his homemade chlorine gas.
As instructed, I put the chemicals into a test tube. I added water. I put my nose close to the test tube and waved my hand over the end of it to waft some of the gas into my nostrils.
Then I hacked and coughed for at least five minutes. It was a moment of science that is still clear in my mind at the age of 58.
Thank you, Mom.
A woman who'd divorced a jerk, my father, who never paid a dime of child support payments, she didn't have much money back then. Yet she paid for monthly Things of Science kits, if I remember the name correctly, that her son enjoyed immensely.
I got to thinking about this inner child stuff in the course of wondering why I react so strongly when someone trashes science, whether they be a commenter on this blog like William or the inaptly named Discovery Institute, a primary purveyor of creationist intelligent design B.S.
Must be that I got imprinted onto science at an early enough age so now I see it threatened and rush to protect it, like one of those orphaned baby monkeys that learned to look upon a rag doll as if it was its mother. Try to take it away and the monkey would scream like crazy.
I'm not quite that attached to science. But I spent many happy boy-hours at a card table inside my bedroom closet, where a chair and me could just barely fit with the sliding door closed.
I set up my chemistry set and other science experiments on the table, a bare light bulb hanging from an extension cord serving for illumination. That was me as a youth, a kid, an immature pre-teen.
And now? Every morning I make a strong cup of coffee in our kitchen. I then take it in hand and walk to an unused tiled shower in another part of the house. There I open up the sliding door and step over an extension cord that snakes from the shower to a bathroom electrical outlet.
I sit down on cushions rather than a chair. Plus, instead of just a light I've also got an electric clock and space heater. So, yes, I've changed, grown up, matured. Sort of.
My meditation area, my laboratory, usually still has a strong scientific presence, books that tell me what's happening with modern cosmology, evolutionary theory, quantum physics. They're pleased to share shower space with more explicitly spiritual literature, Taoist, Buddhist, whatever-ist.
That whiff of chlorine gas, it was real. When I read about chlorine attacks in Iraq, I had a much better understanding of what the victims experienced because of my back porch experiment more than forty-five years ago.
Such is the power and glory of science. It puts us in touch with reality. Not religious dogma, superstition, imaginings, conjectures, theology.
My mother didn't force me to endure any more Catholicism after I resisted nuns cramming my cranium with whatever the hell I needed to know to be confirmed. (Included something about venial and mortal sins, I do remember that.)
Her "religion," which has become mine, was learning. Learning how the world works. Learning how the mind works. Learning how the world and mind work together to produce such things as fingers typing on a laptop, communicating signals sent from a blogger's brain onto the World Wide Web where others can read words written in Oregon from any place on Earth.
With my allowance and chore money I was able to buy a Hallicrafter's short wave radio back in those good old vacuum tube days. I learned how long of an antenna was needed to pick up what I wanted to hear. It got strung out of my bedroom window, along the roof, and thence across our back yard, precariously supported by some lumber scraps.
I could sit at my desk and listen directly to what most adults had to glean from newspapers and magazines. I heard Radio Free Europe preaching to those commies in Russia. I heard Castro's propaganda emanating from Cuba.
Glorious. A gift of science. The ability to tune into distant places, unfamiliar and foreign, while sitting at my roll-top desk in Three Rivers, California.
And now? I close my science or spirituality book. I put on my noise deadening ear protectors and light obstructing eye shades. I take a last sip of coffee. I settle myself into my meditation cushions as comfortably as I can.
Then I listen. Trying to tune in to whatever is being broadcast on whatever frequency my consciousness can pick up. Still up to the same boyish tricks. I'm older, but I'd never say I'm wiser.
What I am is still a lover of science. Sitting in my own little laboratory. Doing some experiments. Wanting to learn a bit more about how the world and me work.
Some days, it's like sniffing chlorine gas. Not pleasant at all. Other days, it's like hearing an unexpected voice from halfway around the world, telling me something I've never heard before.
So if you read this blog and catch me blasting someone for being anti-science, hopefully now you'll understand better why this fifty-eight year old, going on eleven, feels the way he does.
To me, science isn't different from life. At least, life as it should be lived. Especially when we're trying to figure something out. Like, the meaning of life. Or why we want to figure out the meaning of life.
I'll end with a quote from Natalie Angier's "The Canon." What it points to is: we're all scientists.
You don't need to work at a laboratory bench to follow a scientific game plan. People behave scientifically all the time, although they may not realize it.
If someone is trying to fix a DVD player, they do experiments, they do controls," said Paul Sternberg, a developmental biologist at Caltech. "Step one is observation: What does the picture look like? What are the possible things that could be wrong here? Is it really the player, or could it be the television set? You come up with a hypothesis, then you start testing it. You borrow your neighbor's DVD player, you hook it up, you see your TV set is fine. So you check your DVD's input, output, a couple of wires. You may be able to track down the problem without really understanding how a DVD player works.
"Or maybe you're trying to troubleshoot your pet," Sternberg said. "Why does the fish look funny? Why is my dog upset? I'll feed the hamster less or I'll feed it more, or maybe it doesn't like the noise, so I'll move it away from the stereo system. Should I take Job A or Job B? Well, let's see how long the drive would be from the office to my daughter's school during rush hour; that could be the killer factor in making a decision.
These are all examples of forming hypotheses, doing experiments, coming up with controls. Some people learn these things at an early age. I had to get a Ph.D. to figure them out."