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My rosary

2010 September 23

When my sister and I were teenagers, we went to summer camp for the first time. Everyone there was so cool (by which I mean warm, friendly, accepting). Way more so than at school. The especially-cool counselors exposed us to exciting ideas like not wanting logos on their T-shirts, and how to make hemp necklaces. Unlike me, my sister became a counselor and carried on making those necklaces for years to come; for my 23rd birthday, she wanted to make me one, and asked me what kinds of beads I wanted on it.

Now, I have really minimal preferences when it comes to non-functional visual aesthetics. (Just last week, my uncle was giving away a bunch of hand-me-down shirts to me and my cousins, and I insisted that one of my cousins simply tell me which shirts to take, and stop asking me if I liked them.) So the only rationale I could think of for making this kind of decision was to try to come up with a way to make a handful of coloured beads into a symbolic representation of something I thought was important.

At the time, I had just graduated from university, and was doing the basic science courses I needed for medical school. Among these was a first-year physics course where, at the ripe old age of 22 — far too late in life, if you ask me — I finally grasped the meaning of “science”.

One of the experiments in that class was to observe the emission spectra of various elements. The procedure is very simple: take a glass tube full of the element you want to study, and run some electricity through it. It will emit light. Put a prism in the beam of light, and the photons get sorted by color. We’ve all seen sunlight expand into a full rainbow (all the visible colors, lined up in a consistent sequence), but light from a pure element will only generate photons of a few discrete colors. Here’s what it looks like for the simplest element, hydrogen:

The equipment is simple. The setup is simple. The result, when this experiment was first performed, was completely and utterly baffling. No scientific theory could explain it. It indicated that the electrons in an atom can’t simply have as much or as little energy as they please: rather, they are restricted to certain discrete amounts, with no middle area. Quantum mechanics had to be invented to explain this, and several top physicists have said something to the effect that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then clearly you don’t, because nobody does.

Everything else in my science classes up to that point had been about learning the findings so far, but this experiment finally threw the method itself into stark relief. This, for me, is the heart of science: if a reliable, reproducible, publicly verifiable observation is made that directly contradicts your beliefs about the world, you can’t just ignore it. You are compelled to change your beliefs, and you might have to believe profoundly unintuitive things. This is difficult enough in the relatively unemotional world of subatomic particles, but indeed everything can be studied. People can be studied! Our culture might have provided us with very strong beliefs about people that we don’t even realize we have; to really change them might require a great deal of humility and honesty and soul-searching. We have to be constantly willing to let go of everything we believe, if something more convincing comes along. Let me be clear that this does not mean nihilism. On the contrary: it’s about replacing beliefs with better beliefs. Studying the world as objectively as possible is difficult, and mistakes will be made, but on the whole, this is the best and only way to get closer to the truth. I call it “science,” but I’m not just talking about the complicated social enterprise of formal scientific research by people with PhD’s and such. It’s the basis for everything I believe. Most things are not studied formally, so we must apply this to our day-to-day experiences too.

That said, it’s the formally-researched questions that one can speak on most confidently. Do you think a harm reduction approach to drug would lead to more addiction, by sending the message that drug use is acceptable? Experience suggests otherwise, and indeed it might help get people into treatment. Sex education for kids will lead to more sex? Nope. It leads to healthier sex. In Africa, HIV is a disease of poverty? Not everywhere.

At least, that’s what seems to have been reliably observed so far. I’ll be happy to change my tune on all those points if anyone can point me to reliable observations to the contrary.

So that’s why I picked beads of violet, blue, and red, and asked for them to be spaced just so: the hydrogen emission spectrum as my personal rosary. I no longer wear that necklace — it wore out and broke — but the one thing I feel certain of is that the realization it represented will never wear out.

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