Life Lessons From The Lab And Beyond
Woah. It has felt like an age since I last sat down at my laptop with the intention to bust out a blog. It feels a bit alien but comfortable at the same time. I won’t go on a huge rant about the long hiatus – would anyone even care? I know I don’t… – but I’m back now!
Coming at you from an erratically evolving angle, I wanted to make today’s post about merging two close passions of mine: science and personal development. I realise that both are incredibly broad terms so I’ll grant each a brief explanation. By science, I am referring to physical laws and observed natural phenomena, that we collectively (throughout known history) devised ideas for and subsequently gained both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support said ideas. Note, I specifically avoided use of the word facts here: I know people can get antsy (and aggressive) around the use of that word. By personal development, I mean ideas grounded in neurosciences, psychology and spiritual practices (not voodoo…yet) that contribute towards happiness, health and wellbeing. Admittedly, everyone has their own ideas on this and this post isn’t so much about spewing out pseudo-scientific, arrogant life advice but just a few observations from the natural universe around us that we may be able to rework into life lessons to better help us.
There are many life lessons I believe we can take from science (of course, I would think that, having done a Biology degree, wouldn’t I?) and the below are just sone of them
Evolution: Variety Is The Substrate of Life
Let’s imagine the following. You go visit out into any natural place in the world. All you can see anywhere you go are the same animals and plants, with each individual having the exact same characteristics. Nature programmes are either restricted to the graveyard TV shift or, more likely, non-existent. David Attenborough would probably be working in an office for a . You wouldn’t be able to brag about how incredibly cute your dog Fido is because everyone else’s pet dog looks like your Fido. But it gets even more interesting. Everyone else pretty much looks like you too, with slight functional variations allowing for genders. Suddenly, almost inevitably, you’re wondering just when things will become different?!
It’s OK, it’s OK. Have a cup of cocoa. You were shaking pretty badly, I think you started to really believe that fantasy was reality. You’ll be glad to know it was only a fantasy (albeit quite horrifying)! You can walk almost anywhere on this planet and, with very minimal effort, see quite a variety of animal and plant life. Or, if you don’t feel like doing that, jump on your laptop instead and Google a related search term. It’s not even limited to wildlife, of course. A simple glance at schoolmates, work colleagues, neighbours, ad infinitum, will show you that everyone is, at the very least, slightly different.
Which is why I frankly find it bizarre when we are bombarded with messages to be the same. To all believe the same political, religious and social dogma (which, by the way, differs from country to country). Our schools are all about passing standardised tests to get the ‘best grades’ and ‘make it to the top of the class’ so you can ‘get the best job, make loads of money and have an awesome life’. School social order is fiercely stratified: geeks, nerds, jocks, popular girls, losers etc etc etc. Sure, it’s not all that black and white but a frightening proportion of it is like that. It seems not to celebrate diversity but actually attack it. Sadly, that trend follows us into adulthood. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia…we’ve actually invented loads of different ways to attack and denigrate each other’s differences.
Contrary to that, I think that, deep down, we know we want to be different enough (read: we should certainly celebrate our similarities too) to stand out, to help form our holistic sense of identity. And we want our world to be different enough too! Speaking for myself, I love that we’ve discovered species that are diversely (and subjectively!) beautiful, odd-looking, fearsome, timid, crafty, alien-looking, deadly…the list goes on. I revel, not dismay, at the fact that we have only discovered a fairly small percentage of estimated species on Earth. That’s only on Earth, by the way. Want to try taking a guess at how many there could be in the universe? I personally doubt we’re alone.
It’s all down to evolution, baby! In a nutshell, evolution occurs as a result of changes in gene frequencies in populations (i.e. how many individuals have different types, or alleles, of different genes) …over enough evolutionary time, these changes will result in new species. …meaning that we are here today because genes, the blueprints for us humans and the rest of life on this planet, have been diversifying like nobody’s business! And the best part is that evolution never really stops. While we can’t really see it occurring over a long evolutionary time (macroevolution – how species form), we can, and do, definitely, see evolution occurring over a shorter evolutionary time (microevolution – involving mechanisms such as genetic mutations). The same is with us, too, in a sense. We are undergoing the process of evolution – you will not be the same person after finishing reading this post – definitely biologically thanks to cell division, possibly psychologically …I am not liable for any damage of the latter.
Lesson One: Celebrate and love your differences, they help make life incredible and interesting. They help make you, you.
Do you love the creation of new life but abhor the idea of death? …or maybe you abhor the idea of life but abhor the idea of death? Either way, you’re buying into a fallacy according to one of the fundamental laws of physics! The First Law of Thermodynamics, simply stated, is that energy and matter can neither be created or destroyed, it can only change form. That’s right! Every bit of energy and matter that exists now in the known universe is all that there was, is and ever will be. For example, we get energy from the food we eat. The food we eat got its energy from somewhere. Let’s use cow beef as an example. Cows get their energy from the grass that they eat. The grass they eat gets the energy it needs to thrive (well, if you call being eaten eventually ‘thriving’) from the sun. And if you trace that energy chain back far enough from the sun, you’ll eventually arrive to the singularity that marks the very beginning of the universe. Neat, right?!
How does that translate to a ‘life lesson’? Taking a short logical leap, it follows that nothing in our lives (or any other organisms on this planet or any other) can be created or destroyed. So when you’re marvelling at the sheer beauty of a newborn baby (human or otherwise), just remember that it wasn’t technically created in a thermodynamic sense…it was simply a result of matter and energy changing form (though that makes the event no less incredible). It also means that when somebody passes away, as we all eventually will do, all the energy and matter that made them who they were will dissipate and change form to become part of new forms in the universe. Even if you have no spiritual belief That is according to the physical law of thermodynamics, not any kind of religious belief.
Most strikingly, from a personal development angle, it means that all we really are is change! We are changing constantly from one moment to the next, stacks of minute variations occurring without us even knowing it. While this applies physiologically, what is perhaps more subtle is the mental/psychological implications of this. Every thought, every idea, we have is a form of energy that inevitably changes form. Without meaning to diminish the massive breadth of the fields of mental and psychological health and research, this means that the thoughts we have – both negative and positive – have substance to them! Mind-blowing, right? So that constant inner dialogue you may have with yourself where you tell yourself you’re the biggest idiot in the world for whatever reason – being late for an appointment, spilling coffee on a smoking guy/girl you really like, not being pretty/smart/cool/successful/girly/manly enough etc etc – is going to have a tangible physical effect. Even if it is subtle and obscure enough for you not to notice. Likewise, those positive thoughts you (I hope) are having about yourself and the world around you have an effect too. No guesses as to which type of thought processes culminate in you feeling tired and lethargic, with no energy or willpower to do much of anything and which type of thought processes make you feel ready for opportunity, to try different things and to feel happy.
Implicit within this law, I believe, is the very powerful notion that we all have the power to change ourselves – not just physically, which I often feel is given more precedence, but mentally. Hey, you can have a pretty buff beach body but if you go around thinking everything is pretty goddamn crap and everyone is out to screw you over and the world is a bad place…you’re gonna have a bad time! How you think strongly affects what you do and how you do it. Just like we can change ourselves physically, we all have the tools and capacity to change our mental landscape. We can choose to stop thinking that we are the sum of all the (frankly pointless and unhelpful) judgments that we label ourselves (and others). We can actually strive towards a happier and more adventurous set of experiences in our time on this planet by thinking that we matter – you do, we all do – and we all have something extraordinary to offer. Not sure about whether that’s true or not? Well, start by believing it and see how things go from there…
Lesson Two: Not only can we change, it’s the only thing we can and do do! How much you are in control, and aware, of that change is completely up to you.
Astrophysics: We Are In The Universe, The Universe Is In Us*
*(Admittedly, the last one of this post I take from a quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with TIME magazine. I have recently been introduced to his work as a science communicator and have been hooked. The link to a video of that particular interview excerpt will be at the end of this post)
We’ve taken a biological and physical approach – so this last one will be chemical (although, yes, I fully acknowledge that there are other scientific disciplines!). What are we made of? I guess you could answer that in a bunch of ways, but chemically, there are a few elements that make up the bulk of us. In no particular order, these elements are Carbon, Hydrogen, Helium, Nitrogen, Oxygen. OK, thanks for the incredibly basic chemistry lesson, I hear you groan, but what in the name of Zeus does it have to do with anything??? Ahem, imploring you first not to take great Zeus’ name in mortal vain, I should like to mention simply this. These same five elements – that make up us – are also up there in the most common elements in the universe category. These elements – used to shape life itself – were forged within stars, the very ones we both see and can’t see (because their light hasn’t reached us yet) in the night sky…in our galaxy and the galaxies beyond.
Where am I going with this, you impatiently ask? Well, these elements were scattered as cosmic dust by dying stars (though, not technically dying, but changing forms, right?!) in their final, supernova stage (…supernova? Think…supermassive explosion!). The very elements that make us up being shot through space itself to eventually become new physical forms – stars, planets and living beings (yeah, even dolphins! Go dolphins!). I’ll say now that I’m an existentialist. I frequently wonder about my/our place in the universe and how we fit in, what we’re meant to do…all that existentialist stuff. I am deeply, deeply humbled and satisfied by the thought that we are all formed of stardust. That we share such a profoundly common link with the very objects we can so longingly gaze at when looking up at the night sky. And, as deGrasse Tyson mentions in his video, that makes me feel big (metaphorically speaking, of course). That’s the point where I realise that I, we, have a place in this universe. That we’re all just full of energy ready to be utilised at our will, that we all matter. It also comforts me in the thought that space isn’t as far as we think: it’s as much within as we might think we’re without reach of it. And that is. Awesome.
More deeply, it’s all about connectivity. I think we often forget that we’re as much part of nature as anything else that we see around us. As many manmade constructs we build to house and distract us, we can’t change the fact that we are as much animals as much as any other on this planet. Some people would aggressively argue that we are not animals – that man is somehow superior to animals. That warrants its own post but I will say that, for all our advances, we can’t escape the fact that we need to fulfil basal for survival. To eat, to sleep, to socially interact and to reproduce. I don’t think we need to feel superior to other wildlife on this planet to feel that we’re important or that we matter. In fact, we’re most likely no doubt happier when we’re getting along with nature – appreciating it because, deep down, we know that its existence sustains our own and that we are part of it. Oh, yeah, and next time you think you’re better than a ‘spineless worm’…just remember that a spineless worm has never freakishly obsessed over how Miley Cyrus twerked on the MTV VMA Live. Or post unwarranted abuse at people online, anonymously, just because it could. …at least, no spineless worm scientists have discovered so far have done that.
Lesson Three: The very fact that you exist is an incredible fact. Anything else you do between now and when you return your elements back to the universe to do with as it pleases, that is just icing on the cake. Feel free to make that icing as delicious as you want. You have as much right to have your icing to be as delicious as anybody else’s.
That’s all, folks! Thanks for reading if you got this far…I hope you got something out of it. And if you disagree with any/all of it, then rock on – diversity of opinion makes the world go around…though admittedly I hope you won’t deny things like evolution, thermodynamics etc…since…well, I’ll leave that one open.
Here’s wishing you an amazing 2014 folks – may your changing forms be ever to your own grand designs!!!