Science & Sorcery

- Feb 06, 2015

I had the opportunity this week to participate as a judge in a school science fair and I was, quite honestly, very impressed.  Of course, I'm a humanities guy, which means that in general I have trouble distinguishing between science and sorcery.  And so, even the most mundane scientific experiments leave me in open-mouthed amazement. There was one young man powering a light bulb with a potato.  Yes, a potato.  Also, I heard that one year a pair of students made a projector using pvc pipe and cellophane.  Seriously.  These are the people that are going to colonize Mars.  Probably even later this year.  When the zombie apocalypse occurs, I'll find a group of middle school students and rule the new world.

At the institutional level, the disparities between the sciences and humanities are very clear.  They keep us in separate buildings for heaven's sake.  And quite rightly, perhaps.  I wonder if there is sometimes a temptation to suspect that in the science building they are curing diseases and exploring humanity's impact on ecosystems and discovering new planets, while across the quad in the humanities building we are debating literary merits, reciting poetry and telling stories.  Maybe, but that's not ALL we're doing.

And yet, like so many things in life, these boundaries and divisions we construct in an effort to understand the world and our place in it are just that: constructions.  I am not suggesting that verifiable scientific data is somehow erroneous; but I am suggesting that instead of having to choose between, say, a scientific and a philosophical worldview, we should be able to have both.  Why shouldn't we have our cake and eat it too?  I am made from an organized collection of atomic material, but I like to think that I am something more than the literal sum of my parts.

Which brings me to motorcycles and riding.  I have a general understanding of how an internal combustion engine works and, consequently, what makes a motorcycle go. However, I still find myself marveling in amazement at how motorcycles effortlessly graft the artistic onto the mechanical.  I think in every motorcycle there is a blend of the technological and the aesthetic, of structure and beauty…of science and sorcery.  

After all, motorcycles themselves are an instance of, shall we say…"technological poetry," in which it is difficult to tell where the machinery ends and the art begins.  Sure, it's made from bits of metal and plastic and rubber with hundreds of moving parts.  But that's not really what a motorcycle is any more than saying that a collection of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen is what you are.

Of course, at this point we might find ourselves inquiring into the meaning of life itself and it might be best to take a step back from this philosophical precipice.  Indeed, perhaps this existential pontification has only managed to complicate a fundamental principle that riders everywhere have known ever since they put together two wheels and an engine underneath a canister of combustible fluid:  Motorcycles are really fun.  

But, not only fun.  When I ride, I find that I am not only intimately connected to a machine, but I'm intimately connected to the world around me.  I find myself occupying a small, precarious space where I am going fast enough that the world finally seems slower, and I can almost see each sun-dappled leaf dripping with liquid gold, and hear the rhythmic beat of the engine echoed in each wave breaking on the shore.  

Ultimately, I think that the respective worlds of science and philosophy are reconciled on a motorcycle.  For instance, there are forces of velocity and gravity operating on the motorcycle in a curve so that the friction between the rubber and the asphalt keeps the tires stuck to the road.  That's physics.  And, there are forces of pleasure and happiness operating on me when I twist the throttle and lean into a turn so that the corners of my mouth are pulled up into a bug splattered grin that sticks to my face for the rest of the day.  That's joy.

I suppose that motorcycles might not be the definitive answer to the question of life…but they're a pretty good start.

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