Finding Solace in Science

An Incidental Search for Order in a Disordered World

From what I’ve been told, introductory science courses are nightmarish — characterized by rote memorization, by endless vocabulary and drawings of molecular structures.

But, as I sit, craned over my Cellular Biology textbook, scrawling down chemical reaction formulas, I am overcome by a strange sense of comfort. I brim with a body-wide sense of contentment and joy.

I’ve spent much of my undergraduate career sampling what the humanities have to offer — existential questions of moral philosophy, the sociology of religion, how to employ ethics to think about climate change. Early in college, I was most intrigued by the nuances. I craved complexity — I yearned for a true “liberal arts education” that would not teach me what to think, but how.

Two years in, I find myself drawn — ardently and resolutely — to the sciences.

Biology seems solid. Unwavering. Indisputable. And, after a long day, a nonsensical tragedy, or a few too many minutes spent reading the news, I crave some notion of constant, universal truth. Something to hold onto, to grasp tightly, when all else is sand slipping through my fingers. I want to know that, whatever happens — two hydrogen atoms, in the presence of an oxygen, will form a polar covalent bond, and that life on Earth as we know it will carry on because of it.

The longer I exist in it, the more I think: the world seems to be lacking in reason, not derived from any notion of logic or normative order (the way things ought to be).

Many social problems are multidimensional issues that entire disciplines and professional careers are dedicated to grappling with.

How can we address the socioeconomic and racial inequalities in our education system, decouple poverty and obesity, overcome political and religious division, tackle world hunger and homelessness, make peace between Israel and Gaza, or, my personal favorite: how can we stop the current wealthy from destroying the planet at the expense of the future poor?

On a personal level, how can someone love you and enjoy being with you romantically, but say that continuing to do so isn’t what would be best? On scales large and small, we spend much of our lives trying to make sense of these questions, often to no avail.

The complexities and nuances of it all are almost too much to bear. Thinking too much about it can lead to misery — some of the deepest thinkers and intellectuals have taken their own lives for this very reason (take David Foster Wallace, for example).

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe is constantly moving toward disorder (increasing entropy). I don’t doubt this.

But, in light of it all, I want things to be ordered. I want the world around me to make sense. For things to be as they should.

I take comfort in the fact that adding oxygen to glucose will always, beyond a shadow of doubt, yield carbon dioxide, water and adenosine triphosphate. The products of cellular respiration are the reactants in photosynthesis, and vice versa. Between the two, carbon cycles through our biosphere, supporting all of life — in which photosynthesizing plants and respiring animals live in harmony, in a cyclical sort of symbiotic bliss. In knowing this, I find solace.

I suppose it stems from some sort of intrinsic desire to know, as a line from one of my favorite poem reads, that “the universe is unfolding as it should.”

On a neural level, practicing gratitude leads to happiness, and can help one be resilient to the most challenging of life’s obstacles. From a scientific standpoint, the mechanisms underlying life on Earth are a miracle. Science gives us an eternity of reasons to be grateful — beyond that “we’re all made of stardust” bullshit (although it’s true). Our bodies, and our physical environment — at all times and against all odds — perform incredible feats.

By some inexplicable magic, lipids can arrange to form a bilayer, with their hydrophilic (water-loving) heads facing outward, shielding the hydrophobic (water-fearing), fatty acid tails.

Diffusion is a beautiful thing.

Naturally, substances move down gradients — diffusing from regions of high to low concentrations. In this way, soil rich with nutrients can spread to roots lacking it, or our bodies can cool off — sweating — by losing water and heat to the drier, cooler atmosphere. A sugar cube in water dissolves spontaneously until the entire solution is homogeneous, each fluid ounce of liquid getting its fair and equal share.

If only wealth, happiness, good health, nourishment, and political power worked in a similar way.

Exergonic reactions release free energy, while endergonic ones absorb it. Coupled together, the former fuels the latter, providing the cellular work for much of the activities that keep humans — and other organisms — alive. I am overcome by the beauty and harmony of it all.

It provides me with a comforting sort of symmetry, like that advocated by the Chinese religion of Taoism. The philosophy emphasizes a yin yang-esque balance characterizing the world, a force of nature guided by harmony between opposing forces.

In light of personal circumstances that I feel are unfair, in an increasingly chaotic country, in a world that seems more disordered and unjust every day — within the study of life, I find comfort, beauty, and reason for hope.

To quote Desiderata: “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

Aspiring human.

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