Scientific Voices

BarmaidsBrainScience requires translation. Even very intelligent people in other fields of study have trouble understanding what scientists have been saying. That’s why science writers are so important. They can distill the heady knowledge that empirical method produces into a palatable tipple for the laity. Jay Ingram’s The Barmaid’s Brain is one such digestible report. As the subtitle (And Other Strange Tales from Science) indicates, this book is about the weird world of science’s often hidden charms. We all pretty much know that quantum mechanics has turned conventional wisdom on its head. We also know (courtesy of the media) that science and religion fight like cats and dogs. What we don’t see is that scientists often disagree on how to interpret data, particularly on the weird end of things. Ingram tells many such interesting tales from nature, psychology, and technology.

The essays in the book are loosely grouped into areas with some common theme. The psychology story that struck me as being particularly appropriate for this blog was the one about Joan of Arc. Joan, as most of us learned from history, was a prodigy. Illiterate, female, and poor, she nevertheless displayed a military genius that led her to the head of a French army trying to hold off the advances of the English. When turned over to the enemy she was treated as a witch, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. Later she became a saint. The reason that she’s in a book of science essays is that Ingram wonders what exactly was going on when she heard voices and saw visions. Neuroscientists have devised ways of peering into the brain during religious experiences, and psychologists have constructed theories of why otherwise sane people hear voices. Joan doesn’t fit into the category that used to be called schizophrenia, nor does she appear to have been in any way insane. She was religious and her religion spoke to her.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for scientists to be believers. Nothing was wrong with believing in a god and studying the physical world. Indeed, the idea went back to Isaac Newton and other scientists of the first generation of the Enlightenment. Implications eventually led to the utter absence of deity from the world. People such as Joan were understood as sadly misled by a religion that could not be distinguished from magic. Yet Joan, as Ingram well knows, would hardly be a household name without her visions and her faith. At the end of the analysis, Joan rises from the couch still a mystery. An enigma to science, and suspect to many religious. She was, it seems to me, quintessentially human. We are all, it seems, whether saints or scientists, subject to what empirical evidence will allow us to believe. Most of the time, anyway.


Crimes and Misogynies

Mill Creek Entertainment has, through no fault of its own, accounted for many an idle hour of my weekends. Assiduously gathering and collating public domain movies, mostly of dubious quality, into sets of fifty movies per box, sold at a rate that probably isn’t actually cheap since most of the movies are available free online, Mill Creek panders to the connoisseur of B, C, D, or even lower, movies. Sometimes, however, a good one slips through. That’s how I discovered Bluebeard (1944). One of John Carradine’s many movies, this version of the seventeenth-century tale of a murderous husband is set in Paris sometime in the not-too-distant past, Gaston Morel is a demented puppeteer who murders his models because of a religious incident. In the final confession scene Morel explains how he, as a starving artist, took a homeless girl to his studio to nurse her back to health. As he sketched her, he realized she reminded him of the Maid of Orleans—Joan of Arc. After her recovery, she turned to a life of debauchery, driving Morel insane with rage. He thus comes to kill his models due to his tattered faith (and fragile psychology).

Despite some typical overacting and strange plot twists (why would a Paris police inspector take his American girlfriend to examine evidence to solve a crime about which he is clueless? Was he planning to run for president later?), the movie manages to provide an intelligent number of turns in the plot to keep viewers interested to the end. The concept of a killer deranged by an idealistic fiction of a female victim is somewhat frightening because it continues to this day. Long before Eve bit the fruit, ancient Mesopotamians feared the demonic female of the night who later came to be called Lilith. When the unruly female entered Judeo-Christian tradition, however, she became the target of the hate and fears of too many men who had their own ideas (backed by their own religions) of how women should act.

Witch-hunts (of all varieties) have their basis in religion-fueled misogynies. Religious texts, written mostly by men, set the standard of female behavior. Those who fail to live up to it must be enemies of the world order of masculine ideals. They are the heretics, the expendable, the feminine. As someone raised by a woman without benefit of her husband, I have never had any doubts that women were just as, if not more, capable of making it in the world as men. Yet even then, in the 60’s, many women believed equal rights with men to be immoral because of the magisterial pronouncements of the male Bible. Remember, God for the Bible is a bearded man. And upon close inspection, at times at least, one may discern in that beard a touch of blue.

Parable