Sunday, July 16, 2006

Hurry, hurry, step right up...

When P. T Barnum said "There's a sucker born every minute," he got it wrong. The people who came to his American Museum, and later to his various traveling shows, weren't suckers. They knew exactly what they wanted to see.

They wanted to see freaks.

Or at the very least, they wanted the biggest, the smallest, the strongest, the hairiest...

Barnum gave 'em what they wanted. The mummified Fejee Mermaid was a popular attraction, until it was exposed as a fraud (the torso of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish, or so we must suppose). General Tom Thumb, the charming dwarf, drew thrill-seekers by the thousands. Barnum bragged to a friend in 1845, "Since New Year's [and the beginning of a new contract with Tom] my profits have averaged $800 per week, & I think if the General lives I may safely count on clearing $25,000 per annum." That was big money in those days, enough to support an extravagant lifestyle.

Things haven't changed much. We are less inclined today to use words like freak or to exploit the unfortunate, but we are still a people with an appetite for the exceptional -- as the supermarket tabloids confirm. Oddities and abberations confirm our faith in the fallibility of the scientific world view, which supposes that everything is ultimately reducible to law. We have never quite adjusted to the tidy, law-abiding universe of Galileo and Newton. We love order in our personal lives, but we prefer nature with ravelled sleeves. We are happiest when our lives are hemmed about with a measure of chaos.

Many years ago I had occasion to read through early issues of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first regular scientific journal, which began publication in 1665. At that time, Europe was on a cusp of history between the Age of Miracles and the Age of Reason. I expected to find in the Philosophical Transactions an overwhelming emphasis on law. What I discovered instead was an astonishing number of reports, from all over the globe, of chimeras, monsters, and curious anomalies -- lambs born with two heads, a rain of frogs, strange lights in the sky, that sort of thing.

Buried among these accounts of once-in-a-lifetime curiosities were a few inconspicuous papers by people such as John Wallis, Christopher Wren, and Robert Hooke on the behavior of colliding balls, pendulums, springs, and the motions of heavenly bodies. The attention of these investigators was directed not to the exceptional but to the constant and ordinary. From their observations, Newton and his successors created modern science.

Since Newton's time, science has emphasized strict causality. Everything that happens is determined by laws of nature. Miracles are banished. Freedom is an illusion. Prayer is futile. Tragedy is happenstance. An ancient Babylonian creation myth says, "In the beginning there was Apsu, who is order, and Tiamat, who is chaos." After Newton, there was only Apsu, the rule of law.

Newton's physics was a brilliant approximation to the way the world works, but it failed as a popular philosophy. The human mind resists too much order. Pendulums, colliding balls, and planets turning in their same old courses are profoundly boring. Give us a two-headed sheep. Give us the Feejee Mermaid and Tom Thumb.

We pay lip service to science but we keep buying our tabloids. We know in our heart of hearts that disorder lurks just beyond the door. Abominable snowmen, Loch Ness monsters, aliens in flying saucers -- these are the bogey men of the modern imagination, which is not so modern, after all. Tiamat, who is chaos, has been with us all along.

Not even scientists know quite what to do with the prevailing scientific philosophy. If everything is law, then where does novelty come from? If the world is nothing but a clockwork, then what of good and evil? What does one say to the man born without arms, or to the family whose home has been destroyed by a freak storm? A chance mutation? A statistical quirk? God does not play dice with the universe, said Einstein. Then why? Why?

Some scientists bluster along with a hardy faith in determinism. They talk about a "Theory of Everything," an amalgam of quantum physics and relativity that in principle will explain everything that happens. The emphasis is on "in principle"; faced with the quirks of life, they simply shrug. Other scientists latch onto a fundamental indeterminacy which they believe to be implicit in quantum physics, or embrace the mathematics of chaos as a way of admitting a measure of arbitrariness to the world. The rest of us watch these debates with bemused skepticism. Does quantum indeterminacy or chaos theory explain why the toilet invariably clogs up and overflows just as the guests are arriving for dinner?

P. T Barnum, the entrepreneur of the bizarre, understood us better than we understand ourselves. Absolutely everyone came to his museum of grotesqueries, not just the gullible masses, but also famous scientists such as Joseph Henry and Louis Agassiz, authors such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, and other assorted illuminaries. If there's a sucker born every minute, then we are all suckers. We live in an Age of Reason but we hanker with a furious passion for miracles.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.