Kage Baker did not believe in unvarying truths. She felt that most verities had room in them to be altered by new information – that the truths inscribed in stone (sometimes literally) by one generation were naturally subject to editing by the discoveries of generations yet to come.
I used to protest that Science, at least, was not as susceptible to this. Kage argued that it was, of all human endeavours, the most susceptible: because you can maintain the “truths” of religion, politics and art based on nothing more than opinion and personal preference. But science, good science, requires proof – so when a new truth arises and survives, a paradigm is achieved rather than a shift in opinion.
“Einstein’s physics isn’t preferred to Newton’s because he was a kindly old guy who played the fiddle,” she said once. “It’s because he was right, and could prove it. And there are already changes popping up to Einstein’s work, as well. That’s how science works.”
She was right, of course. That’s sort of embarrassing, considering I’m the one with the BA in biology, and she was the one who maintained fish weren’t animals.
She had an ingrained suspicion of revealed truths, though. Unless those truths were revealed to a whole lot of people at once, Kage distrusted revelatory information. If space aliens were really out there and wanted us to know, she felt, they’d stage a big public demonstration – like, over the Super Bowl or a soccer championships. If they didn’t realize this important aspect of human belief systems, then they weren’t very bright, she said – and we were in no danger from them.
It’s interesting to wonder if she was right, and if the reason for Fermi’s Paradox (which boils down to “Where the hell is everybody?”) is that the aliens don’t understand crowd psychology or public relations …
A number of classic revealed truths have met their paradigms this past year, and been destroyed – or expanded into unrecognizable new shapes, depending on your view point, I guess. One of them is solar system and planetary formation: the sharp new eyes we have launched into orbit, the far-seeing telescopes, have brought several new truths.
The Hubble, the Fermi, the several gamma ray imagers – have all found exoplanets. But they are not where we expected them; they are closer or further from their parent stars than we had theorized. And they are almost all bigger than we had ever imagined – leading to questions like: how can a ball of gas 10 times bigger than Jupiter survive in an orbit that practically skims its star’s corona? Clearly, planet formation is somewhat weirder than we had previously assumed.
Those same telescopes and imagers are showing us that the Universe is, as forecast, expanding. Except where it’s standing still. And also except where it may even be contracting. Apparently the Universe is breathing in and out like a hot souffle, and we have no real idea of how or why … but obviously, our ideas are changing.
This year, it was discovered that maybe some particles can move faster than light. That’s so huge a change to Einsteinian physics that it approaches religious heresy. But even if neutrinos can’t exceed the speed of light, something is making it look like they can – at least to the CERN Super Collider. We clearly have something new to learn about neutrinos, the speed of light, or what is actually happening inside CERN. The shape of physics is changing.
As is the shape of humanity. This year brought many new revelations of things some animals can do that we previously firmly believed were the sole province of Homo sapiens. Really basic things like making and using tools (crows, dolphins and chimpanzees), the making and use of fire (orangutans and bonobos), language (ravens, finches, chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins), and empathy (rats and chimpanzees).
And, in fact, this year has even shown us that We are not just Us. Most of us carry genes we know originated in other hominid species – Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans. This last would have delighted and amused Kage no end, as she had always maintained that Neanderthals and CroMagnons had indeed interbred. It would have especially made her laugh because she herself was descended from one of the areas where the Neanderthal genes are likeliest to be preserved: Northern Europe.
Red hair and freckles may, in fact, have been a gift from some Neanderthal grandmother to Kage. Maybe the Asperger’s was, too. Whether or not we can pinpoint specific Neanderthal traits that closely, what is now inarguable is – we carry their blood. It is, in fact, our blood. So much for that first Neanderthal skeleton being identified as a bear or a lost Cossack.
It’s rapidly getting to the point where we are going to have to re-define just what is is to be human. It’s probably not so much a shape of body as of mind. Maybe it’s an ecological niche. Our long-held self-knowledge certainly needs some fine-tuning.
I hope I make the cut.