Annie Dillard on cognizance

"Garden of Carbon NanoEden" by M. de Volder, S. Tawfick, and A. John Hart; 2nd Place Winner in the Materials Research Society 2008 Fall Meeting "Science as Art" Competition

"Garden of Carbon NanoEden" by M. de Volder, S. Tawfick, and A. John Hart; 2nd Place Winner in the Materials Research Society 2008 Fall Meeting "Science as Art" Competition

I don’t really look forward to these microscopic forays: I have been almost knocked off my kitchen chair on several occasions when, as I was following with strained eyes the tiny career of a monostyla rotifer, an enormous red roundworm whipped into the scene, blocking everything, and writhing in huge, flapping convulsions that seemed to sweep my face and fill the kitchen. I do it as a moral exercise; the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget. You can buy your child a microscope and say grandly, “Look, child, at the Jungle in a Little Drop.” The boy looks, plays around with pond water and bread mold and onion sprouts for a month or two, and then starts shooting baskets or racing cars, leaving the microscope on the basement table staring fixedly at its own mirror forever—and you say he’s growing up. But in the puddle or pond, in the city reservoir, ditch, or Atlantic Ocean, the rotifers still spin and munch, the daphnia still filter and are filtered, and the copepods still swarm hanging with clusters of eggs. These are real creatures with real organs leading real lives, one by one. I can’t pretend they’re not there. If I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer. The monostyla goes to the dark spot on the bowl: To which circle am I heading? I can move around right smartly in a calm; but in a real wind, in a change of weather, in a riptide, am I really moving, or am I “milling around”?

I was created from a clot and set in proud, free motion: so were they. So was this rotifer created, this monostyla with its body like a lightbulb in which pale organs hang in loops; so was this paramecium created, with a thousand propulsive hairs jerking in unison, whipping it from here to there across a drop and back. Ad majorem Dei gloriam?

Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I lift my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye.
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 122. First published (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974). Cited in part as the Quotation of the Day for February 9, 2008, submitted by Brian K. Read on February 7, 2008.

Albert Einstein Annie Dillard Posted on behalf of and on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 under Quotations.

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