or Aliens in Our Midst
It's one thing to be willing to suspend disbelief when you're enjoying a work of fiction in whatever genre—to accept that opera characters are going to sing all their conversations, say, or that Scotty really can beam people aboard the Enterprise. It's another thing in real life. It's not easy to be confronted by something that up-ends what you think of as normal and to be willing to accept a new, disconcerting truth.*
Scientists, at least the kinds that make paradigm-changing discoveries, are good at suspending disbelief until a theory has worked itself out. Take Copernicus and Galileo, examining the heavens with new, telescopic technology. They observed anomalies that didn't fit an earth-centered cosmology; the anomalies disappeared when they stopped thinking of the earth as the universe's focal point. The naysayers were willing to dismiss the anomalies as acts of God or as plain untruths (thus suspending disbelief in a different direction), but Copernicus and Galileo pursued the evidence to its radical (and troublesome) conclusion.
Or take Einstein, setting his mind to the vexing question of the longitude of North America at the turn of the twentieth century.** Where other scientists wrote off inconsistent measurements as weaknesses in the tools they used for measuring, Einstein questioned the anomalous readings, figured out a system in which they made sense, fixed the longitude of North America, and developed the theory of relativity in the process (a truth that, on The List of Disconcerting Truths, has to rank rather high).
It's just human nature, I suppose, to assume that any anomaly, anything beyond our experience, arises not because our experience is at fault—i.e., because we are not broadminded or imaginative or informed enough to understand it—but because the anomaly itself is somehow problematic. Either it doesn't exist at all (a lie, false readings, hysteria, misperception), or it is supernatural somehow—an act of God or of magic.
Or maybe space aliens.
Which brings us to the rue blooming in my garden. As many of you know, I love this plant. If there were room in my garden for a swath of anything, I would be happy to plant a swath of rue, somewhere that I wanted to create an impression of cool mystery. I mean, look at those leaves and the way they play with light and shadow, the sense of layers, of multiple dimensions. Maybe even a fourth dimension.
Or (cue eerie music) a fifth.
The leaves look like ordinary (but extraordinarily lovely) greenery. And (except for the fact that you don't dare touch them with bare skin when the sun has been shining on them without risking a poison ivy-like rash and blisters), they are. It's the blossoms that give rue away as something...not quite...earthly. Notice how the petals don't unfold or unfurl; oh, no—rue's petals hinge open from the base. Like a space pod.
And in the flower's center—OK, maybe I've succumbed to the influence of New Mexico, what with the Roswell incident and the Very Large Array
and all, but does this or does it not look like a communication device?
And, as if my own idiosyncratic impressions weren't proof enough that this plant doesn't come from the planet earth, the neighbors' cats avoid it.
See what I mean? Spooky.
Admittedly, I'm not a scientist, just an ex-musicologist. And yet, in the face of the evidence, I am willing to accept a disconcerting truth, such as that rue is a space alien. The alternative is that some flowers hinge open from the base.
Sorry, but that's just plain weird.
* For the record, this is a total "mountain out of a molehill" post. But please do come along for the ride.
** For more details, see Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, by Peter Galison. I'm reducing its wealth of information to an embarrassing degree.