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Over the weekend, I listened to another amazing interview from “On Being” and Krista Tippett.

Her conversation was with theoretical physicist and professor Brian Greene, and although it was titled “Reimagining the Cosmos,” it covered a lot of ground, from parallel universes, to the question of free will, to STEM and the integration of science in modern educational programs.

Last summer, Greene wrote an article for The Smithsonian Magazine entitled “How the Higgs Boson was Found,” and Krista asked him to relate some of the information covered in that piece to her audience. Notably, she asked him about the fish metaphor.

Here is an excerpt from that Smithsonian piece:

Physicists tell a parable about fish investigating the laws of physics but so habituated to their watery world they fail to consider its influence. The fish struggle mightily to explain the gentle swaying of plants as well as their own locomotion. The laws they ultimately find are complex and unwieldy. Then, one brilliant fish has a breakthrough. Maybe the complexity reflects simple fundamental laws acting themselves out in a complex environment—one that’s filled with a viscous, incompressible and pervasive fluid: the ocean. At first, the insightful fish is ignored, even ridiculed. But slowly, the others, too, realize that their environment, its familiarity notwithstanding, has a significant impact on everything they observe.

Brian Greene

I’ve read a lot about Higgs Boson, but it wasn’t until I heard Greene explain its significance that I felt I could grasp its importance. The parable about the fish really helped.

But more than that, the fish parable got me thinking about all of the other “watery worlds” we inhabit.

As Greene says in the interview with Tippett, fish don’t know they’re in water. To them, water is emptiness.

When I wrote my book, The Myth of Jake, one of the ideas I wanted to explore was the extent to which our own individual “fish bowls” impact and shape who we are and what we become. Maggie and Jake, the two main characters, are like Greene’s “brilliant fish” who have breakthroughs, and somehow sense the water in which they are living.

But, as those of you who have read the book know, it’s pretty impossible to fully extract ourselves from our watery worlds. And, on another level, even the most self-aware among us are surely dwelling in paradigms from which we not only cannot escape, but we have no clue they even exist.

For some people, the mystery of that … the idea that we are surrounded by a reality we are incapable of sensing or intuiting … may be profoundly uncomfortable. For me, it’s inspiring.

I walked away from Greene’s explanation of the Higgs Boson particle – an indication of a new species of matter altogether – with a renewed sense of wonder and an injection of humility.

Although the discovery of Higgs Boson is a foundation for a great deal of work in science which will surely follow, I also think it’s a solid reminder that it is simply not possible to understand or comprehend another person’s reality.

For me, practicing non-judgment of others and accepting who and how they are transcends morality, kindness or empathy. It’s an embrace of the profound, profound mystery of the universe. It’s an acknowledgement that just as there is probably a Higgs field surrounding us of which we are completely unaware, there are other forces at work that compel others to make the decisions that they make and live the lives that they live.

In the interview, Greene talks at length about how each individual person possess his or her own “time.” He says that your clock is different from my clock and that is different from someone else’s clock. He also admits this is difficult to put into practice as a thinking, feeling human being. But the implications of this to the way we interact with humans stagger me.

I live in the context of my own fishbowl. I live in the frame of my own clock. I don’t possess the capacity to see beyond this and I will never, ever understand enough math to comprehend this on anything but the translational level. But I can extrapolate from this and say this for certain: I stand in awe and embrace the mystery.

One Response to “Fish (In and) Out of Water”

  1. on 04 Feb 2014 at 9:37 amsandkpete

    I also listened and appreciate your explanation. I confess I got quite confused in hearing all the scientific explanation. You have put it into words that I come closer to understanding…Thank you

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