Stories are powerful things. A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor. A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.
You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day. There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.
Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery. These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged. Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others. Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.
Even equations convey an ideological slant. When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative. The chemicals are losing energy. When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive. Who cares about the chemicals? We humans are gaining energy. When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!
I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery. The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth. Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people. They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad. Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.
In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that
I could say anything, couldn’t I?
Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,
the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest
collective urge to destroy.
Oppenheimer was a regular person, too. He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.
My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.