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The voice crying in the Paradigm Shift

Bill Meredith

"All of the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."
The Preacher, Ecclesiastes 1:7.

"The voice crying in the Wilderness" originally was the beginning of
a prophesy from Isaiah 40; now, it refers to someone who expresses
an idea or opinion that is not popular. Ö
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.

(9/2016) The Olympic Games are over and August has passed, taking with it our 61st anniversary and leaving us a bit more depleted. The weather is still uncomfortable, but summer is winding down. I notice it in the mornings; a month ago, when I got up the sun would be shining, but now it is still dark. Each day is about two and a half minutes shorter as the equinox approaches, and both plants and animals are aware of itÖ not in the sense of human awareness, but their biological clocks detect it, new hormones are secreted, and they respond. Some of them are a bit confused; one of the Easter Lilies that we brought home from church and stuck in the flower bed seems to think Spring is coming, and it burst into bloom today. The young cardinals are molting into their semi-adult plumage, while the goldfinches are taking on their winterís brown outfits. And last week our male hummingbird chased his wife into the plum tree and made her watch while he performed his traditional mating dance, zipping back and forth on an arc like a pendulum on a 20-foot string. She didnít seem impressed; her annoyed chirps seemed to be telling him to stop wasting the energy that he will need soon for the migration back to South America. So part of the ecosystem seems to be on its normal cycle. But we humans arenít doing quite as well.

In three weeks summer will go into the history books as the hottest on record. The political candidates seem not to have noticed; one of them denies that climate change exists, and the other is too busy with e-mail controversies to discuss it. But for the folks in California and Louisiana, the change canít be denied. California has been under a drought for the past decade; it became a tinderbox, and fires have been getting worse for the past several years. Last spring was unusually wet because of rains from El Nino, but the drought returned in the summer, and August brought the worst fires in memory. In Louisiana, places that never flooded before are under water, and it is draining away more slowly than floods did in the past. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was right about the water cycle, as we all learned it in elementary school; but he didnít know about glaciers and polar ice caps. As they melt away at faster and faster rates, the sea is getting full. Water that would have gone on down the river in Mark Twainís time now has nowhere else to go.

Everyone knows things change as time goes by, but most of us are so busy trying to cope and keep up that we donít realize that changes come in a pattern. In my own case, I can actually pin down the time when I became aware of this; it was in the fall of 1962, when I had just started back to graduate school. A physicist named Thomas Kuhn had just published a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and everyone at the University of Maryland was raving about it. I got a paperback copy and tried to read it, but it might as well have been in a foreign language. In fact, it wasÖ scholarly writing often uses a technical vocabulary that is unfamiliar to those in a different field. But some of my biological friends understood it, and from them I began to grasp the general meaning of it. It turned out to be based on things that everyone learned in High School.

It goes like this. When people ask great questions like "How does the universe work?" they begin to study details and put them together into a collection of ideas called a Paradigm. For example, ancient scholars believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and all of its other partsÖ sun, moon, stars, planetsÖ revolved around the earth. If you were outside guarding a herd of sheep and looking at the night sky, that made sense. However, as time passed and star-watching became the province of experts who measured things and wrote them down, certain details didnít fit the earth-centered paradigm. Planets, for instance, seemed to move around the earth part of the year, but then some of them would turn around and go the other way. Astronomers invented a theory of epicycles to explain that, but as more discoveries were made, their theories got more complicated and contradictory. Then, in the early 1500s, a Polish scholar named Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. This was a new paradigm; it explained the problems with the old one, but it also required that people stop believing many of the old ideas that had been considered to be true for centuries. In other words, it required a Paradigm Shift. Copernicus knew it would be controversial, and he feared that he might be convicted of heresy for it, so he did not publish it until he was on his deathbed. Then, it quickly became accepted by a few younger scientists, but many older scholars continued to believe the old paradigm until they died.

A few decades later, the telescope was invented, and Galileo used it to show that some planets had moons of their own. As more new discoveries followed, it began to look like Copernicus had been wrong; the sun was not the center of the universe after all. Galileo died in 1642, and Isaac Newton was born in that same year; and Newton revolutionized science. He discovered the nature of light, explained how telescopes work, proved that the orbits of planets were ellipses instead of perfect circles, and formulated the Laws of Gravity; and to explain all of that, he developed a new type of mathematics called Calculus. Inevitably, another Paradigm Shift occurred; younger scientists quickly accepted the new ideas, but many older ones did not understand or grasp their importance. And then, history repeated itself. Over the next two centuries new discoveries were made that could not be explained by Newtonís paradigm. Then in 1905 Albert Einstein produced the idea of Relativity, and another Paradigm Shift occurred.

As I said above, everyone knows things change as time goes by. When Thomas Kuhn wrote in 1962, he referred specifically to changes in physics, but in the following 54 years we have seen Paradigm Shifts in most other disciplines. My generation saw one in biology in the 1950s. When I took my first course in Genetics in 1953, I was taught that genes consist of protein; I didnít know that at that very time, over in England, Watson and Crick were on the verge of discovering the structure of DNA. That caused such a surge in biological and medical research that, by the time I taught Genetics for the first time in 1961, I could explain to my students how genes store information and make proteins.

We are living in a Paradigm Shift now. Clear evidence tells us that humans are causing climate change; it is probably believed by a majority of citizens, but vested economic interests oppose effective action in response to it. Around 750 BC, the prophet Isaiah called himself "a voice crying in the wilderness" when he predicted the coming of Christ; and today when we ecologists write of climate change, we feel like voices crying in the Paradigm Shift. It is discouraging; but we have to keep doing it. What we predict will not be delayed for 750 years. It is happening now.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith