I don’t need to explain how bleak the news cycle seems lately. You already know about continuing police brutality, the lingering pandemic, and Kylie Jenner’s elaborate conspiracy to stay famous. It’s my job to report on such matters, so you might think that in my off time, I fully disengage from reality and space out into light sitcoms or bread baking. Instead, I read about science.
Everything is uncertain right now, to say the least. While many people combat that free-falling-into-the-abyss feeling with spirituality — faith in something bigger and unseen — I’m steeped in the warmth of the researched, magnificently verified phenomena that science yields. The romantic appeal of my scientific escapism is that it makes me feel like I can know what can be known, cataloged, understood, and therefore, controlled.
The fact that the U.S.'s alleged "leadership" often ignores scientific realities just makes me cling to these realities like a port in the storm (which are in abundance this hurricane season, but Trump doesn't believe in global warming).
Some psychologists think I might be on to something. “It is important to be able to live in a world that can be understood,” says Reid Kessler, a California-based psychotherapist. "The pandemic has made it harder to believe and experience our world as knowable.” In other words, I am just trying to understand what's going on around me, and curious, bright thinkers armed with research help me do that.
“Science,” is a broad category, of course, full of rare and specialized nooks and crannies, but I am relatively indiscriminate in my interests. Last week, I read a book about schizophrenia, no less than a dozen articles about herbivorous fish in coral reef ecosystems, and new physics research which used a quantum computer to simulate the effects of time travel. I can’t even begin to speak with authority on any current episodes of anything on Netflix, but if you want to talk about how NASA is currently searching for tiny ancient Martians, I’m savvy.
Science, truth be told, isn’t that far from spirituality to me. Data is the poetry of the known world. Research, like poetry, never fully explains anything, but instead points in the direction of understanding and asks a lot of questions about what might happen next. But, unlike art and politics, science writing has been peer reviewed and fact-checked for accuracy, and I find that vetting to be very reassuring during this unsettling year. And, yet, research still often manages to convey the beauty and wonder of the world.
“Reality is self healing.” That’s a line from a press release in EurekAlert, a science news release site that nerds like me adore. If that neatly evocative line isn’t poetry, I don’t know what is. The report this line belongs to discusses a time travel simulation that may, theoretically, disprove “the butterfly effect,” or the idea that changing something relatively minor — like stepping on a butterfly — in the past would have grave future consequences. Don’t get me wrong, theories on time travel are cool, but really it’s just that one line I can’t get out of my head. The idea of reality being “self healing” right now is pretty comforting.
Reading science, instead of say, science fiction, gives me the feeling that I understand not just the gorgeous variability of the world, but also the constants. Kessler echoes my theory: that this “need to know” may give me a feeling of safety in an uncertain time. “Over the past six months, the world has grown more dangerous to our physical health as well as our ability to feel it as a safe place,” he says. “Focusing on science and nature helps most people regain a sense of safety in a world that is both mysterious and knowable.”
I asked Kessler if this is a form of escapism, or if I am actually — as I contend — grounding myself in a more nuanced and beautiful reality. “Does it ultimately matter?” he asks. "Not all forms of escapism are avoidance or unhealthy. Likewise, are there limits to grounding that come with diminishing returns or are even detrimental. Connecting with nature and the natural world has long been understood as a helpful form of coping.”
Kessler also seems to really get the poetics of my seeking. “Long before formal theoretical orientations of psychotherapy or randomized controlled trials, healers, sages, and doctors were prescribing nature as a cure for a variety of physical or emotional illnesses,” Kessler says. “Nature reminds us that there is harmony between seemingly opposing forces. It reminds us that death can bring about life, that things do not always need to have a specific meaning beyond the moment, that there is an order that sustains ongoing life, and that there is not a word for everything.”