CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Forces Elemental

This piece was originally written for CommonPlaces, near the end of its preparation. Like the previous piece, My Life in Medicine, it is largely autobiographical, but, since it is about earlier events, perhaps it is less reliable. I had been unhappy with it, feeling that I had left out something or failed to make some connection. To my surprise, it is the piece of that work which has produced the greatest response. I recently re-read it and decided to revise it, an unusual practice for me. Perhaps I will get it right this time, or perhaps not. But then, as I remarked in the original introductory note, life is a continuous process of reflection, of folding back the dough of everyday and kneading it in.


I remember when I discovered chemistry. Not the exact day or moment but the time and setting. I was probably six or seven years old at the time and it was one of the first hot weekend days of early summer, before the end of the public school year. We were living in Champaign-Urbana, the twin cities of central Illinois. In those days, it was very flat year round and hot in the summer, as it still is, but also it was a soft coal-burning town whose fundamental dullness was hidden by avenue upon stately avenue of elm trees. The trees and the coal, and its' dirt, are gone now but the latter played a major role in this story.


I had the sense that we all have, even at a very young age, that my body was materially different from everything else. There was this flesh, which could become sunburned, and scratched easily, which hurt when pinched, bruised when banged and bled when cut and there was everything else. On the particular day in question, I was walking barefooted, as all kids did then whenever given the chance. There was a particular reason for it in that spring season because my feet were white and soft from their winter imprisonment in shoes. It was a matter of pride and necessity for each kid to develop hard callused soles as soon as possible so that there needed to be no holding back while running.


Near the end of this school year, second grade, I suppose, we had been introduced to the basic ideas of chemistry: of atoms, of molecules and of reactions. I had had the traditional encounter with vinegar and baking soda combining to produce gaseous carbon dioxide and perhaps seen sugar being burnt to a crisp by the addition of dilute nitric acid. The view of chemistry taught then was very Daltonian, pre-Bohr: there was no need to confuse us with discussion of electrons, orbitals and s-p bonding. I had the idea of valence, as sharp hooks which could lock together, firmly in mind as I trod stiffly and painfully across the driveway. The hesitation and the caution were due to the driveway surface being furnace "clinker": the slaggy, somewhat glassy cinder left after coal was burned in the household furnace. And then it struck me: if I was chemical and the driveway was chemical, why did we not react? Was the pain of the clinker on winter-soft soles a precursor of a more dramatic reaction? Might I melt down and slowly sink into the ground?


Needless to say, the thought stayed with me for a long time, even in dreams, even later in the summer when I would run, on my now well seasoned feet, across the driveway without a second thought.


But what is chemistry than one expression of the UU covenantal phrase "the interdependent web of all existence?" For my view then was true: my feet and the clinker were interacting but merely at a very slow rate so that, unlike a pat of butter on a hot pan, I could cross over repeatedly with neither perceptible loss of personal physical integrity nor alteration in the driveway.


We explain chemistry, as adults, by discussion of reaction energies and energy barriers; of reactant states and product states, perhaps more poetically, of the dance of energy and matter. We are proud of our ability to predict those reactions which will take place and those, since the rate constants are so small, which effectively do not take place. We place our faith, as it were, in expressions of our understanding of the function of the physical world: the so-called "laws of science." It has been said that all of chemistry and physics can be expressed in, perhaps, sixteen equations (mathematical expressions of "laws") and that all the rest is merely a matter of elaboration, of expansion, of extension of the truths incorporated within these relationships.


But somewhere there must lurk the elemental forces of which these equations are merely man made or humanly perceived interpretations. We can discuss quantum physics but somewhere within the structure of hydrogen atom, where a lonely, minute electron swiftly, eternally circles a massive nucleus, lie the elemental forces which explain why we are as we are.


This is not a matter of trivial concern. We discuss the laws of physics and pretend that we understand why apples fall from trees, why sunlight shining through rain produces a rainbow and how DNA can encode for each of us so separately and marvelously. But I wonder if such explanations, although perhaps necessary, are sufficient?


Let me illustrate my concern by describing two paintings which hang in my house. Both are originals and both, perhaps only by coincidence, were made by women.


The first one I have had for more than 25 years. We grew up with paintings, in the beginning reproductions and then later gradually works by friends. My mother was always interested in art, enjoyed attending exhibitions of both painting and sculpture and collected many books of graphic images but did not paint while I and my sister lived at home. For whatever reason, after I left for college, she began to take classes and gradually converted my old bedroom into a studio. She painted what she saw, whether they were local scenes, children or locales seen or remembered from travel. The work, by and large, might be described as naturalistic except that she habitually foreshortened her view, so that the foreground stands against a background with no middle ground in between.


However, this painting is an exception and unlike all but one other of hers* which I have ever seen. It is a small, horizontal work, perhaps 12" x 20", in oil on canvas board, framed in a simple natural wood frame by the artist. The back is labeled "Palo Alto, 1964." The view, perhaps, unusually, in the middle ground, is of two hills with a valley between or, again, it may be of two green waves about to cross and combine, with blue-white foam above. Or perhaps it is two rocks lying close to each other or two body parts or, when viewed upside down, possibly waves breaking on rocks. The colors swirl and mix; there are no familiar details to lend a sense of scale, to permit one to realize the image in familiar terms. It is haunting and captures the eye: I see it everyday when I wake and before I go to sleep and have not yet wearied of it.


I and you have no problem generally understanding where the impulse to paint, to capture images from the mind's eye, comes from. We accept it as part of our "makeup," as a thing that humans, whether cave dwellers or boys in the 'hood or girls in the lyceum, do after basic needs for food, shelter, security, are satisfied. But where does such a painting actually come from?


View it from a great distance: The pigments were gathered and processed, combined with vehicle to form paint. The linen was grown, harvested, processed, woven, made into artists' canvas. The materials were purchased, in a particular place and time, the canvas selected, the brushes readied, composure sought, then the work began. And at some later time, it was judged complete.


What is there about the hydrogen atom, the lonely electron forever circling the nucleus in the darkness, which led to this image? If we could run the entire experiment again, from the Big Bang to this instant, would I be here and be able to see the same picture and would it have arisen in the same way and to the identical schedule? And would you be here to read these words? What force elemental is at work here?


The second painting is of a different nature. While I did not paint it, in a sense, I caused it to be made. But before I describe it, let me move aside to another question.


We know, you and I, that humans come in two primary flavors: male and female. Mirroring, perhaps, the Tai Chi or essential duality of the natural world, there are two genders, not one or three or four. I speak here not of sexual desires or tendencies or self-identifications, of embodiments of these genders in flesh, but of a more fundamental underlying force. A young baby, perhaps even within a few days of birth, is recognizable as male or female even when clothed. This seems important to us, so much so, that gender recognition is apparently a reflex. Try going into a room, perhaps at a cocktail party or to a social hour after a service, and see those there first as people and then as men or women, boys or girls. It's difficult, perhaps impossible: when we occasionally see a person for whom we cannot make that instantaneous gender identification, there is a feeling of uneasiness, of unrest.


Why is gender so important to this species? Can our entire life experience be merely an expression of our selfish genes' desire to replicate and thus continue on their immortal way while each of us, so precious to ourselves, sink down to dust? If that were the reason, why be sensitive to gender before puberty and after menopause and climacteric?


I have thought about this matter for years, especially as part of the process of adjusting to women as co-workers in what was, when I entered it in the early 1960s, an almost totally male world of professional engineering work. I welcomed and continue to welcome women to this world: they are interesting people and may be able, in the long run, to beneficially change the way men in groups shape the world. But they, and we have real problems, and first among these is language, both spoken and unspoken.


Interactions between men and women are attuned to this gender sensitivity. And the traditional work place has by and large historically been organized around male-male communication. Women arrive and they have three options, three modes of interaction:


1) As older women who were early arrivers have frequently done, they can adopt masculine manners and mores, out-boying the boys. It works, to a degree, but basic gender sensitivity imparts mixed messages to male co-workers.


2) Younger women, especially extremely attractive ones, have until fairly recently tried the opposite extreme; adopting a sensual, manipulative affect to cross-cut the male-male bonds and achieve professional success in ways parallel to those traditionally reserved for courtship and mating relationships.


3) The third mode is barely visible and still, in my experience, speculative: the use of a gender-neutral approach through which men and women can communicate and co-operate on an equal basis independent of social attraction or repulsion.


I had much hope for the third mode until I read Deborah Tannen's second book You Just Don't Understand! (1990). Her thesis is that gender identification is so pervasive and ingrained that even if men and women use the same language, without positive or negative sexual emphases, there can be no true, reliable communication: a woman speaking the same words as a man means something different; a man hearing the same words as a woman receives a different message. And I haven't mentioned the parallel problems of interpreting non-verbal cues of inclination, position, movement, body decoration and dress.


But I still thought that perhaps the three modes were not points of a triangle but possibly positions along a spectrum: from male to female; 1) and 2) at either ends, 3) in the middle. It was with this in mind that I commissioned the second painting, which was done by the wife of one of my then graduate students. She and I discussed the general idea and then she went off and worked it out by herself: thus it is neither a planned illustration nor an independent work of art.


The work is also horizontal, 12"x 16", in polymer on canvas, with a smooth gold frame, again chosen by the artist. It shows four pairs of human figures, each pair positioned before what might be an open door, with the whole work set off by a swirling, mottled background which shades from cool blue-gray on the left to warm pink on the right.


In the first or leftmost pair, the figures stand slightly back to back, touching left to right shoulders, with arms crossed. They each wear dark featureless clothing and have close cropped hair: there are no gender cues.


Proceeding to the right, the second pair are side by side, facing us. The clothing of the left figure has a curved neckline, the right a vee-neck. The hair, while still close to the head, is now clearly feminine on the left, masculine on the right. The difference is highlighted by a raised elbow on the man with an open legged stance; a low hemline and restrained arms on the woman.


In the third pair, the figures have turned face to face. The woman, with shoulder length hair, is leaning back; the man forward, raising her hand to his lips. She wears a form fitting long gown; he is in standard business attire set off by white collar and vest pocket handkerchief.


In the fourth and final pair, he is stripped to the waist, she has loose, long hair and wears a translucent slip. They are barefooted and embracing, perhaps as equals, but very clearly as man and woman, not in a public place.


The painting, while attractive and compelling to the eye, is a failure: As the eye traverses from left to right, there is no middle ground. To the left we see absence of gender; to the right, polarization.


So gender is the embodiment of another force elemental. And it too must depend upon the lonely dance of electron, proton and neutron. Is this the way the electron sees the proton? And if so, which is female, which male?


Within these two paintings and the questions they raise, lie deeper puzzles. Where do our thoughts come from? Who (or what) is the author of our dreams? We glory in the creative impulse but know nothing of its origin. And we are blinded by gender, unable to see others as humans first but only as male or female.


Do we have free will, to think, to make, to create or does all lie within, to be awakened by the appropriate external stimulus?


Julius Wald once remarked that, "Man (humankind) is the stars? way of knowing themselves." But how are we to know ourselves and, more perhaps importantly, the stars? We speak of chemistry, but merely describe the "what" rather than understanding the "why."


Are these important questions or should we turn aside and just get on with the making and doing, with living and dying well enough?


I think that the answers are very difficult. It is a measure of our humanity that we are aware of such issues, that we recognize and respond to the creative impulse in ourselves and in others. And that we struggle against innate limitations, such as fear of snakes, the stranger, high places and death. And that we try to transcend gender identities and other reflexes which hinder communication. But, if we hope to become more fully human, we must never stop asking:


Where lie the forces elemental?


What are their wellsprings and courses?





1. Life is too short to skip lunch.

2. Life is so uncertain, consider eating dessert first.