A Beautiful Mistake on a Winter’s Day

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 . . . As the moments of the storm pass, the snow piles up like a Fibonacci sequence – each hour a layer falls deeper than the one already on the ground.  Yesterday morning, when we were on the snow vigil waiting for the snow to begin, my son mistook the small birds flitting around the edge of the wood for snowflakes.  Birds mistook for snowflakes – what a beautiful mistake!  Then I got to thinking about how science has a long line of beautiful mistakes – proportionality of the human form, spectral indigo, Mediterranean sailors finding the New World during their search for Asia.  In each case, the discovery came about because a desire to prove a long-held belief overpowered objective observation and slanted the outcome.  Then I started to wonder how much desire and belief fuel discovery and achievement and the answer I came up with surprised me: they are in large part, the basis for many of the breakthroughs and innovations in history. Then I began to think about how much desire effects perception and the acquisition of knowledge itself and I thought it time for a hot bath – the place I go to really mull things through.

On the way there, I spied three crows fighting over some suet in the yard and remembered a scene from my childhood of my mother frantically trying to sweep blood off the snow in the backyard. Years ago, during a blizzard like the one I’m in now, a red-tailed hawk swept into our backyard and killed a bird eating spilt seed from the feeder.  My mother was a friend and protector of winter birds and was mortified by the hawk meticulously ripping one of her birds to shreds to fill his hungry belly.  She raced outside and chased the hawk off with a broom and tossed its kill into the woods.  Then she began to sweep the blood off the snow, but as in The Cat in the Hat, the sweeping just made the relatively small red stain into a giant pink one.  I can still see her stooped over the broom, pausing to wipe away her tears – of sadness, of defiance, of frustration.  Eventually, she got a shovel and placed clean, white snow over the stain and tamped it down to form a new hard surface.  The point of story is that if she didn’t see the blood on the snow, it was as if the event had never happened.  Sort of like what happened in that Scottish play.

Buddhists reject the influence of desire, saying that it clouds judgment and keeps us from knowing the truth.  They caution that overreliance on the senses brings suffering through the action of desire.  On average, most modern scientists would say the same thing.  They pride themselves on their objectivity and ability to observe and detect patterns with an unclouded mind.  But how objective are we really?  Everything we do and see is influenced by the knowledge, theory that has come before us.  It is also shaped by our individual senses and experience. The more one peels the layers of scientific objectivity, the less objective one finds it to actually be.

Its interesting to note that Francis Bacon wrote at a time when science and the age of discovery was beginning to become adversarial to the power of western religious thought – or at least the European church was beginning to think so.  None of the Iraqi, Persian or early European scientific thinkers before him had to contend with a powerful religious authority that was steadily growing suspect of the products of empirical thought. Perhaps this was the birth of the polemic world I grew up in?  The one in which science and scientific observation was thought to be at odds with belief.

Our constant rejection of belief in the pursuit of scientific truth has had several consequences.  First off, it makes questioning the accepted “results” of those who have come before us more difficult than it needs to be, subsequently squelching innovation.  Two, it has led us to the reductionist quagmire we are currently stuck in, which has led to a total loss of the “big picture”.  We haven’t just lost the forest for the trees; we’ve lost the forest for the structure of the xylem and the phloem.  I am well acquainted with this last problem because I am often called upon to remedy it, to explain what something ‘means’ to someone who can act upon the content.

Perhaps the quest for empirical truth isn’t about listing characteristics or phenomena and then “eliminating the impossible”, and it’s not about moving stepwise from truthful premise to logical consequence.  Perhaps it is the driving desire to discover a new truth or the belief in the predicted outcome that fuels many scientists to new discoveries is an important part of the process? Perhaps focused passion is an unacknowledged part of a lot of major discoveries and advances?

Of course along with beautiful mistakes, science has its share of amazing accidents as well, like the discovery of penicillin.  On the other hand, however, perhaps considering that breakthrough an accident at all is colored by a European, Judeo-Christian background?  Would perhaps a Muslim scholar, culturally accustomed to the concept of progressive revelation, perceive that God had simply chosen that moment to reveal the power of antibiotics to Fleming?  Like Ben Kenobi said, “It all depends upon one’s point of view. . .”

So, what has all this got to do with the Silk Road and food?  Everything and nothing is the best answer I can muster.  So much of what is accepted knowledge about the Silk Road and its origins is at best a partial truth.  The part of the Silk Road that everyone knows – the northern land route across the Eurasian expanse – was in reality just one tiny fragment of a network of routes that moved commodities and cultures across vast steppes and oceans. The impact of all this mixing was profound and has shaped the world we live in today.  The lack of appreciation of the historical importance of the Silk Road is due in part to us blindly trusting in the certainty of past scholarship, and something a bit more insidious – the need to make our own time the great time of cosmopolitanism and globalization. These days, it’s hard to imagine how the nutmeg trade in the Indo-Pacific could have determined which nation colonized New York, but it did.  Next time you visit the spice isle at the local market, realize that men fought and died for these hundreds of years ago.  Seems a bit careless to take all that for granted, doesn’t it?

As to food, what does such a sensual topic as the culinary arts have to do with the unacknowledged importance of belief and desire in the ‘objective’ pursuit of knowledge?   You know the answer already: everything and nothing.  I’ve written before on the artificial uniformity that western cookbook writers have imposed on the art of the Asian kitchen.  In the essay “Viva Variation”, I questioned whether the western need for precise description of ingredients and measures is just a fundamental difference between the written and the oral traditions.

Generally speaking, a western cook wants to know that she needs 25 sprigs of cilantro (not dill, parsley or mint) that are diced as opposed to chopped or minced.  A cook from Western or Central Asia is more likely to say simply, “add greens”.  The choice of green and the amount are up to you and your tastes and what you have on hand. The differences between these two approaches to food preparation are not trivial. The western cook’s scientific precision is devoid of her own desire to shape the flavor of the dish by choosing a type and amount of green and how it is prepared.  The average home cook doesn’t go in for too much variation. Variation is only attempted by experienced cooks, trained chefs and food artisans. So, in that example, its not only the cultural biases towards precision that have squelched individual innovation, it is also the effects of professionalization and commercialization of food on those left to cook at home.

The act of knowing and the quest for innovation are things that science and the culinary arts share, so points made about the tyranny of past thinkers and the color of theory all apply to food and to those who prepare it.  Statements made about reductionist quagmires might also be true in some instances as well.  Whether you agree with me on that might depend on how fond of foams and gels you are.

In closing, I guess I hope that scientists and cooks let a little more belief and desire into their journeys.  The empirical approach needs tempering with less tangible energies in both pursuits.  We are not automatons, we are infinitely more complex, and I bet if we approach innovation with more of our whole selves, the results will be really great.  Then again, they might just lead us to some beautiful mistakes.  (Words and photo View from the Kitchen Window by Laura Kelley)

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