Monday, April 02, 2018

`Nothing Which I Dread So Much'

While I was planting more flowers, my neighbor was raking leaves. A pine and three oaks grow in our front yard. He has two magnolias. The catkin and pollen season is just concluding, to be followed soon by needles, cones and acorns. My neighbor fancies devising an algorithm to calculate the volume of biomass our yards annually produce. It must be in the tons. And here I was adding to the gross tonnage by planting flowers. Gardening and yard upkeep, we agreed, are hellish tasks. And I don’t even care about the lawn. Just the other night I had read Charles Lamb’s essay “The Old and the New Schoolmaster,” which begins:

“My reading has been lamentably desultory and immethodical. Odd, out of the way, old English plays, and treatises, have supplied me with most of my notions, and ways of feeling. In every thing that relates to science, I am a whole Encyclopædia behind the rest of the world.”

It was the final sentence that came back to me. My job title is “science writer,” which makes me something of a fraud. What science I know has been learned on the fly, usually while trying to learn something else. The last formal science class I took was “Human Genomics,” and that was in 2002. Otherwise, my scientific training is an autodidact’s dabbling. My mind is not scientific but helplessly intuitive. I sympathize entirely with Lamb (who exaggerates):

“I have no astronomy. I do not know where to look for the Bear, or Charles’s Wain; the place of any star; or the name of any of them at sight. I guess at Venus only by her brightness — and if the sun on some portentous morn were to make his first appearance in the West, I verily believe, that, while all the world were gasping in apprehension about me, I alone should stand unterrified, from sheer incuriosity and want of observation.”

Like others among the ignorant, I like to give the appearance of learning, and my mind is acquisitive enough to sometimes pull it off. How I hate not to know something worth knowing. Again, Lamb is my ally:  

“. . . a man may do very well with a very little knowledge, and scarce be found out, in mixed company; every body is so much more ready to produce his own, than to call for a display of your acquisitions.”

Lamb spells out the risks our kind run: “But in a tête-à-tête there is no shuffling. The truth will out. There is nothing which I dread so much, as the being left alone for a quarter of an hour with a sensible, well-informed man, that does not know me.”

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