Witch's Apprentice

When I was 10, my mother delivered me into a dark forest where lived the one-eyed witch who transformed my life by means of a two-word blessed curse.

The year was 1952, the fall. But prior to that, during the summer, my mother drove my brother and me from our home in Washington, D.C., to San Diego where we lived in an enchanted house by the sea. We saw the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet, as the advertisements used to say, and then, at summer's end, we went east to the backwoods in upstate New York, about 20 miles up the Hudson from Poughkeepsie in Washington Irving's spooky country.

Women . . . in my world they have opened the doors to the darker parts of the world, the realms of genuine magic and mystery. Or so I would assert at this topical moment. At 10, I was a few years past the usual age of asking Why?, though I was still at it -- and now, still -- partly because of my father's initial teachings about the physical world but mostly because of that witch in the woods whose clutches my mother delivered me into so as to receive the priceless two-word goddam curse.

Information begets knowledge by informing personal experience of the actual world -- the physical world that is the heart and topic of physical science.

Science. What is it?

That question -- What is it? -- is an example of science. Science is curiosity, it questions the physical world, and it questions its own questions and its tentative answers. The word "science" is most often used in reference to the scientific method, which is a way of testing ways of thinking about the physical world. The word "science" can also be thought of as a name for humanity's collected knowledge of nature; science is our questions, and it is the collection of our always provisional answers.

I've tried during my life to hook other youngsters into seeing the dark magic as I came to see it [see "Suburban Prometheus"], but I have, with the possible exception of Dennis, not been successful. Maybe that's because I'm not a woman, not like the witch in the woods. More likely, though, science simply cannot to be proselytized; the seeker, if such I might have been, has to find a genuine teacher.

In the backwoods of upstate New York in 1952, that's where and when I found my teacher. Her name was Ruth Freitag -- Mrs. Freitag, to me. She was a teacher of physics, chemistry, biology and "Earth Science," but she was never my teacher in any classroom sense. She taught the older kids at the boarding school where my mother had got a job. Mrs. Freitag was available everyday after school to answer my questions and show me unusual things and explain about fossils and crystals, clouds and bacterial processes. She became my science mentor. And in that capacity she cast her simple two-word spell on me.

Freitag. In German it means Friday, the last of the five social days of business suits and proper manners. Friday is evening to the week, a twilight preceding a relaxation of the well-lit social rules. Friday is a temporal doorway to the weekend opportunity to step outside the mundane world and contemplate the physical principles that underlie everything from commuting to work to nuclear interactions to shopping and contemplation of the nature of solar-powered consciousness awareness. Yet hardly anyone uses the weekend as a time of contemplation, though that seems at least part of the Western tradition of the Sabbath.

Mrs. Freitag was in her late fifties when I met her, or maybe older, though from my 10-year-old perspective she would have looked old even had she been 30. I don't know how old she was.

She was blind in one eye. I don't remember which was the hideous gray eye that aimed off to one side, but it was scary and fascinating and held my attention on her words as a way to avoid looking at her face.

Old, blind in one eye, frankly ugly, female. And she had knowledge of the physical world. Three centuries earlier, more or less, Mrs. Freitag would have qualified as a witch. Her interests in the workings of nature would have clinched any indictment as a knower of dark magic related to the earth.

Nearly everyday after school I would go to Mrs. Freitag's classroom to ask questions about rocks, weather, chemistry, physics -- questions arising from those habits of curiosity that my father had initiated and that my mother had encouraged. And while Mrs. Freitag's influence has not always -- in fact hardly ever -- contributed to my happiness, it has contributed to my appreciation of the unknowableness of material reality and the everywhere apparent mystery of being.

The two-word spell she repeatedly cast upon me during those three years was: Always Question!

Always Question! It's a statement of the scientific method. Always Question. Question the data. Question what your eyes convey to your mind, and question your own ideas. Question what people say -- especially those words that are sanctified by being in print or on the Web, or broadcast on radio or TV. Question authority, divine and civil. Watch, listen to, and feel the world, and make no final judgment. Believe nothing. Question even the guideline Always Question.

To believe nothing is seditious -- and valuable to science because Absolute Belief is inconsistent with science's endless and hopeless search for absolute knowledge.

Christ is said to have said to leave judgment to God -- which seems a useful way to deal with judgment even if you have no concept of God. Always Question implies non-involved detachment as the way to see the world clearly.

In his book, The Character of Physical Law, Richard Feynman says, "We never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong." Which, of course, we can't be sure of. And Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is said to have preferred the company of those "who don't know they know anything," those, one can assume, who can look at the world without judgment -- detached, cold, pure, unbiased and unbelieving observers. Holmes's preference implies judgment against those who know they know things and those who judge . . . the structure of language seems naturally to accommodate judgment.

Science's impossible ideal, its challenge, is to examine the world and to try to see it without ever knowing anything for sure. Faith resides in absolute answers, in the absolute truth for which science perpetually searches and seems destined never to find.

No thing seems known for sure -- except by those for whom no thing is God. Uncertainty belongs to those for whom God is nothing. Science is curiosity; faith is not.

Mrs. Freitag's curse is hard, yet freeing. Morality, for instance, upon examination, lacks a premise beyond its immediate obvious social utility -- and it is optional! Hence the adjective "evil" which some apply to the Tao of Always Question, i.e., to science.

Science is rooted in the jungle, it has come from the dark woods, swirled out of the sun-driven turbulence, risen from the soil with us beings of the humus. It is absolute knowledge of nothing.

In the Castaway chapter of Moby Dick, the young character Pip falls off the boat, gets momentarily abandoned so as to confront the hugeness of the sea. After he is recovered, Melville writes that Pip "saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad." To be able to look into hell, to stand in the middle of it as it is so imaginatively created here on earth by us beings of the humus, to be able to look at a thing, clearly, directly, without judgment, without judgment! -- that is the freedom of the pure observer, the pure amoral scientist unburdened of beliefs, and endlessly curious about and open to the world.

Always Question! It is a curse. It is my love. It is how I try to live . . . till at times it gets to be too much. Question that!


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