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Unicorns, Polio, the Sun, the Mystery!

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If you were given an exorbitant financial grant to conduct a research project to study the nature of the unicorn, would you do it? Suppose the grant money was in the millions of dollars—you are a famous natural scientist at a prestigious university—would you in any way be tempted to accept the grant money?

My guess is no. You would not stake your reputation on such an investigation even though it means turning down a huge amount of dollars. But suppose you were promised the funds regardless of your research results. Why, you could study: A Field Guide for Identifying Unicorns by Sound by Craig Conley, as a starting point.

“This book weaves precious bits and pieces of evidence like a Celtic braid, gathering from a wide variety of sources: chronicles of yore, modern-day eyewitness accounts, oral histories and folk traditions, and, of course, myths and legends from around the world.”

You could travel continents where the fabled creature might have existed. Deep within forests, you could chat to native peoples to get their notions about unicorns. Now that much of the Earth's ice sheet is melting, you could visit uncovered pristine areas hoping to find traces of the fabled animal, maybe even locate a preserved corpse or two.

No? Well then, how about paid research to locate Shangri-La, or the Cyclops, or Atlantis, or a dodo bird? It would be foolish for any respected scientist to hunt for such places or creatures, except possibly for the dodo bird which was first discovered on the island of Mauritius but became extinct by 1681. Of course, there has always been tremendous scientific interest in Atlantis.

So what is the point of all this impractical searching? As a writer, I believe that our species searches for answers, only when it has a hint that an answer exists. Hunting for unicorns is stupid because there never was any real evidence that the single-horned creature ever existed. The same holds true for Cyclops. This legendary one-eyed character had its existence only in fables.

Until 1955, polio was considered one of the most potent health problems for both children and adults. This crippling disease knew no bounds. One of its victims, President Franklin Roosevelt, was forced into a wheelchair by the disease. In 1952, polio claimed more victims than any other communicable disease. Recognizing its virulent return each summer, Roosevelt provided funds to hunt for a vaccine.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Doctor Jonas Salk (1914-1995) became convinced a vaccine could be found. His work with infantile paralysis made him believe such a substance was possible and his personal conviction led to discovery. Salk spent eight tedious years hunting. On April 12, 1955, after an elaborate field testing system, headlines across America read: POLIO IS CONQUERED.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Salk had no wish to patent the medicine for the sake of personal gain or profit. His true concern was that it be distributed as widely and as quickly as possible. Today, one rarely hears of polio.

The success of Jonas Salk came from his personal belief that a vaccine could be found. The countless hours he spent experimenting were not wasted because he had an intimation that a vaccine was there to discover.

Without the aid of a telescope (invented around 1608), Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) examined the universe with his naked eyes. Like earlier astronomers over a period of years, he observed that at certain times, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn appear to stop; and then move backward in the heavens; only to start forward again after a given amount of time.

But Copernicus doubted the accepted cosmological paradigm. Like Salk’s intuition, Copernicus had an intimation, a belief, that the Earth-centered theory of the universe was wrong. If he placed the sun at the center of our solar system, then the planets never reverse their motions. This made logical sense because each was traveling in its own orbit at its own speed. Copernicus worked out complicated mathematical equations to prove the correctness of his theory.

Although Copernicus attempted to convert thinkers to his viewpoint, acceptance was not easy. What is important here is that Copernicus believed there was a better explanation for the Earth's position in space compared to the old Earth-centered Ptolemaic theory of celestial spheres in which the stars and planets were fixed. It was this personal belief that drove him to discovery.

In his book, Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi (physical chemist & philosopher) talks about this scientific passion, this subjective foreknowledge of a solution because we somehow know it’s out there. It drove the likes of Salk and Copernicus to seek what they believed to be true. It is the same heuristic commitment that, today, drives researchers to seek cures for cancer and aids. It makes scientists want to examine outer space because they have an intimation that it can be done regardless of limitations by distance and the speed of light.

Various religious beliefs have existed since humans started to think. The earliest humans must have concerned themselves with survival, the more thoughtful with an explanation of the natural world. Obviously, they made crude calendars by setting huge stones upright and observing the sun’s shadows over the course of time.

But it would seem that these peoples who’ve recorded any kind of history, also believed in goddesses or gods to explain the unknown. It’s as if they had a hint that something was there.

I wonder if their search and ours and that of science for a final explanation is a result of this same intimation?

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About Regis Schilken

  • The key is in the kind of hints these various sages and pioneers were getting.

    The deistic approach centers on the not altogether logical assumption that since there seems to be an overall structure to the universe, it must have been made by someone or something. Once you make that huge an assumption, you see the signs everywhere.

    The scientific approach stops short of that. It observes that since the various natural laws appear to be inextricably linked, there may or must (depending on who you talk to) be some sort of overarching law that governs all the others. Whether such a law was actually enacted by a (conscious?) entity is beyond the remit of science, at least for the space/time being.

    I personally feel that although the cosmos does show evidence of a creator, he was probably drunk at the time. I mean, come on.

  • Rege Schilken

    To me, there is a paradox here. On the one hand we search for answers when we (anyone) have an intimation there is an answer to be found. At times we even state our research via the null hypothesis, hoping to, “ah-ha,” discover an answer we suspect is there.

    On the otherhand, human beings have always searched for the “ultimate” explanation for the universe as IF it is out there.

    I don’t think the problem lies outside in reality; it is embedded within our mind which refuses to accept meaninglessness even though there is no real alternative. It is as if the logic part of our brain hits a dead end.

  • “our mind which refuses to accept meaninglessness even though there is no real alternative” – So you are an existentialist then?

    The irony for me is – Even in finding that there is no answer, you have your answer….

  • Regis

    I guess I might be called an existentialist, but I am not happy with the fact that there is no answer.

    Kierkegaard: “The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.”