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Science as Storytelling

For the researchers of AMMACHI Labs and CWEGE to be exposed to the high caliber of research and work that Oren Harman has done, and to gain insights into the research process through his experiences. Additionally, any potential collaboration that comes out of these interactions is welcomed.

Participants: AMMACHI Labs & CWEGE Research Staff & Scholars
Source of Funding: Organized by AMMACHI Labs & CWEGE
Number of Participants: 39

Biography of Speaker

Professor Oren Harman is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University and Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Institute. He was trained in history and biology at the Hebrew University, Oxford, and Harvard, and is a historian of science and a writer. His books include The Man Who Invented the Chromosome (Harvard, 2004), Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology (Yale, 2008), Outsider Scientists (Chicago, 2013), Dreamers, Visionaries and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences (Chicago, 2018), Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018, and Handbook of the Historiography of Biology (Springer, 2021). His book The Price of Altruism (W.W. Norton, 2010) won the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Book of the Year in Science and Technology, was nominated for the Pulitzer prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Professor Harman has written and spoken widely for popular and professional audiences on genetics, evolution, history and philosophy of science, altruism, biography, and science and mythology. He grew up in New York and Jerusalem where he lives with his wife, Yael, and their three little children. Oren sings bass with the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir.

Event/Session Details/Discussions/Highlights

Professor Oren Harman started with narrating an old incident like when I was a boy my mother bought a book called the world of myth and legend from Brian mac’s books, which was very beautiful illustrated coffee table book and I was a small boy at that time and turning the pages of that book and I am really being amazed at the stories that encountered within that book and this feeling of awe at the glimmers of incipient understanding of the tragic sense of life but also of their great opportunities. When I was leaving in New York still as a boy in seventh grade, I had a fabulous biology teacher and her name was miss Abdel and she brought a light microscope to class one day and peering down the oculus and looking at that what Miss Abdel told us were these tiny organelles called mitochondria and it produced almost all of the energy from the cell and I thought how could this organelles that I could not see with my naked eye were producing all of this energy for us and with time I learned from my environment one thing called myth and another thing called Science and that in fact they were quite close to being opposites like myth is human kind attempt to deal with its fears and hopes by way of fable and its power comes from its psychological depth from its colour and from the feelings that it’s able to invoke to explain the world through objective and rational observation and inquiry its power comes from method from the fact of its false viability, the methods falsifiability and from its precision.

As a young person I was in a quandary and I felt reading the myths and all I felt increasingly encountering the natural and physical world through science felt to me quite similar. I spent many years torn between these two worlds, the science and the humanities and really found it very difficult to make determination between the two and I studied both all throughout my degrees and then in a way I never really made that decision and never really decided so that I could to ride on both forces at the same time and try to build bridges between the two and in particular I decided to combine them in this book called Evolutions and 15 myths that explain our world about which I would like to speak to you today. So in evolutions, I tried to bring the colour and the feeling and the psychological depth of the world of myth to the exactitude and the precision of the world of science and I try to do this by marshalling our latest scientific understanding in a host of fields like cosmology and astrophysics, geochemistry and biochemistry, genetics and the cognitive sciences and in particular within a framework of evolutionary theory and Science in order to re-examine some of the age old themes that world mythologies have been perennially preoccupied with so these are questions like where do we come from, where are we going, what is creation, what is life, what is death and immortality but also what is the meaning of this main thing we call motherhood what is memory, what is jealousy, what is hope and what is truth and start this journey at the beginning. I start with the Big Bang and advance through the creation of the solar system and then once life on planet Earth evolves from simple beginnings from a simple self-replicating molecule to the great inventions of life in a revolution so multicellularity, sex, vision, fight, consciousness and language. I like to begin with an illustration like there are 15 myths in this book and an illustrations of the myth about the creation of the moon came from how the moon was created but it’s really quite striking if you treat yourself go to your partners and children and your brothers and sisters and parents and friends ask them you know where did the moon come from, Many people don’t know and in fact we were able to put a man on the moon before we had a good years we do have such a fear we call it the giant impact which holds that about 4.53 billion years ago planetesimal about the size of Mars it was given the name, after the Greek Titan that gave birth to the goddess of the Moon, Hitler at a great speed and force and from this impact part of the earth was torn away from it and because of angular momentum and Gravity fell into the orbit around the moon now if we were all alive 4.5 billion years ago and we would look up into the sky all we would have seen was moon because the moon was much closer and for that reasons the days were also much shorter and so I take this scientific understanding which as I said is surprisingly quite modern and quite new and I use it in order to give a kind of cosmic interpretations to motherhood because the moon comes from the Earth in a.sense we are its mother but the moon is also moving away from you at the pace of about 4 centimetres per year due to the mechanics closing of the tides and so just like a child who starts off close to his mother and then slowly begins to gain its independence so the moon which we look to every night and we pin our hopes and our dream saw the moon too is moving gradually away from us.

I like to read a section and this is the longest section that I will read it’s not the but it’s not the entire myth, the myth is quite short and this isn’t the entire myth and a good portion of it and this is the earth talking to the moon and explaining to the moon
“where it came from the beginning you were so close just 22400 kilometres away, what days those were just 4 hours long I admit when you first arrived I was shaken to the Core, my body was one big wound oozing a bloody magma shooting up volcanoes my every Tsunami. I was not sure I would make it to tell you the truth the shock of your arrival nearly killed me but they were wrong your birth was neither an act of abduction or expulsion on but a terrible tearing away I speak to you candidly I was born from countless mineral grains in space that clumped the Bishop usher dated my arrival precisely at nightfall before Sunday October 23rd in the year 4004 before Christ what is fool and as if it were not enough that I was Chimera Forge d around the whizzing proto sun more than two centuries later Lord Kelvin allowed between 20 million and 400 Million years since my beginning courtesy of the new Zealander Rutherford and the discovery of radioactivity more discerning men slowly came to fathom my ancient pedigree carrying a particular amount of lead ice, a wedge of meteorite found in a desert crater finally divulged my secret in 1953, I am more than a 4 and half billion years old when I was born I was devilishly hot, pretty soon I melted completely no water no continents just a molten sea 3600 searing degree and the heavy iron that quickly sank into my core at my edge space registered a minute by fighting minus 450. It did not take longer for the thin crust to consolidate disguising my internal infernal slowly things quieted as much as they could and just as I was gaining my balance that’s when fear as large as mars slammed into me unannounced bringing about the greatest tearing away at first I thought it was the end of me but gravity came to the rescue and once more that sidekick angular momentum of Thea nothing remained but you and I survived and when I saw you for the first time circling me I felt as if I had never lived before As though I too had a cool sweat enveloped me you were round and glowing filling the entire firmament Neither Neptune nor Venus had such a gift to gaze upon and Mars could hardly score those two scrawny prunea through moons I was the sole terrestrial planet with the moon of my own the largest of its kind in the sun`s ambit years passed by me the iron had long settled to give me my Core and above it the mantle and above it once more the crust but I was still a parched and wrangled planet devoid of oxygen wallowing beneath a poisonous atmosphere for eons it remained a mystery how my wounds alma mater became comforted then a meteorite landed in 1998 and was after a time examined the microscope There they were Beneath The ocular tiny crystals of salt and within them even smaller volumes of liquid just as with Thea this deliverance too had been a deus ex machina the rock was over 4.5 million years old and could no longer keep its secret all those years ago incredibly water had come to me from another world I was still spinning it at a wild rate then my days just 10 hours long under Bombardment by meteors gradually my seas formed with the aid of water vapour from volcanic eruption dropped by drop like assembled Tears yes my waters were Brown and Muddy at first wafting piteously Beneath a deep Orange Sky, the sun was then a dim brick red orb squinting beyond my coat of toxic gases but soon a curious thing happened as the ocean grew lapping against my forming continents slowly they began to find a rhythm and I began to see that the rhythm was due to you it was you so close to me then who govern the ebb and the flow of my existence twice a day as you passed my equator 15 times closer to me than you are today the oceans bulged as if expanding to greet you but when you Rose and when you set the waters shrank away like a spider ducking Into its carapace so emotional at your comings and goings that they needed to hide remember when the hit me uninvited it titled me on my axe suddenly one of my poles was closer to the sun and the other farther away and so it happened that just as you were born so to were my mood created languid in Summer dark in winter carefree in spring pensive in autumn I wonder sometimes was it just coincidence I cannot stop time due to my bulging tides the one expanding as if to greet you are moving away now at the pace of the growth of fingemails you seem determined an inch and a half at a time to gain your independence and as you move away yearly I feel myself losing its balance my internal axis inching imperceptibly towards chaos my spin slowing down I comfort myself as the bard has written it is the very error of the Moon she comes more nearer Earth than she want and makes men mad and so perhaps it is for humanity sake that you drift not a child’s rebellion but then again baby it is your Dark Side opaque to me I am too young to know and too old to find out.

This was the first illustration to get us into the mood. Sometimes interestingly the insights of science and the insights of Pre scientific mythologies converge in wondrous ways and surprising ways and I want to illustrate this with a myth about the origin of life so as you probably it’s actually not very easy to define what life is, it is easier to define what life is not but we do know that to be considered living something a creature needs to be able to two things at least and that is to self-replicate and to metabolize.DNa self-replicate but does not metabolize, proteins know how to metabolize they do not know how to self replicate and this is the original chicken and egg problem. I felt we had solved this to our satisfaction when one of my teacher a great molecular biologist posited what he called the Rna world hypothesis in the 1980s he said that billions of years ago close to 4 billion years ago a cousin of DNA a kind of RNA which he called the ribozyme got life started because it had both functions, it was both self-replicatory and metabolic but notice the dilemma the quote-unquote dilemma of the First living thing. If hit self replicated too precisely then evolution would be stuck in its place cause there would be variations for natural selection to work on the other hand if it self replicated too sloppily then evolution would not converge on anything life would not converge and it would just be completely chaotic and so from the get go and there is need a for some rate of what would be later termed mutation and mutation are defined by their unpredictability and what this means philosophically is that the existence of the future depends on its unknowability.

Writing science allows us to rethink some of our cherished ideals and I like to illustrate it with myths about the evolution of the whale so the myth begins with the question why do whales breach. Why do they do that? Scientist have different theories about this, one is that the breach is so powerful that it slows off skin and therefore allows the whale to get rid of parasites cleaning itself by bleaching and another theory is that it’s all about sexual selection like it’s about finding mate and a third theory which I subscribe to seems perfectly reasonable to me looking at Whales beach is that they do it for fun they just enjoy preaching but the real thing is actually science really doesn’t know the answer to this question and so I take this nugget of ignorance and it was Samuel butler in the 19th century who defined science as a measure of our ignorance of a beautiful definition of science to mind and He pointed about a terrestrial mammal like a dog or hippopotamus and read a myth. So we think of sacrifice as a form of moral highness but the of the evolution of the whale really teaches as sacrifice is just as often a form of blindness and that we do habitually without really understanding its consequences so I returned to the question, why do whales breach and one more option to the panoply of solutions and that is Whales breach in order to feel the force of gravity once again on their body even if just for an instant came from and these are just three illustrations.

What I try to do in this book is basically an attempt to bring the colour, the feeling of myth and its psychological valence to the precision and accuracy of science in a more philosophical way. This project is also an attempt to better understand myth on the one hand and Science on the other hand, all peoples have always used existential conundrums. Beginning in the 16th century came Modern science professing precisely to provide answers to these kinds of questions that have solutions and it was going to do this based on a new method. A method of rational objective inquiry that would create a new kind of knowledge. So from the get go science positioned itself in opposition to mythology, it was antagonistic to mythology, it was going to create a knowledge Unlike the knowledge existing in mythology which we could really count on and do on the other hand, like if we look closely at science we see some of them begins with banal and he explained it. And he explained about the realists and constructionists. And he concluded with reading a myth.


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