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In Praise of Irrational Exuberance

Bill Meredith

"An idle brain is the Devilís playground." ÖMeredith Willson, The Music Man.

Dorothy Parker: The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

Rachel Carson: If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Einstein: Never lose a healthy curiosity

Eleanor Roosevelt: I think, at a childís birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.

Aug 08: 100th anniversary of sorts

After living in faculty housing for our first 11 years at Mount St. Maryís, we were able to buy a house at the end of West Main Street in Emmitsburg in 1968. The property just west of ours was a farm, with a fine old stone house that had not been lived in for many years. The farm was divided into several fields which were rented by local farmers for pasture or raising various crops; access to the fields was by way of a lane which ran off to the south. Perhaps a quarter of a mile down the lane was a pond.

The records that have been kept locally since 1869 allow us to state confidently that the average annual rainfall for Emmitsburg is 45.6 inches. If that average occurred every year, it would sustain our present ecosystem, along with our present population and agricultural demands; but, as I have pointed out in several previous articles, it is the extremes, not the averages, that determine how life fares in ecology. Last year, we received less than 30 inches of rainfall for the second time in this decade (2003 was the other). Only two other times in the past 139 years have we received such small amounts (the others were 1888 and 1930).

Long before he wrote The Music Man, my generation knew Meredith Willson as the mildly befuddled bandleader on George Burns and Gracie Allenís radio show. We didnít realize that the befuddlement was an act; he was an outstanding musician who started as a piccolo player in John Philip Sousaís band and was good enough to play the flute in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He was 55 years old when Music Man opened on Broadway, and he wrote several other plays, songs and movie scores after that, so his brain never had much time to be idle. But Iíve often wondered what went on in it after he retired.

February 12, 2009, was the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two men who have ranked high on my list of heroes for many years. Between naps, I had been planning for quite a while to write about them this month. Evidently a lot of other people had the same inspiration; I was scooped by writers in newspapers, magazines and books, as well as TV programs. I was a bit disgruntled at first, but then I decided they were interesting and important enough for me to ahead as planned.

At first glance it would be hard to imagine two people who had less in common. Lincoln was born in poverty, self-educated beyond the fourth grade, never traveled abroad, endured a difficult marriage, and loved the excitement of political debate. In contrast, Darwin was born in moderately wealthy circumstances, university-educated, had traveled around the world before he was 30, had an idyllic marriage with a loving wife and children, and while he enjoyed intellectual discussion he abhorred controversy. But beneath the surface there are remarkable similarities. Both were endowed with great intellectual curiosity and a drive for understanding. Both were excellent writers with a command of the language and clarity of style; both were influenced by Shakespeare and the Bible (that may sound odd in Darwinís case, but his father intended for him to be a country parson and insisted that he major in Theology in college). Both had to deal with depression, compounded by the death of a favorite child. And both were profoundly concerned with social justice.

I began to be influenced by both Lincoln and Darwin at an early age. When I was six years old my grandparents gave me a book about four of the founding fathers, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Lincoln, for Christmas. It had all of the legendsÖ Washington and the cherry tree, Franklin and the kite, and Lincoln walking miles to return a few pennies to a woman who had been overcharged at a grocery store. At my age, it didnít matter whether these things were factually true; they set high ideals which I took literally and accepted as the way Americans should behave. Darwin came along in a similar age; when I was about four, I had to memorize recitation for a church program about monkeys sitting in a coconut tree discussing whether men had descended from them or they from men. Darwin wasnít mentioned by name, and I was unaware of the controversy involved until much later. In the culture of the time, Lincoln was a hero, and Darwin was anathema. In some ways, not much has changed.

I came to know about Darwin slowly. Biology was probably the worst course I had in high school. It was taught by the football coach; he was a good man whom I came to know and like years later, but he was not really interested in science and was frequently absent. More than half of the classes were taught by substitutes or student teachers; none of them had much depth of knowledge, and they were not going to get themselves in trouble by talking about evolution, so they taught lists of facts to be memorized for tests. College was a different story; we had to learn facts, but we also had to learn how facts were discovered and how they were used to construct theories or explanations of why things work as they do. Science, we learned, consists of theories that explain what we see; so if we see something that we cannot explain, i.e., a new fact, we may have to change our theory, or even discard it and invent a new one. That is hard to do.

so what I learned was from reading the textbook. It was a different story in college; my biology professor was one of the best teachers in the college, and he understood that evolution was the central unifying concept of the field.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith