The Theory of Everything

I have been working on the theory of everything since I was ten years old. At that stage, I didn’t know there would be a theory; I was just collecting observations. I boiled clover leaves and flowers in water to see what they taste like. In the summer I fell asleep with my head on the window sill to catch the faintest breeze and listen to the roar of the lions in the zoo a mile away. I spent winter afternoons, after sledding down the hill in front of the Natural history Museum, studying the dioramas of the northern lights and the colors and crystals of the gem and mineral collection. When I saw the cattle spread out flank to flank and smelled the stench, when my mother said, in answer to my horrified child-question, “Oh, that’s just the feed lot. That’s where meat comes from,” I started to form judgments about some of these things I was observing. I knew some of them were wrong—not in the sense of violating the Ten Commandments and the church rules, especially all those to do with chastity, but more like sensing that some essential order of the universe had been wronged.

I continued to collect the stories of how the world worked, how mixed up butter, sugar, and flour turn into a cookie, or a cake. How the corn muffins, if you too slavishly follow the recipe and don’t stir the batter at all, turn into a mess of crumbs (oh, the shame of it) at the dinner table. How the lilacs and lilies of the valley we picked for the May altar lost their smell if we smelled them too deeply for too long. How cut grass feels on your bare feet when you run and how hard it was for me to make the racquet connect with the badminton bird. What kind of concentration and which heavy aluminum pan it took to make perfect popcorn.

I dutifully learned Latin and algebra and chemistry, scaffolding that other knowledge would be able to attach to later. I learned to study current events and speak with some authority on the “crisis in Cyprus”, although the framework I used was more akin to the church rules than to my inner sense of how the world was. I was required to spend time in the world of Shakespeare, Anna Karenina, and Billy Budd, and I know I said or wrote the expected things about them. But they just hung out like an appendix, adding neither questions nor clarity to the picture I was building up in my mind.

Eventually, knowing that something was so was not enough. I wanted to know how and why. In high school biology I learned that organisms changed, and that some of the changes helped them live better, and that Lamarck’s explanation for this was wrong, but I still wanted to know: How did the giraffe’s neck get longer? Only thirty years later when I learned about regulator genes did the story finally make sense, and the itch that was the incompletely answered question I had carried since I was fourteen dropped into a relaxed state as if it had finally been scratched.

Of course I came to the aptly named sophomore stage, when I thought I held the precise picture of all the world’s wrongs and all their causes clearly in my mind, and I set to work to make it right. Like most efforts built on that sort of shallow and overconfident tinkering, mine were disastrous. The world as I knew it was blasted apart. I had to start over, living day to day, collecting observations. They stuck themselves to whatever scaffolding they found and assembled themselves into all manner of reasonable patterns. But it was a long time before I could trust myself to act upon any of them.

Even today, forty years later, I still hold my models tentatively. Writing five paragraphs in a blog seems almost dangerously declarative.


Heather Barney said
April 25, 2010 at 10:31 am

The other side of dangerously declarative feels like courageous-consciousness unfolding. I just came in from watching the fiddleheads unfurling at Fresh Pond and reading these first 2 entries (April 23 and the above) has a wonderfully satisfying mindfulness of nature, intellect, science and human responsibility….looking forward to reading more. With Love, Heather

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

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