A scientific approach can b e described as observation first, conclusion after. It’s what sets a discovery-based worldview apart from an assumption-based one. Since assumptions are born inside our own minds, they are hardly broadening; in fact, they can be barriers to exploration and by extension, to any real hope of understanding.
Informed observation of the world around us, back yards, roadsides, park trails, can be a window to the cosmos. The English social philosopher Herbert Spencer put it well when he wrote: “…science opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is a blank…those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.”
Seemingly commonplace things can be portals to enrichment. July is firefly season, but what is a firefly and how does it glow? Fireflies are not flies but soft-bodied beetles. Males fly and signal by flashing their lights to females waiting in the grass below. If a female is receptive, she will signal back with a flash of light. Each species flashes to potential mates with frequency, length of flash and flash patterns specific to their own species. That’s how they recognize mates of the correct species.
Watch closely and you can see that some fireflies make a long flash as they fly that starts low and goes up, roughly suggesting the letter “J”. Others flash three times in quick succession, while others flash from perches on leaves. Most females reply from the ground and males called to their response land to mate. There is one species in which females copy the flashes of males from other species and when the males come to mate, the females eat them.
The fireflies’ light organ is a wondrous thing. It has a clear lens covering the light organ where a chemical reaction makes the light. A protein, called Luciferin, is acted on by an enzyme called Luciferase in the presence of water, oxygen and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the basic molecule all living things use to store and release metabolic energy. At the very back of the light organ, an opaque white layer of cells forms a reflector to push the light in the desired direction. The firefly controls its light flashes by nerve impulses.
Plenty of mystery remains in the firefly. Modern science has not revealed all parts of the light-making process in fireflies. Entomologist Howard Ensign Evans, in his delightful book Life on a Little-Known Planet, argues that genuine magic exists all around us and fireflies are a good example.
If there are wonders as close as your lawn, in seemingly commonplace things and familiar spaces, what wonders – what poetry – surrounds us, waiting for knowledge to teach us to read it? As we let discovery carry us along instead of inventing explanations ahead of knowledge, we stand to gain better understandings, not only of how our world actually works, but of ourselves. In one of his Four Quartets, poet T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”