A Salute to the Silly

A Salute to the Silly


I saw a funny meme the other day.  It depicted our solar system, complete with the sun and all the planets, but our earth was flat as a board while the celestial bodies that surrounded it were depicted as spheres.  The caption read, “Well, this is awkward.”

The cartoon elicited a quick chuckle from me, then I expected to move on to absorb whatever other nonsense the interwebs had for me that day.  Instead, I paused.  There were smart people on this rock when a flat earth was the prevailing wisdom of the day.  Really smart people believed in it.

Imagine the earth’s best brainiacs, gazing out over the ocean, convinced that somewhere, just beyond the horizon, lies a gigantic 'Do Not Enter' sign, warning of the great abyss that marks the edge of our decidedly non-globular world.

And what about other things we knew to be true and just weren’t?  Spontaneous generation held the scientific stage for far too long, akin to a bad comedian who doesn't know when to exit. This theory, which posited that life could emerge from non-life like a rabbit from a hat, was the talk of the town. Picture this: medieval scientists and observers, with the best of intentions but perhaps a little too much mead, gazing at a piece of old cheese and, lo and behold, mice appear! Or witnessing with awe as maggots miraculously appeared on rotting meat, as if a tiny, unseen magician was at work. It was the ultimate DIY for nature - no need for complex biological processes, just a bit of old food or a dirty shirt, and voilà, life!

How about some dark European superstition? Back in the Middle Ages, doctors clung to a rather fragrant idea that diseases sprung from a noxious air, dubbed 'miasma'. It's amusing to think that this medieval myth actually shaped medical vocabulary – take 'malaria', which literally translates from Italian as 'bad air' (‘mala’ for bad, ‘aria’ for air). Imagine that – a deadly disease, named after a misguided hunch!

And when it came to the dreaded plague, our ancestors were no less creative. The doctors of the Great Plague of London fancied that stuffing their masks with flowers would shield them from the plague's ‘perfumed’ wrath. While these petal-packed masks made for a rather dapper look, they did squat against the actual plague. So much for the power of posies!

We also thought the sun revolved around the earth, we thought the human body was made up of humers (blood, choler, phlegm and black bile), we removed 'bad blood' with leeches, and we electrocuted our mental patients.

So, while society muses about the power of science, the death of religion, and revels in the confidence that modern humans have finally got it all figured out, I have to ask, didn’t the thinkers in eras past also consider themselves wise?  Since human nature hasn’t changed all that much, I must ask a followup question—with history as a guide, what exactly are we stupid about today?  What do we believe right now that is absolutely ridiculous and will earn the ridicule of future generations?

I’m immediately drawn to the human brain.  It’s the last area of medical research where we are profoundly ignorant.  We’ve done well with deciphering the machinations of the rest of the human body to a significant degree, but that noodle in our noggin still confounds us.

Why does each hemisphere insist on conducting the opposite side of our body? It's a quirky conductor indeed. Face recognition is another enigma. Six brain areas are in on this secret, yet the full story of how they transform a sea of faces into familiar landmarks remains untold. We are also vexed about the journey of images from the retina of our eye to a virtual canvas in our cortex? It's a magical art show where the brain is both the artist and the audience.

What about the brain areas responsible for speech?  Like solo performers, they usually hang out in the left hemisphere, but musical activity is way over on the right?  Sleep is another profound mystery. Why do we surrender to its embrace every night, and what secret stories do our dreams weave? Are they our own creations, or as many mystics believe, messages from the beyond?

And then, there's consciousness – the grandest mystery of them all.  Some believe it’s a natural consequence of the complex neural symphony happening inside our heads. It's as if our brains are finely tuned instruments in the vast orchestra of life, and consciousness is the most sublime note they can play.  Or does it come from some other place, sitting on the brain for a lifetime, then off to adventures unknown? (That actually sounds like a good idea for a novel.)

As we stand in awe of these wonders, we can't help but marvel at the possibilities. Perhaps, one day, as we unravel these neural mechanisms, we'll finally grasp the elusive melody of our minds.  Until then, let's revel in the wonder, the humor, and the sheer magnificence of not knowing, yet seeking.  And let’s give our silly ancestors a break.

After all, generations down the line, we’ll surely be the butt of jokes by our own progeny.  They'll chuckle at our quaint attempts to decode the universe while sipping on their quantum coffee or whatever the future fancies.

So, lift your cup to blissful cluelessness! A salute to enigmas still cozy in their cloaks of mystery and those who were bold enough to unravel them! And if you bump into a flat-earther while gallivanting about, just chuckle and remember: we're every bit as ridiculous, albeit with a slightly different flavor.

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