Rabbit Holes

A tempestuous sky over Missoula, MT. July, 2022.

As a young boy I wanted to understand how things worked. Not in a precocious way, I had average intelligence (my sister would say below average). One of the first things I did with the first radio I got as a gift was to turn it over on my desktop, slide off the battery door, remove the batteries and unscrew the plastic back to reveal the inner workings. Which at the time were a complete mystery to me. Inside there was a green, hard plastic board with what seemed like a random series of silver “bumps” on it, connected here and there to wires by a drop of solder. Then I wanted to know what the wires were connected to on the other end. I couldn’t tell because the green board was in the way. So I thought if I could remove the green board (the circuit board, duh – again, not precocious) I could glimpse what the wires were connected to. But from what I could tell, to do that I’d have to pull the control knobs off and remove the face plate of the radio. Except on close inspection the face plate wasn’t screwed to the plastic body like the back was, it looked like it was glued. Hmm? So failing that I got a flashlight and a small screwdriver to poke and probe the inner workings a little bit more, looking for what I didn’t know. Eventually I gave up. In the end, I surmised that somehow the invisible waves in the air that my father had told me were all around us (a bigger mystery still) “bumped” into the antennae, traveled down the antennae into the green board, through the silver bumps (somehow), and then out via the wires to the speaker? OK, maybe, but how did turning the volume dial to the right make the waves “bigger.” Surely that’s what made the sound louder, or so I thought. And for that matter what about the speaker, what was that magnet for? (It had pulled the screwdriver from my fingers more than once as I probed the inner workings). It would be about ten years later, in a college physics class, before I had my answer to how it all worked. At least to a first level approximation.

I’ve never really stopped wondering how things work. It’s why I went back to school, to learn how drugs work. You have a pill in your hand. You swallow it. You wait fifteen minutes (or so). Pain leaves the body. Whaat? At forty years old that was no less a mystery to me than were those invisible waves all around us that caused MacArthur’s Park to play through my radio speaker (What’s that? Or for heaven’s sake I was ten years old. Tell me with a straight face you didn’t sing out loud to the “cake out in the rain” line! 🤨).

To understand how something really works often requires science. Don’t panic! With a desire to learn, patience, and a good teacher or two, you can learn the basics (at least) of how almost anything in the real world works. And, if you ask me, wading into it with a sprinkle of humility doesn’t hurt. Beware though, the learning experience can feel like tripping down a seemingly endless network of rabbit holes. For instance, back to my example, that pill in your hand – what’s it made of? In the case of a pain reliever (say Ibuprofen), it’s a specific chemical (and a bit of “binder” – to hold the pill together) formulated by scientists called medicinal chemists, who typically (not only) work for large pharmaceutical companies. How do the scientists know what specific chemical to make, one that will relive pain? Ah, that requires an understanding of what pain is, what makes us feel pain. Down a rabbit hole we go. A human is a monolith of complex of cells, trillions and trillions of cells. Shake hands with a bread knife and you’ll feel pain, guaranteed. How? Inside every cell exist certain bio-molecules, proteins called enzymes. Enzymes are active, they transform one kind of chemical molecule into another. By the time blood is pooling in your palm from that handshake, millions of bio-molecules, racing along the bloodstream highway, will have already arrived at the site of injury, sirens blaring. Some enter the afflicted cells and bind with an enzyme called COX. COX, being an enzyme, transforms its bound partner into another bio-molecule, which in turn binds with yet other bio-molecules and, in a kind of coordinated group dance, triggers a cascade of other activities in the cell. Think fans in a football stadium doing “The Wave.” These cascades we refer to as pathways. (There are thousands of kinds of enzymes, each with its own unique and complicated activity on distinct pathways. Certain scientists devote their lives to the study of enzymes. They’re called enzymologists. They occupy dark and shadowy rabbit holes all their own. Don’t worry, I won’t escort you along each pathway. Mostly because I can’t. You’re welcome). In the case of the pain pathway, it nears its end with specific enzymatic product molecules binding with their partners in the central nervous system, triggering yet another pathway that eventually terminates in the brain with the experience – “Hey, I’m hurting down here!” All this happens in milliseconds, thousandths of a second.

OK, but who was the first person(s) to figure this all out? I mean, all of us stand on the shoulders of giants, right? It’s one thing for a modern to follow a recipe for Mexican Mole, quite another for the person who made it from scratch the very first time, possibly armed with an atomic-level understanding of food chemistry (a book with that title I actually have in my library because, as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, that level of detail interests me. You wanna talk about your rabbit holes!). OK, maybe that’s not the right analogy. Surely it’s possible (in fact likely) that many of the recipes we now enjoy originated from brute force trial and error, and not an atomic-level understanding by the chef of the precise way specific sugar molecules interact with fat molecules, and in what quantities, to elicit that wondrous flavor sensation at the taste receptors on our tongues that only an exquisitely executed mole can deliver. (By the way, guess what? Taste receptors are yet another kind of protein that activate other cellular pathways that end in the brain: “Wow, that tastes fabulous!”) On the other hand, trial ‘n error does roughly describe the approach many kinds of modern scientific experiments take to elucidate how something works. At a conference I spoke at many years ago in Sweden, an instructor at a short course I attended on cell mechanics wisely said in his intro: “I can’t understand something unless I can break it.” Even with my jet-lag addled brain I thought, yeah, that’s exactly right.

Thinking back on the radio mystery, I’m sure it had dawned on me that even if I could disassemble all the inner workings of the radio into its constituent parts, lay them out on the desktop, that alone wouldn’t explain how the invisible waves all around us were transformed into Paul Harvey’s voice in my brain. The experience of a voice from a radio cannot be understood merely by a thorough understanding of how the individual parts themselves work. Nor is it revealed by how the parts interconnect. You also need to understand the nature of the invisible waves, how a wave is created and stores information, the nature of electricity and magnetism. And then how the sonic waves generated by a vibrating speaker cone impinge on the receptors in the human ear that activate pathways that eventually end in the brain rendering the experience: “Good Day.”

To gain that detail of understanding then would require “experiments.” Breaking certain connections or removing parts from the system and observing what happens. Just like that instructor at the conference said about cells and understanding molecular pathways, same with radios, or any other electro-mechanical device for that matter. They all fascinated me. Although I’m sure my father & mother back then would not have been pleased to know I deliberately broke my radio, budding scientist or not. Radios in 1970 were not inexpensive. And while I really was uber-curious how it worked, I too didn’t want to break it

So, the moral of the story is that in order to really understand how things work, at least to a first level approximation… well, before I get to that, may I suggest not being like me (a “reductionist”) in the first place? There’s a lot of merit in not concerning yourself with how things work, but instead just being content with wanting stuff to work properly. I claim this is why most people buy iPhones. And I don’t mean that in derogatory way. To the contrary, actually. Reductionists like me are prone to discontent if we can’t “fiddle” with the operating system (OS) like you can on an Android phone. The desire (or addiction) to perform endless configurations, or experiment with switch settings to gain some understanding of how the OS works, can be seen as a bug of human psychology rather than a feature. I get that. Or wanting to remove the operating system altogether and replace it with a custom one some dude on the Internet made. Now we’re cooking! (I’ve personally done that more than once. And of course that doesn’t surprise you!). But if you are like me, then yeah, the moral here is that you need to show up equipped with some basic science chops (you don’t need to be a prodigy) and be willing to break systems (run experiments) of the kind you wish to understand.

And then lean back and get ready because once you start down that path it’s gonna be rabbit holes the rest of the way!