A few months after Laura died of cancer, I went the Bodyworks exhibit, where corpses were preserved with plastic. Peeled and posed, they show the inner workings of the body, the muscles, bones and nerves. I spent a long time studying a lung riddled with cancer. I could see the tiny knots of tissue that had ended Laura’s life. Looking at the tumors I felt peace, and optimism. Laura’s death hadn’t been the act of a capricious god, nor some failure of spirit or karma. The tumors that killed her were physical, not some concept or idea. They were growths of tissue and nothing more. They were matter.
And matter is wonderful.
The beauty of matter is that it can be understood. It obeys rules. The secrets of matter unfold daily before the collective study of mankind.
I believe our most urgent problems have their solutions in the material world. Our understanding of steel and oil gave us the internal combustion engines that power our comfortable modern lives. Our study of plants and soil have led to bountiful harvests undreamed of by earlier generations. We live longer lives due to our understanding of diseases, and our ability to better engineer the delivery of clean water and dispose of our waste.
It’s true that every advance brings new challenges. Longer life spans lead to a growing population that strains our resources. Increasing crop production has come at the expense of natural habitats, and fertilizers and pesticides can poison our streams and fields. But we know of these problems because of our continued study of the physical world. We’ll solve these problems by deepening our understanding. We’re building new materials from the atom up to capture the energy of the sun. The age when power comes to our homes via copper wires, or to our cars as flammable liquids, is near an end. In our lifetimes, our roofs will become power plants and a new generation of batteries will propel us along the highway. Our growing knowledge of genetics will give us crops that feed more people with less harm to the environment.
And, yes, I believe that one day the tumors that killed Laura will no longer threaten anyone. Cancer is caused by a few stray genetic switches that get flipped and turn ordinary cells into voracious growth machines. One day, we’ll design the key to turn these switches off.
All of these problems are complex, but none are infinitely complex. Our understanding of matter has given us the power to process unimaginable amounts of information in the etchings on a silicon wafer or the magnetic alignment of atoms on a steel disk. As we learn about matter, we can build increasingly powerful tools to study and manipulate it. We are nowhere near the final boundaries of our understanding.
I'm James Maxey, and I believe in matter.
Note: I've written this post with the goal of submitting it as a "This I Believe" essay on NPR. These are limited to 500 words, though the real limit is actually a time one, I think. I'm pretty sure the essay can't be more than three minutes long when read aloud. I feel like there's a lot of stuff I'm not saying in this essay, many points I'd like to expand on. But, I'm putting it up here to see if anyone has any comments on its relative effectiveness or clarity. If there's anything that confuses you, or any obvious typos you note, I'd love to hear about it. My goal is to submit this to NPR next week.