03 October 2006

Scienceblogs SAT Challenge

My entry to Chad Orzel's Blogger SAT challenge can be found here. I got a 4 out of 6. I'm going to post the actual text of my response below, and comment on it tomorrow or the next day.
Ask any writer, director, artist: character trumps plot every time. In dramatic fiction as well as in our understanding of the world around us, we often look more to those who have significant barriers to their goals in order to provide inspiration, to provide catharsis, to provide understanding. Whole theologies are even built on the idea that it is the dynamic struggle against one's inner nature rather than the results of one's labor that is the true mark of character.

But is this really true? It is a trite aphorism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but might it also be said that results matter more than feelings, and that being right/accomplishing good deeds/reaching goals is much more important than the struggle against inner and outer obstacles needed to reach those goals? No amount of struggle against outside factors would have allowed for the cure of polio absent the real, factual, scientific observations of Jonas Salk.

In my opinion, these two perspectives are really looking at two slightly different issues. While the achievement of success in any realm connected to reality (luck notwhitstanding) is in a sense its own measure, its own reward and disconnected from any thoughts or accolades due to struggle, this external success is not necessarily a measure of the difficulty of the task -- while Jonas Salk and his associates are rightly honored for their work on the polio vaccine, we know that in fact the discovery of penicillin relied primarily on a chance observation of mold in a petrie dish. While this speaks of the power of a mind open to suggestive evidence, and suggests the power of education and knowledge, it is not a good example of triumphing over great adversity.

On the other hand, even the simplest actions taken by those with great handicaps, whether mental, emotional, economic, et cetera, are often a measure of great exposure to stresses in difficult circumstances, and any level of achievement at all can often be instructive to the character of the individual and inspirational to the power of all. This is why stories of handicapped individuals achieving simple ends, Horatio Alger, and many other historical and fantastical/fictional accounts have such power over our emotions.

In short, while real achievement is what counts for the world, it is through an understanding of the triumph over adversity that one can truly measure the worth of character. Polio was conquered regardless of the amount of energy expended over it (and that is a very good thing) but to ignore the lesser achievements of those who have greater handicaps is to ignore much of what makes us human. In an often heartless and uncaring universe, to hope for great inspiration through triumph over adversity is often all we have to go on.