Karma, intuition, and the impotence of science

Karma, destiny, and related ideas aren’t things that I have thought a whole lot about in my time spent being alive. For most of my life, I’ve held a scientific worldview — one in which ideas like karma don’t really have a place, due to a lack of observable evidence (to me). I think it is generally accepted that these ideas are outside the domain of science;  because these ideas are not falsifiable, science cannot not address them. I would even go as far as to say that science is powerless to address them. That seems like a better description, because science — the scientific method that many of us use to understand the universe and our place in the universe — fails us when it comes to the metaphysical. And there are many important metaphysical questions that all of us think about.

I recently came back from a trip to Asia. Among the places I visited was Vietnam, where my parents are from. I had visited Vietnam once before, in the mid-’90s, but I was too young to truly appreciate my experiences. A little before, a lot during, and now after this trip, I am starting to really ponder ideas like karma. I started thinking about karma because my mother holds Bhuddhist beliefs, and during our trip, she took time to make donations to a village elementary school, and also to give out rice and medicine to the poor:


My mom, Luyen, standing under a banner, holding a plaque for her donation to a Vietnamese elementary school.


My mom purchased hundreds of kilograms of rice to give away.


My mom giving away rice and medicine.

In my head and in my day-to-day life, I think that there is no such thing as karma or other similar ideas. But to my self, upon reflection, somehow that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s not only that the emptiness is unsatisfying in an existential way; it’s also that it feels intuitively inadequate in a way that is difficult to describe. As someone who considers themself scientific, I feel distrustful of this kind of intuiting (even when it is done by me), but there is much “intuiting” done (read: instinct behaviour) by creatures on earth that is powerful and that plays an important role in the existence of said creatures in their place in the universe. Isn’t that true? Then intuition, even about “wild” ideas, shouldn’t be entirely disregarded… should it?

Maybe science won’t be so powerless in the end. Perhaps quantum physicists or cosmologists who study dark matter will be able to give us answers to our metaphysical questions eventually.

Conferences, seminars, and journal clubs, oh my!

I’ve heard a lot of people say that travelling is one perk of being in science, referring to the travelling done for multi-day conferences. I think I disagree more than I agree. Conferences usually have tight schedules, and there’s not much time for exploring a new place, unless one sacrifices some scheduled talks or takes additional days off after the conference is over. When I think of travelling for ‘fun’, I imagine spending a few weeks sampling bits and pieces of a foreign place at a peaceful pace… but, usually, conferences involve sitting in overly air-conditioned rooms, listening to research talk after research talk, scarfing down not-too-healthy food, scrambling from room to room, and tracking down a few (potentially) interesting posters in giant venues, a la ASM 2011, in New Orleans:


I coudn’t resist taking that picture from the balcony that overlooked the poster “room”. In short, conferences are kind of crazy and hectic — and ASM is especially crazy because it involves so many people.

All that being said, I really, really like conferences. I guess I like science discourse — even when I can’t contribute in a meaningful way. I am puzzled by (and sort of suspicious of) people who don’t invest time in meetings, seminars, and journal clubs. Obviously, these can get dry… but still. I guess I’m constantly learning new things that I think I should know, or things that I’m doing or have done wrong, that I find these things useful. Also, I guess it just seems like doing science without doing all of this other stuff is like… painting in a room without immersing oneself in the  world one is trying to paint. You could still be a great painter, but that behaviour somehow seems incongruous with the love of the art.

Anyway, speaking of conferences, my lab is going to CSM this year. My supervisor sent us all some advice on how to make posters, and I wanted to share it because it was good advice as well as entertaining. I was pretty proud of my poster for ASM (design-wise, not results-wise), but I think now that it had too much text:


I’ll have to work on that. Live and learn. (And do science, and make time to enjoy the other science that is in the world. And paint?)