Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

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The wisdom of webs

On a summer morning walk with the dog, she gallops, I walk into a dew-laden meadow – and stop, abruptly.

spider web with dewHundreds of freshly spun spider webs glitter between blades of grass, traced in silver by the rising sun.  I’ve seen this graceful display before, but today I notice for the first time that all the webs are set in exactly the same orientation, each one in parallel to the others.


Are they set at right angles to the wind, for maximum flow of air, and thus of airborne insects, food?  Not enough wind this morning to tell.

In fact I have no idea.

But clearly the spiders know.

Explore Bold Scientists: dispatches from the battle for honest science, coming September 2014 from Between the Lines.

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Human responses to a spider’s web:2006_0819Fleurs_aug19_060001

1.  Awe.

2.  Eeew.  Call the exterminator!

3.  Make metaphors.
O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808.

4.  Make sense. “Given the presumed metabolic effort required by the spider for rebuilding an entire web, localized failure is preferential as it does not compromise the structural integrity of the web and hence allows it to continue to function for prey capture in spite of the damage.” Cranford, S.W. et al, Nature, 2012..

5.  Make products.   In the works:  Tiny sutures for eye and nerve surgery, artificial ligaments and tendons, textiles for parachutes….

6.  Make a superhero: 700 comic issues, 2 live-action TV series, 7 animated series, 4 movies (to date), video games, backpacks, blankets, water bottles, ball-caps, action figures, costumes, weapons, the most expensive Broadway musical in history…

7.  Make military/police products.   In the works: Comfy body armour for the imperial guard…

8.  Awe.  Or its close cousin, horror.

“All knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself.”       – Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605.

I would add:  Wonder, or awe, is indispensable in the quest for knowledge.  But it goes far too easily missing along the way.  (Wonder and awe I count as degrees of the same response.)

Awe revels in the mystery, elegance and grandeur of existence.  It is rooted in healthy humility.  In awe, we know our place – in nature, not above it.  Falling out of awe, we lose our place.

Wonder is spontaneous and ecstatic.  Children feel it, uninhibited.  Then we learn how to think, and then we learn what to think.  Wonder is at risk.  If it withers enough, eventually we have to pretend it.  Or buy it.

Awe touches vast questions, some of them best left as questions.  But religion and science keep trying to answer them.

On a mid-winter walk, breath clouds under clear sky, transparent to infinity.   I watch rising sun brush grey tree-tops with a buttery glow.  For an instant I feel its warmth, and the pleasure of it draws a smile.  But in another instant, pleasure surrenders to memory – a hymn from Presbyterian childhood in another century:

When morning gilds the skies
My heart awakening cries…

A rapturous image of awe.  Then the author (unknown) delivers a message from the sponsor (unknowable):

…may Jesus Christ be praised. 

Religion can’t resist transforming awe into worship, a more governable activity.

Science does something different, but remarkably similar.  Very often it treats awe as superstition, a vestige, like the tailbone, of our primitive past.  In doing so it lures wonder away from its natural object, the universe, to be dazzled instead by the brilliance of human science as it deconstructs the universe.

The lure is beguiling.  When we reduce the universe to data it appears more manageable, less terrifying.  Not an unreasonable goal in a universe that dispenses catastrophe as casually and indiscriminately as impressions of pleasure.  But data is cold.  It shrinks, chills, and eventually freezes wonder.

In 1605 Francis Bacon also wrote:  “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” – The Masculine Birth of Time.

A cruel paradox here:  Nature enslaved can no longer elicit wonder.  Yet Bacon calls wonder “the seed of knowledge.”  Without seed, what can we expect to grow?

Awe induces respect.  What we don’t respect we tend to neglect or destroy:  people we dislike, countless fellow species, forests, oceans, air, the breath of life.

A cruel paradox: What are we to do?