From Impossible to Incredible
"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
The White Queen, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll
Not so very long ago, I was a Twitter naysayer. Facebook I understood. Facebook provided a useful way to keep in touch with family and friends. You could exchange photos, make sure you didn’t forget birthdays, and organise social events. Useful stuff. Twitter, on the other hand, seemed like the domain of narcissists; a platform for celebrities and the like to tweet superficial, mundane factoids about their day-to-day existence. Twitter was certainly not a medium for serious discourse, or for the exchange of substantive information. Or so I thought. Oh, how wrong I was.
In the past two-and-a-half years, Twitter has become a mainstay of my daily diet of brain food. Far from my original expectations, Twitter provides a stream of incredibly useful details about the universe in which we reside, as well as meaningful exchange of ideas around those details. Somewhat paradoxically, Twitter both filters and broadens the range of information that I receive. It conveys discoveries with immediacy, and provides useful critique of those discoveries, with almost equal immediacy. My experience with Twitter is akin to visiting an excellent natural history museum with a group of towering intellects – it simultaneously amazes and enlightens.
For me, Twitter really does serve as a virtual natural history museum. I love natural history museums. I actually love organised public displays of science and technology of all sorts – botanical gardens; science and nature interpretation centres; museums of civilisation; observatories and planetariums – but natural history museums really resonate with me. The best natural history museums are centres of awe. They showcase the continuum from atoms to organisms, from the origins of the universe to the ecosystems of today, from a drop of water to the galaxy, and from those events that take place in an instant to the vastness of evolutionary history. Beyond this, natural history museums have functioned as great educational institutions and centres for intellectual discourse. Perhaps most famously, it was a natural history museum that functioned as the forum for one of the most renowned exchanges on the law of evolution, in 1860, involving Thomas Henry Huxley, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, Benjamin Brodie, and Joseph Dalton Hooker. Today, natural history museums continue to be at the front lines of science outreach and public understanding of science. For me, Twitter functions an analogous manner to a great natural history museum. The challenge for me has been to try to convey the wonder I experience in this virtual natural history museum.
Almost 150 years ago, a young Oxford mathematician was awestruck by the showcase of his local natural history museum. This inspired him to incorporate some of these wonders into fiction for children. The young academic in question was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known better by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s most famous character, Alice, often encountered amazing, if not fantastical, things in her Wonderland adventures. Alice was frequently incredulous, noting that one could not believe in “impossible things”. She was challenged in her pedestrian thinking by the White Queen, who famously quipped "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Now, natural history museums are not filled with the impossible, but they are most definitely populated by the incredible. Taking inspiration from Carroll’s White Queen, I felt that a good daily challenge would be to glean six incredible things from the natural history museum of Twitter before breakfast. And so was born #SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast. I have been using this hashtag to highlight half a dozen amazing aspects about the natural universe for a while now. This curation of Twitter-derived links came to the attention of some amazing folks in the Twitterverse. That, in turn, lead to this blog.
The kind folks at SciLogs.com have provided me with a forum to stretch the #SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast meme a little. My blog posts on The Aggregator will function as a space to highlight some of the incredible things discovered through Twitter’s natural history museum. Some feathers, fur and fin; some dinosaurs; the sweep of the cosmos; the toils of molecules; the scale of evolution; the workings of the brain; and the behaviours of plants and animals will all make an appearance here. The intention is to provide you with links to take you to the corners of the natural history museum – to look at this exhibit, to listen closely here, to think hard there, to open a drawer or two, and occasionally take a peak behind the scenes – sharing the sense of wonder and considering how it is in turn shared.
Bear with me, our travels through the museum may be a little random at first, but I hope you’ll want to come back for more.