Big thoughts

In Walter Isaacson’s bio of Einstein, which I’ve been pounding lately for various illuminations and starting points, there’s a section where several of the conversations between Einstein and his fellow physicist Neils Bohr are described as some of the heaviest, provocative, radical, supercalifragilistic chats in the entire history of our species.

Well, who knows if anything at all will ever arise from such legendary intercourse—invisibililty? Time travel? An 8 second 100 meter dash? But the concept is a jolly one. What I appreciated about the reference to these substantial verbal jousts between Einstein and Bohr wasn’t the contemplating of what they were yakkin’ about, since subatomic physics is still pretty much outside my comfort zone. What was welcome was the reminder that I ought to take the time to remember some of the more profound chats of my own life. It was encouraging to then find out I still remember a couple good ones.

There was one, for example, that took place about 20 years ago on a powerboat afloat in the Pacific Ocean between British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The boat was owned by a guy who had decided to chuck it all, sell his stuff, load it up with food, guitars and microphones, and spend the summer playing music—to orcas. So, below the boat, he had dangled mikes and speakers in the ocean, and would, when the spirit moved him, play some Fenderific stuff to his cetacean brothers and sisters.

He had invited our little troupe over for dinner to show us exactly what kind of mischief he was up to, and, of course, it was fairly fascinating. The orcas would ocasionally respond to his noodlings, and they sounded as though they were—well, who knows what their reaction was? We wanted to assume they were amused and delighted and such, but for all we knew this ding dong axman was just giving the poor bastards a headache.

But what was memorable was the kick to the nads that my firmly entrenched anthropocentrism received that night. During the course of the evening, as we discussed the realities of the great killer whales, the kings of all dolphins, we weighed the possibility that they might just be the great species on our planet. Not us. For here were these perfectly attuned organisms that had no enemies, knew no war, lived in an environment of plenty, enjoyed the security of a finely tuned matriarchal social network, and had, undeniably, much bigger brains than us. What’s really important here? What defines species success?

We weighed the options. Drank more wine. Felt the envelope stretch. Were we onto something? Or on something? Whatever it was, we got there by way of something that should never be called “convo.”