Through the caprices of classroom scheduling, I find myself teaching a writing class in a seminar room usually devoted to the study of the grammar of electrons and the narratives of covalent bonds. My colleagues in the Chemistry Department have posted a periodic table on the wall at the front of the classroom. This arrangement is typical. You’ve likely sat in such a room. Science classrooms, especially lecture halls, often have the Table lifted in front of and above the pews, in the same location as the stained glass window or crucifix above a church’s high altar.
There is a message here that extends beyond the practical utility of having a convenient chart of the elements at hand. Behold, congregation: This is the nature of our Universe. Order exists beyond the confusion of form. And indeed, this is the nature of things (thank you, Lucretius), if we restrict our gaze (as we must when we teach any class) to one particular scale of our world (about 0.3 nanometers, atom size). But the Table’s lofty and lonely position — it is seldom accompanied by any other words or symbols — is also misleading. The world is ranged in rows and columns only in one very particular way. For a biologist or a subatomic physicist, other images are more appropriate. Years ago, when I taught Introductory Biology to a large lecture-hall of first-year students, I would lower the projection screen to veil the Table, replacing it with images of ecological communities or individual living creatures. My purpose was not to deny the power or utility of the atomistic view, still less to claim that the study of chemistry is not relevant to biology, but to reclaim visual space within our science classrooms for the messy beauty of life: unpredictable, diverse, braided.
From Darwin, at the close of The Origin (I quote from the first edition):
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Out of physical order, an unfolding process, one that cannot be contained within ruled lines.
In every classroom from whose walls the Table gazes, let us place an equally-sized artwork of the local community of life, humans included. A twin for what Whitman called “the figures…ranged in columns before me.” An entangled bank interpreted through art and science, the “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” of the human mind. That, or a classroom window.