Breathe It In

breathe it in

Davy - presumably not high.

I've been reading a lot about the emergence of science in the romantic age. It was a grand time. An era when hot air balloons were dangerous miracles and man finally began to discover the invisible parts that make his whole. As I’ve swept through the breakthroughs of the men and women that came before us, it can be easy to look on the fundamentals of their research without the proper amount of awe. After all, the world I live in was built on those fundamentals - we now find ourselves reaching for higher things.

Humphrey Davy was one of the leading lights of the romantic age. He contributed greatly, but one of his most notable triumphs was the discovery of the benefits of nitrous oxide. He performed gas experiments on himself - inhaling everything from carbon monoxide to carbonic acid. Of course this kind of guinea pig approach resulted in many late nights, long headaches and bouts of vomiting. His work with nitrous oxide was both the most fruitful and most fun. He documented the effects of the gas on himself during each experiment and in the aftermath. His notes read like a delirious drug dream analyzed with a scientific scalpel. Upperclass men and women volunteered to be his test subjects - each one happy to contribute to science if it meant they got to be as high as a kite without the judgment of their peers. (Okay, there was a little judgment. Some people speculated “sexual indiscretions” occurred during the experiments with each subject a happy participant. I can neither confirm nor condemn this. Get crazy, ya old birds.)

Without really meaning to, I found myself sniggering a bit at this great man and his great discovery. At this knowledge seeking from a more provincial time. Of course, I am only able to do this when my eyes are half closed and my brain disengaged. When in that state, it is too easy to feel superior because of the knowledge we have through no effort of our own. Of course in reality, Davy’s experiments were groundbreaking and dangerous and eventually gave birth to anesthetics - a discipline that didn’t exist before his great find. During his time, pain wasn’t truly something to be avoided, it was something to be borne. His discovery of the pain obliterating effects of nitrous oxide slowly caused a shift in our understanding of the nature and necessity of pain. Anyone who has ever been in surgery owes a great debt to him. When my eyes are fully open and my brain in place, I can see that his discovery still feels new and forces me on to thought and discovery of my own.

Which is truly all a long winded way to say this: Don’t be upset or discouraged by the pace or depth of your own personal insights and discoveries. What may appear provincial to the half-sighted is truly world changing to those willing to see. Sometimes you have to inhale a lot of nonsense to reach one good conclusion. (Note: we are talking in the metaphor here, not actively encouraging drug use.) And finally, there is no higher truth, there is only truth. Any piece of it you can grasp is precious and worthy of you - no matter what other revelations are to come. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be better than. Don’t be afraid. Keep your eyes and spirit open.

Here’s to the Great Experiment.