“Intellectual stimulation is an emotional experience for me,” remarked the mathematician and polymath Eugenia Cheng. Her words have stayed with me.
Around 7 this morning I was sipping my favorite brew of coffee in the living room, listening to the ambient background of Pacific Notions on KEXP, and watching a thick fog slowly retreat back to the ocean. This is my church time. Intellectual stimulation. An emotional, spiritual experience.
On my lap was the latest New Yorker and I was half way through Nicola Twilley’s account of “The Race to Redesign Sugar.” How did I know so little about sugar!? Did you know that only around a fifth of the sugar we consume is perceived by taste receptors? “The rest of it is washed down into our bellies—calories we consume but never taste.” Meanwhile, the annual cost of diabetes was estimated at $327B in 2018. More than 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes and they spend around $10,000 per year in medical costs on diabetes alone. More than 80,000 Americans die each year from diabetes and 70% of Americans say they’re concerned about the amount of sugar in their diets. And yet, here is a fascinating and fun account by Nicola Twilley about the likelihood that in just five years food scientists will have figured out a way to re-engineer sugar so that we consume much less of it. When you look at the cost to the the economy and the number of people who have died or may die from sugar, isn’t this just as big of a story as a COVID vaccine?
That’s what I asked myself as I savored the last sip of coffee out of my favorite glazed mug and stared outside at the morning fog, still resisting the sun’s effort to shine through.
How could this be an “emotional and spiritual experience,” you may be asking. And that’s what I started to wonder too. I think it has to do with making myself smaller and thinking about the larger universe with wonder. Here is how Alain de Botton has described reading the newspaper:
The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity.The News by Alain de Botton
As I read Twilley narrate her visits to laboratories across the world in a race to redesign sugar, I was overcome by a kind of spiritual mysticism and humanist solidarity. I began the day knowing next to nothing about sugar or the efforts by scientists to make it less damaging. What was invisible had been made visible through 10 or so pages of compelling writing. I thought about my friends with diabetes, their difficulties resisting sweets. I recalled images of obese amputees in Mexico City, still clutching oversized bottles of Diet Coke. Could we really be close to overcoming so much pain and struggle?
Karl One Knausgaard captures the mystic spirituality of knowledge when he writes:
Did red and white blood cells exist in the seventeenth century? Yes, they did, but not to the human mind. They were in other words a part of the world but not of our reality. That reality is our world, and for that reason the world of the seventeenth century was different from the world of today, though the sky and the earth and the twinkling stars are of the same nature and material now as then.My Struggle by Karl One Knausgaard
We talk about “losing ourselves” in a good book, as if we become distracted. But what is truly lost is the ego. In its place we find curiosity and attentiveness. We make associations between ideas that our larger than ourselves. Like nature, deep reading is an antidote to the self-optimized vanity of social media.
I’m encouraged that science and innovation may finally develop a substitute for sugar. I wish I were more hopeful about the future of deep reading.