She talked to corn plants growing in the field. And the corn talked back.
Her method was to listen as the maize gave up its secrets, then to translate what it had to say into human language. In this way, she bridged worlds with other plants and with animals as well. She once said she hated walking on grass because she could almost hear it screaming. It was maize, however, which she considered “family.”
Mystic or madwoman? No shortage of individuals claimed that this kindly, unassuming woman was the latter—off the wall, mad, absolutely crazy. In particular, her insights astonished and embarrassed the scientific community of which she was a part.
Crossing boundary lines between species, she crossed other lines as well. She strayed beyond the limits of acceptance regarding proper methodology—not to mention, what could be reasonably considered as in the realm of the possible. In their minds, she spent her time in a Neverland of the absurd and unthinkable.
Geneticist Barbara McClintock’s intimate relationship with corn plants allowed for an expanded vision into the mysteries of matter. She admitted to becoming one with their very chromosomes. Her kind of global intuitive insight was utterly different from the relentlessly logical thinking to which experimental scientists were accustomed and in which they had exclusive and unwavering faith. So, not surprisingly, every part of her theory was scientific heresy.
They could not, would not, entertain her early speculations about the existence of transposable chromosomes in corn plants, or “jumping genes.” When she finally presented her findings to a hundred scientists from around the world, with a 95-page manuscript chock-full of evidence, her audience reacted with derision. Not one accolade or question followed her presentation. Instead, she overheard dismissive and derogatory comments, even snickering. Fed up with her colleagues’ repeated ridicule and resistance, she went on to work in isolation. An old-fashioned microscope and an extraordinary relationship with her subject matter were all she required.
Ahead of her time and ahead of the pack—she waited for the world to catch up. Thirty years after she made her discoveries, their importance finally became impossible to ignore. Barbara McClintock’s brilliant conclusions provided insights into other major mysteries—how whole organisms develop from single cells; how entirely new species arise; why some cells go berserk; how white blood cells can make antibodies so quickly in response to infection; how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics; how normal cells can become cancerous; and more. At age 81, she received the Nobel Prize and remains the most important figure in the history of genetics.
Most detractors of metaphysical, mystical, or mysterious experiences assert that science provides the sole means of establishing their validity. The scientific method continues to be the absolute litmus test—with its reliance on observable causes and physical or mathematical proofs. This determines what is real and what is bogus. But when the mystic McClintock came to mind recently, so did scientists who shared her openness to alternate ways of uncovering the workings of the Universe. No less than the two most significant scientists in all of history—Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
Some 350 years ago, Newton gave the world, among other significant contributions, his laws of motion. The conclusions drawn from them would form the basis of modern physics. As author Mary Losure points out in her wonderful book, “Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d,” those very laws would predict the path of the first satellites launched into space; would make it possible to calculate how much rocket power was needed to land a man on the moon; would gauge the paths of the spaceships that sped to Mars and beyond.
“Isaac’s laws gave order to the universe. They marked the beginning of a new world,” she writes. “It’s almost impossible to explain just how many vast workings fell into place.”
Yet he was also the greatest alchemist who ever lived—as well as the last, in large part because he himself introduced “a system of the world” based on mathematics. But he never disavowed the alchemy that so absorbed him during his whole life. He was fascinated by works of prophecy as well.
Einstein called him “a great spirit,” alluding not only to his human nature, but to one open to a higher and more expansive realm. Einstein shared this affinity. “There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge but can never prove how it got there,” he asserted, honoring the rightful use of a sixth sense: “I believe in intuitions and inspirations… I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.”
“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere,” he also declared. “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking,” he admitted, noting that “only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.”
Not since Isaac Newton has one person so drastically altered our understanding of how the universe works, and Albert Einstein was adamant that “the only source of knowledge is experience.” It’s clear to me, however, that there are more and more experiences that—at least with present-day tools and techniques for assessing and establishing their validity—cannot be proven in conventional ways.
Not that researchers don’t keep trying to find physical or psychological causes for a phenomenon like the out-of-body experience (OBE) or psychic abilities, usually focusing on each as aberrant in some way. At the Monroe Institute alone, over the span of forty years, tens of thousands of people have explored questions about self and consciousness. Many have experienced OBEs that gave access to different realms and keener insights. Yet in a brief article in “The Atlantic,” as recently as July, 2017, its author dismissed this subject of interest as “wacky and wild.”
I’m old enough to recall when practices like meditation and yoga were dubbed wacky, too. They even prompted, among some, reactions of distrust and aversion. Not to mention when abilities like channeling, clairvoyance, clairaudience, medical intuition, remote viewing, holistic and symbolic healing, near-death-experiences (NDEs), lucid dreaming, and the law of attraction were verboten or subject to ridicule in everyday conversation—not unlike McClintock’s conversations with corn and chromosomes.
For decades, I was impatient with society’s molasses-slow shift from disallowing to acknowledging these possibilities. We are evolving as a species and deepening our understanding of consciousness. Maybe you and I will live long enough to witness a time when what once was labelled incredible or downright impossible has not only become conceivable but commonplace—our lives richer for this quiet revolution. It’s a thrill to be a part of it.
Barbara McClintock and Albert Einstein each had a sense of humor. At the party thrown for her on the day after she won the Nobel Prize, she showed up in a Groucho Marx mask, so as not to be recognized or taken too seriously. Einstein once said: “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up.” and “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”