"The world ... flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world.
-- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Go back to 1685. There is a lavish party under way one beautiful summer afternoon at the palace of Princess Sophia and her husband Ernst August in Hanover, Germany. I know what some of you are thinking right now: Where the heck is this column going? Palaces? Princesses? Well, stick it out with me, and I'll get to the interesting part with a nearly naked belly dancer. I promise.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, the palace was renowned for its magnificent Great Garden, which featured lawns, hedges, walkways and statues all laid out in precise geometric patterns. But on this day, all the guests, resplendent in their long gowns, frocked coats and powdered wigs, were kneeling and bending over the large lawn, staring down at it intently. They had taken up the challenge of the counselor to the princess, a tall, handsome 39-year-old polymath named Gottfried Leibniz: To find two blades of grass that were exactly alike.
Known as Leibniz's Law, it stated there can be no two separate entities that have the same properties in common. One of the invitees had questioned Gottfried's principle, so he invited all the guests to prove him wrong. His point was that when, for instance, we look at a freshly mowed lawn, we assume that all the grass is the same. But it's not. Each blade is unique, bending one way or the other. What our man Gottfried was getting at is this: We mostly live in a consensual imagined reality.
Let me explain. We now know from research how the brain and eyes work together. When we look at grass closely, we see it has distinct differences. To make things work more smoothly in our minds, the brain does a form of photoshopping to make the grass appear uniform. Simply put, it's how our brain makes sense of a complicated world by ironing out the differences. But they're still there.
OK, now as promised, we get to the belly dancer. I learned the truth of Leibniz's Law as a 9-year-old when that summer we went to Florida to visit my mother's sister. Edna was two years older than my mom but otherwise, they seemed alike to me in speech, appearance and manner. That would change. My aunt had been taking belly dancing lessons, and it was showtime! Out she came in a barely there bikini top and a bejeweled skirt that sat lower on her hips than I thought was possible, with a see-through scarf thrown over the whole ensemble. She put on some music and proceeded to reenact, to the best of my Baptist upbringing, Salome's dance of the seven veils. When it was over, I remember thinking (after the obvious): How could these two women be sisters?
We watch either the news or assorted relatives and shake our heads saying, "Who are these people?" The short answer is they are us. Individual, unique, yet alike. Just growing in slightly different directions that at times seem out of place to our brain. But together, we can make a pretty good-looking lawn. And yes, some of us just got to dance!