Thanksgiving away from home and an essay

I woke up this morning with a deep sense of well-being. In my bones I felt like something had changed. Maybe it was that for the first time since October, I woke up warm, easy, and unconcerned, having gone out last night to Ross’s on River St and purchased a beige-colored faux down second comforter with my now-expendable income. I didn’t wear a sweatshirt to bed. I woke up all wrapped up in a plethora of fabric.

Maybe it was just that it reminded me of home, that when I opened my eyes I expected to see the original pale blue walls of my old room in Connecticut. It would be winter now and the heat would be on low to save on gas bills, the frost which grows on the tree branches outside would have crawled halfway up my window in the night. My nose would be cold in the dim morning but my body warm under the covers. I peek at the clock: 7:05. I peek at the dresser: 6 feet away. I pull the covers over my head instead. I may seem to be making only incremental progress but beneath my sleepy visage there raged a shifting, fierce battle in which I was slowly gaining the upper hand.

As always, a glass of chocolate milk and a peanut butter cookie greets me on the kitchen table. The spoils of war.

No one is born with a love of science. I’ve met folks who take to science like fish take to water, but even so, they weren’t born knowing it. There are formative years, when we morph like clay to any external stimulus, when we really lay the wires for the decisions to come that will motivate us to live and resolve us to our endeavors, that many will attribute to an innate love of science. But even this is untapped potential without exposure. My friend once joked that half our graduating class at MIT are here because of Bill Nye the Science Guy. I used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic School Bus back-to-back after school. I discovered science as something I loved about the same time I discovered chocolate cake.

There’s much distrust and fear of science. There’s much detraction and misunderstanding of its goals. Sometimes I stand up for the institution which I think is noble and good but sometimes I think they’re not entirely wrong.

My housemate once said something I found egregious. We had been talking about the events of 9/11 and I was commenting on the importance of skepticism at the time. I had asked him if he had done any fact-checking on the validity of the evidence which has convinced him of his particular views. “It’s impossible to check all the facts,” he replied. “that’s why we rely on ‘expert testimony’.” As I was thinking about how to respond to that comment, he added, “You like physics, right? Well, have you gone through and fact-checked every piece of information your professors have given you?” For a second, I was stunned, then, I was horrified. “No, but I should,” it started making sense to me. “And I will. Eventually, I have to.” Why all these people are so skeptical of “science” when “science” is just the name given to a pursuit of knowledge.

Truth. Truth with a capital T is not a matter of definition. It’s independent of the instruments which discover it, the methods by which it’s disseminated. I tried to explain. Science lives by its fact checkers. If we didn’t question established rules there would never be any progress toward the truth. We’d be as ignorant today as the day we first walked the Earth. Yes, I’m guilty of taking some unconfirmed assertions as fact, but that’s a mere coincidence of my inexperience– what you’re alluding to is the fault of a person, not the decree of a science.

But the damage has already been done. For as long as science has existed, pseudoscience has been right by its side. But something alarming is the case in this so-called scientific age. Most people perceive no difference between the two. In part, science journalism is to blame. The business of “selling science” has left the public in a doozy. First, coffee is good for you; then, coffee will give you a heart attack; coffee will make you smarter, stupider, live forever. Readers are left to hang on a few percentage points without ever being educated about the margin of error. They’re sent into a panic about the possibility of disaster without being informed of the insignificant odds. And journalists are only feeding the frenzy, overextending facts to break big interesting stories with magazine sales through the roof and intellectual honesty all but out the window.

No wonder the public backlash against science. Listen to us, we seem to be saying, we’re experts, our opinions are as good as fact. Then what of actual facts? Are our journalists are not discriminating enough to sort them out, our public too uneducated to put it together? We lie by omission. We appeal to authority. And when experts disagree with each other we’re left to conclude there must be no objective fact, the truth is our invention, what’s real and what’s imaginary is simply a matter of opinion. Presented in this form, science is no better than just another form of indoctrination. Propaganda. No wonder.

Good science teachers encourage us to see for ourselves. When I was 10 or 11 I came home one day to Bill Nye the Science Guy on my TV chattering about different wavelengths of light. It is selective absorption of light which gives things color, he announced, to great fanfare. Light carries energy. This is why black things are warmer than white things. See for yourself!

So I went around touching things. For days I did. I started noticing how much warmer black cars were than white cars, how my hair seemed to catch fire in the direct sun. I even conducted an experiment with my mom’s collection of fabrics. I cut little swatches out of each material and lined them all up under the kitchen light. I let them sit for an appropriate amount of time and then with my eyes closed tried to separate the dark ones from the light ones (this endeavor was only somewhat successful). But there really was a difference! And so I was convinced of this particular fact.

How easy it is for me to put my faith in science when I’ve felt like a participant for most of my life. Yet I was not born with a love of science. My privilege was to be included in the scientific dialog. My education consisted of progressive versions of reality. Each beloved theory a model carefully constructed, dressed up, and committed to memory only to be mercilessly toppled and replaced by the next. And so, like this, I learned that science is about not knowing. A friend and classmate used to say that the only result of his scientific education was that he was not sure of anything any more. Good scientific journalism must recognize this fact– present the evidence, explain the logic– lift the veil of invincibility and open a real line of communication with the public.

In some ways, scientists are to blame. The scientific community is a community of people, and as such is not free of human quarrels, intrigue, pride, short-sightedness. It’s not unusual for even great scientists to make it their objective to “thin the herd”. The herd is, of course, referring to interested non-professionals, prospective students of their discipline, even peers. The objective? Ostensibly an improved level of dialogue, a higher mean quality of work, and undeniably, exclusivity.

3rd year students at MIT majoring in physics take a year-long lab sequence which introduces them to some landmark physics experiments of the 20th century. “Junior Lab”, as it’s termed, is, for most students, their very first exposure to what it takes (at least from the experiment portion onwards) to conduct a truly independent investigation in science. Each of the 10 experiments culminates in a scientific paper and a 15-minute oral presentation. Most students who go on to be physicists find this experience invaluable. But there is much dread, as well. Junior Lab is high pressure, fast-paced, and generally unsympathetic. In every way a weeder course for the physics major except that it occurs way too late into our studies.

Certain professors of the course have accumulated over the years particularly frightful reputations. One professor, a pioneer in the field of quantum computing, was legendary among the student for his offensively direct, sometimes unduly harsh, criticisms. His evaluations, instead of comments on the quality of the students’ work, often strayed into an assessment of a student’s abilities. Sometimes they were humorous. On a graded paper, I once saw the following annotation, “Much better than last time, but still terrible.”

Other times, they seemed to border on malicious. He took the opportunity of the public oral oftentimes to really drive home some of his earlier critiques. The public oral (held at the end of the first semester), was an opportunity for students to practice speaking to a large audience. Students, friends, and professors are all invited to attend. There are snacks and projectors and everybody’s dressed up. It can be a nerve-wracking experience. There would be follow-up questions on the apparatus, the data gathered, the analysis, then, “You’re an awful physicist,” he would spit out, during the question-answer session following a presentation. “You’re embarrassing yourself. You should drop this class.” I’m not sure if anybody ever attempted to defend the kids at the front of the room. Even as they stood there crying.

Scientists have a reputation for heartlessness. They have a stigma for being only tenuously human, curious and stubborn creatures with a fuzzy moral code. They do little to disabuse the public of this impression. In fact, it’s not out of the question that it’s even a source of pride, this “otherness”.

There’s no doubt that we’re looking at an elite crowd. But then who can blame the public for their distrust of scientists, and in turn, suspicion toward scientific evidence and the basic tenets which guide the scientific endeavor? Exclusivity and exclusion are one in the same. But this raises several questions, does the public really deserve to be ostracized? Is this ultimately beneficial to our cause?

Who among my generation of scientists has not heard of Carl Sagan? In his series, “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan said, “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. In a way, it’s the opposite of chaos. It implies a deep interconnectedness of all things. The intricate and subtle way that the universe is put together.” Ultimately, he devoted his public life to addressing just one question, “why science?” His answer was two decades long and his strategy was to have a conversation with the people. He presupposed their capacity to understand. He impressed them with his humanness. And the people responded en masse.

But ironically, Sagan was least popular with those for whom he advocated the most. In 1992 Carl Sagan came before the National Academy of Sciences as a nominee for membership in the most prestigious of science organizations in the world and was rejected despite the thumbs-up vote from the astronomy sub-community of members. His public persona was to blame. By that time he had written over 20 books, directed several movies and TV shows. (Not to mention he had also published some 600 scientific papers and made significant contributions to the study of planetary astronomy) But that was enough. As it turns out, his popularity discredited him. He was an egomaniac, they said, not a real scientist.

This is not an unfamiliar tune. When I mentioned to a professor once an interest in science journalism, his kindly response was that he thought I might be capable of a lot “more”. When I made the decision to put off graduate school until I’ve better defined my interests, I was warned against the implication this would have on my chances of being taken seriously later on. That there are precious few real ambassadors of science is no doubt a testament to the great command of the purist view point over the scientific minds of today. Our nostalgia for the past great eras of discovery and innovation have driven us to, at times, rally against our best interests. The unfortunate truth is that the business of science has superseded our love of it — what set us going from the beginning, this devotion to truth and progress, is now just an afterthought. It’s a sickness in the scientific community that goes to show just how human we really are. But while we judge and quarrel and blame and bicker, the next generation of scientists have just opened their eyes and are glimpsing our world for the first time. If science is to live on, it cannot lose its advocates.

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5 thoughts on “Thanksgiving away from home and an essay

  1. Lulu Liu says:

    oh wow this is a lot longer than I thought it would be

  2. Larisa says:

    awesome.
    I used to feel similarly about the music community.
    I left the department and had almost completely given up on music in academia. Until last weekend when I went to evan’s concert and met composers working in academia, composers whose music I know and love, who I never thought would be professors. Ultimately I think schools are comfortable places and always want to get better. So normal people will want to work in universities, and universities will want to hire them because people that have left for a bit are usually better than those who haven’t. Granted I know it’s completely different for science. However the self-sustaining exclusivity sounds so familiar.
    The cool thing about last weekend is that I realized it doesn’t matter that I didn’t go to a conservatory undergrad. I just have to decide if it’s something I want, and I have to become obsessed with it. I don’t know if I’m there yet, and it’s definitely not the only thing I want to be doing now, but it’s nice to know the option might be open.
    It might sound naive or silly, but ultimately I think if you’re extremely passionate, the rest will fall away and you will be respected for having left, not looked down upon.

  3. anonymous says:

    I read this post of yours a while ago and it didn’t have as much of an impact on me then, and then I just reread it and it’s beautiful, really beautiful.

  4. […] a white comforter, for $29. That night I didn’t sleep in my sweatshirt. The next morning, I woke up warm for what felt like the first time in a long […]

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