Bedside Manner: Science Lesson
How I learned that I know next to nothing
By Lauren Tucker, 9:45PM, Mon. Dec. 10, 2012
When I first moved to Austin a little over a year ago, I took up residence in a cramped efficiency on the Eastside. Cinder block walls, cockroaches, and a sticky linoleum floor – but the view was phenomenal.
Standing in the threshold of my concrete cube, I could gaze upon the Carver library and take comfort in its proximity, knowing that an escape from episodes of existential angst lived directly across the street. And in those early months – without money, a job, or friends – I took constant refuge between the stacks at Carver, having realized that the feelings of guilt and personal failure tied up with unemployment were assuaged when I filled those many empty hours with the task of “expanding my mind.”
It was at Carver where I discovered the 500 section, that slice of the Dewey Decimals dedicated to all things science. This discovery was a consequence of another recent discovery: the sky. I had picked up the habit of rising early to watch the sun edge up the eastern horizon, hoping to find inspiration in quiet moments of reflection. Every morning, as the caffeine slowly worked its way through my system, so would a stream of questions percolate my consciousness. Basic questions. How far away is the sun? How do we know how far away the sun is? Why does the sun rise in a different location every morning? Why do we always see the same side of the moon if it rotates? From which direction does it wax and wane? Now, while precocious children can get away with asking these why-is-the-sky-blue types of questions, it isn't so adorable coming from a 29-year-old. How could I have survived this long with so little basic knowledge of the physical world around me? How had I never bothered to look through a telescope? How could a college-educated, self-labeled inquisitive mind be so willfully ignorant?
I began my quest to address this intellectual deficiency by seeking out the company of the familiar: explicators of science easily recognizable from pop culture. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Origins, Death by Black Hole, and Space Chronicles were just as entertaining as the celestial-tie-and-vest-bedecked astrophysicis’s frequent appearances on The Daily Show. Carl Sagan floored me with his prose, and his unabashed wonder for the cosmos in The Demon-Haunted World, and Billions & Billions invigorated my curiosity. Heartthrob of the BBC and particle physicist Brian Cox showed me The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe, though his headier attempts to teach me Why Does E=mc2 and the mysteries of The Quantum Universe left me stranded only a few chapters in, Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics still distant goals.
I had convinced myself that I only needed to brush up on my college physics and calculus in order to probe deeper into these concepts, as if revisiting the equations for a wrecking ball’s trajectory would somehow enable me to smash through the darkness and comprehend how a cat can be both dead and alive. I bought a notebook, jotted down equations and tackled classical physics problems from Louis Bloomfield’s How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, and voyaged on a Tour of the Calculus with David Berlinski. This grand experiment lasted about a month, the time it took for me to become frustrated with my mental limitations, lose motivation, and grow restless for something new.
Abandoning the ideal of achieving total comprehension, I adopted a new strategy: read as much as possible about everything and let the understanding develop naturally. I gravitated toward subjects I found the most bewildering: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios, The God Particle by Leon Lederman, Antimatter by Frank Close, The Accelerating Universe by Mario Livio, Big Bang by Simon Singh, and on and on. Some of these I read cover to cover, but most I only managed to skim absent-mindedly before dropping them at Carver and returning with another armful of books I could never hope to finish. So went the binge until I reached the breaking point: I was burned-out, demoralized, and seemingly no closer to the most rudimentary understanding of the cosmos.
These days, I have learned to relax. Only one book holds my attention at the moment: Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. Fabric questions our everyday understanding of reality through the lenses of space and time. Greene excels at explaining difficult concepts in accessible language so that the reader can at least feel the glow of illumination, if not bask in the full rays of the sun. For example, Greene manages to capture the essence of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity in a few pages, ideas I have been struggling to grasp for years. I plan to follow up Fabric with The Hidden Reality, Greene’s recent book on parallel universes, though at my current leisurely pace, that reality will remain hidden for some time. I may know next to nothing, but I have rediscovered the act of reading for pleasure, rather than torturously cramming for some imaginary exam on how the world works. And I still look up at the sky and am filled with wonder – something I hope I’ll never lose.