About those snowflakes (or, I’m not the best at this, and that’s OK)

The photo I’m using for this blog is one I took about a year ago in Nashville, during the extremely unusual few days that left us blanketed in at least six inches of snow. I had already had my first experience with real packing snow in California a few months earlier (it actually snowballed, just like in cartoons!) but this was an entirely different matter. It didn’t pack too well, but when I stepped outside, the car windshields and stair railings glittered with flakes that were big enough for me to see the crystal structure with my own eyes.

It was quite lovely, and before running off to find a piece of cardboard big enough to sled on, I took a few photos to try to capture those incredible, huge flakes. There was only one photo that came out to my satisfaction, but even so, it’s far from perfect. Scroll back up and see for yourself: it’s blurry in a few places, it could’ve had more snowflakes…and that’s just what I can tell you is wrong with it as a total photography novice. Objectively, it’s probably a terrible photo.

The reason I love it, kept it around, and now allow you and the whole Internet to see it whenever you want is that it’s not about the photo. It’s about the snowflakes themselves and the way I felt when I saw them settle on my mitten that morning. If you look at that photo and get some part of the wonder and joy I experienced in that moment, you have validated its existence.

This idea that the truth itself is more important than the teller’s ego is one that is very familiar to me. As a scientist, I share the sense of awe in the face of the mysteries of the universe that inspired Albert Einstein to say, “As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.” As a Christian, I strive for the humility of John the Baptist when he says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This idea of personal humility and awe is central to the way I want to talk about science. Most scientists feel this way toward the objects of their study, but not everyone applies that humility to their dealings with fellow humans, even when they set out to teach with the best of intentions. In our common human striving after crumbs of knowledge, some people seem to have such an intimidating crumb collection that it’s easy to focus on that as much as (if not more than) the crumbs they’re sharing.

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This kind of aura sometimes strikes me as a sort of science communicator personality cult, a sense that the communicator acts as some kind of priest who translates for the rest of humanity. I don’t intend to leave you with that impression at all, even if I could. I expose myself as an imperfect, often wrong human being all the time in my daily life, and I imagine I’ll do the same here. My crumb collection is open to you, and sometimes it’ll be messy.

My hope is that if you enjoy or learn anything from my blog, it’ll be clear that it’s because you’re an intelligent person, not because I’m awesome at explaining things.

Probably nobody reading this blog is the smartest person alive, but none of us have to be. What’s much more important is that there is so much we can learn and appreciate, and part of practicing science is acknowledging that the universe dwarfs our egos and that truth is there to be found, regardless of who’s doing the finding.

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I’m a little nervous about putting my somewhat rough photography and writing on display like this. I do want you to think I’m intelligent, and funny, and even a good artist (for a physicist, of course). That’s only human.

But what I want (or am learning to want) most is for everyone who sees my work to think, “That’s not so hard. I can understand that. I could probably understand that without your help!” I would love to be out of a job as far as science communication goes.

I hope you’ll stick around for the book reviews, though.

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