What Matters?

palm flower frondsI’ll let you know.

Huh? Today, I’ve to think about two things I have to talk about over the next couple of days. I’ve to give a physics seminar on Thursday at UCSB, but more urgently, I have to think about What Matters To Me and Why. Why? This is because in the Spring I agreed to be one of the presenters of the four-times-a-semester USC event of the same title, hosted by the Center for Religious Life. This excellent series is run by Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the Dean of Religious Life, with a committee of students. Here’s how it is supposed to work (extract from their site):

At each WMMW session, the featured guest spends about twenty minutes addressing the topic “What Matters to Me and Why,” and then the floor is opened to informal dialogue for the remainder of the hour. Just as there is no one way to address the topic, so there will be no one direction in which dialogue will proceed. The student contact from the WMMW committee introduces the speaker and makes sure that the session goes forward in a professional yet friendly manner. An indirect purpose of WMMW is to maintain an arena in which people can talk about important, personally charged questions in an open, mutually respectful way.

A typical session is described here. This is going to be a tough one. Not because nothing matters to me but because everything seems to matter, and I cannot effectively rank these things to say what matters most in any way. I only learned yesterday that I only have about 20 minutes to say what it is that matters. This either makes things harder or easier, I can’t decide yet. Probably harder. Now I really have to think.

I jokingly thought a few months ago that I ought to just look at my last few blog posts the day before and just talk about what’s in those. What can I see… Well, there’s public transport, community and the environment, composting and gardening, science and television (and scientific honesty). Not bad. (Good thing I did not do that post on dating. Probably not a good topic for WMMW…) I can probably weave something out of those. Do I blog about those things by accident, or because there are some themes there that are being brought out? What are the big themes in those then? Random scattered thoughts follow….


Finding ways of getting more people to take part in that wonderful activity – science; It’s part of our culture – or should be; Wider access essential for our democracy; More access for society in general, people who’ve been historically excluded (women, minorities…) in particular; untapped/underused talent; TV (and film), powerful media, can help with that… Everybody taking part in science conversations right alongside everything else… a scientific academy that reflects and represents society at large…broader stronger talent base/pool…..(and so maybe has society’s concerns more readily to mind)…


Let’s all do a little bit to help with the larger purposes. Thinking about and reducing our impact on the environment… promotes better health, and more… Let’s get out of our cars and take the time to get to know each other on the sidewalk… talk about things going on in the community. (It’s less stressful that fighting in traffic too… give it a try…) Stop hiding from each other… being afraid of each other…. Let’s participate in shaping our world… each other…


So important to step away from everything and find a quiet space to reflect on it all. Quiet space can be in place or in mind or both: Hiking, music, gardening, cooking, reading (talk about recent books?), riding the bus or train to work (quiet reflection, yes, really – in a sense)…Hmmm…too many examples. Pick to talk about gardening… associated tasks… Pruning and tending, composting, planting… a cycle that is a microcosm for so much else. Arguably for everything that really matters….(Hmmm….weave in life cycle of stars here? life cycle of teaching and research in academia? Point out similarities with gardening cycle…? maybe bit of a stretch in time permitted…)

Ok. Time for some tea and a bun for breakfast. Then think some more…

Hey, maybe it is all here in the blog posts. This blogging business is actually useful. Who knew? It’s sort of like… a record of what I’m thinking about, what matters to me. Sort of like a log. On the web. A weblog. You know, it might catch on…


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6 Responses to What Matters?

  1. Yvette says:

    Sounds like a fun lecture series, and that you’re on the right track! Do let us know what you end up talking about.

  2. Sara T. says:

    An inspiring brief talk today, Clifford, thank you! A few thoughts.

    Access-Participation-Reflection seem points in a cyclical process to me; not sure if you said that explicitly, but I liked the points and they worked well as one of your organizing devices, as did of course the garden metaphors!

    I was pleased that someone at the lecture asked about how lay people/adults can learn about science, and pleased that one of the resources you mentioned was books and libraries! 😎 Muchas gracias for the plug, professor!! 😎 Also great that you mentioned biographies – more on that in a minute.

    But first I want to note that at USC, most of the history, philosophy and biography of science books are in the Doheny Memorial Library, not in my home base the Science & Engineering Library. Personally I READ those DML-housed science books more than those in S&E, but AM also comfortable with them being there, and thus somewhat more broadly, or centrally accessible. We get lots of these sort of titles, and all the new ones are in the “intellectual commons” nice reading room on DML’s 2nd floor. Our S&E collection is more strictly defined as resources for working scientists and engineers and students thereof.

    For readers’ benefit, USC, and most academic libraries in N. America, use the Library of Congress classification system for call numbers. That means the science books mainly have call #s on the spines that start with Q…. Also, most physics texts are in QC.

    Re biographies – yes! These can be a great way to learn about the doing of science for nonscientists like myself. Two of my favorite texts are probably more properly called simply history, but they go into the lives and characters of the scientists covered, and I really like and learn from that personal touch.

    The first one has LONG been a fave: _The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics_. by Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann.

    The second one I am currently finishing, and it is not quite as good as Crease and Mann, but the author DOES cover MORE of a span of physics history: _From Clockwork to Crapshoot: A History of Physics_ by Roger Newton. (I have checked out USC’s DML copy, so it is not available just yet!)

    Thanks for all you do for science literacy!!

  3. Clifford says:

    Hi Sara T.

    Thanks for coming! I’ll post the text of my entire talk up here shortly, and will copy your comment there for future readers, if that’s ok. Also, don’t hesitate to point people my way for more reading suggestions…. and maybe even to this and the forthcoming blog post.

    Thanks again for all the great suggestions in your comment above.



  4. Arun says:

    Dear Prof. Johnson,

    It was a very nice talk today at USC. I have seen you on the Metro Bus on a few occasions (I take it everyday) :). You are a great role model and I keep telling everyone I know about the viability of taking public transport in L. A ( I cite your example freely to try and inspire and I hope you don’t mind!). Your observation that scientists should not be stereotyped as “socially awkward” or one of those fringe behavioral groups is very astute and I’d like to add that this responsibility lies primarily with us ( I’m a graduate student in the Chemistry Department).

    To teaching and spreading knowledge all around !

    Best wishes.

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