Some of What Matters

Below I’ve reproduced the text of the approximately 20 minutes of that which I presented at the What Matters to Me and Why event on Wednesday. I mentioned my preparations for it in a previous post. The event was well attended, in an excellent setting (a hidden campus cafe I’d somehow not known about before, Ground Zero). There were students, faculty, staff, alumni, and several others. I chose to give a structured address to start so as to make sure that I did not go on for too long, as I might in a more off-the-cuff delivery. I very much wanted to leave plenty of time to interact with the audience through their observations and questions. I delivered it partly from memory and partly from reading, and wanted it to have a bit of a feel of being read a story, rather than a formal speech. I don’t know how successful that was, but it was fun for me. I think I might try that approach again some time.

[Update: – Audio of the event here.]

Overall, I think the event worked well, and I had a great time. A number of people (kindly) said at the end that they had a good time, and I hope everyone else did too!

Hello Everyone.

First let me say that it is an honour to be here. I’d like to thank everyone concerned for inviting me to speak in this series. I imagine that everyone starts their piece by saying that they struggled to find a way of saying What Matters to them and Why in a short time. So I won’t dwell on that, except to say that it’s especially hard when, the day before preparing, you realize that it’s not going to be that hour long presentation you were expecting to squeeze your essence into, but 20 minutes!

Some time ago, when people started mentioning that they’d seen that I was a guest in this event, and that they were looking forward to hearing what I will say (!), I’d respond that I too was curious about what I was going to say, and would also try to show up and find out. This was actually true. The other thing that I (half-)joked was that I’d just talk about whatever I blogged about the last few times. There, I’ve got it out nice and early – I blog. For those of you who don’t know what that is, here’s a summary of at least one type of blogging: Blogging is when you regularly write entries in your diary about your hopes, fears, loves, hates, passions, doings, undoings, rememberings and forgettings… and you put this on the world wide web. For everyone to see. Some do it regularly (sometimes several times a day) and get this: Nobody pays you for all this writing.

So you might ask: Why do bloggers do this? I ask myself: Why do I do this? The answer, I think is because these things matter. So all of a sudden my joke transforms into seriousness. The last few blog posts ought to give me a clue of what I want to talk about. So before writing this, I looked at the blog, and these were the last three posts:

  • More Encounters from the Road Less Travelled
    In which, on my way cycling to the bus stop, I meet a woman on a tricycle, and we both get on the bus and end up chatting about compost, gardening, riding the bus, and sustainable architecture.
  • Composing Compost: Fun With Microorganisms
    In which I describe my project to start composting rather than throw away so much of the organic material I produce in the garden and the kitchen. There’s step-by-step descriptions of the construction from chicken wire of the containment for the compost making on the one hand, and of the mixing of various types of leaves and other organic matter on the other. The role of microorganisms in the composting process is also mentioned.
  • Fun with Alkali Metals
    In which is featured a YouTube clip of a video from a TV show in the UK called Brainiac. They describe fun things that happen when you put alkali metals (like sodium, potassium, etc) into water. They feature two huge explosions. All very fun. Rather than just show the clip, I end up spending some time talking about why alkali metals react strongly with water, in terms that I hope most people can understand with a little effort. (Sadly, I learned later that the video had the two big explosions faked, for dramatic purposes. A sad thing for integrity in science education. Happily, my explanations are nonetheless true…)

What are the themes here, I wondered (aloud: in a subsequent blog post – of course)? Somewhere in there are some of the biggest themes to which I often return. Let me pull three of them out for you:

Access – Participation – Reflection

…and they’re all tangled up, rather nicely. I’ll point out some of the interweaving, and leave more for you to discover.

Here’s a bit on each:

Access. I’m a scientist. It’s not just my job – It is part of my entire outlook and way of being, and long so, going back to well before I decided that I wanted to be a scientist back when I was eight or nine years old (or whatever it was). What does it mean to be a scientist?

  1. You ask questions a lot. Simple ones – the ones that often dig the most deeply.
  2. You develop a specific methodology for pursuing those questions – getting answers, sometimes leading to reformulations of the questions. (Often, the key to progress on a scientific matter is not finding an answer per se, but first figuring out what the right question is.)

It’s all about the Why and the How – there’s much more to be said, but not here. I claim that this science essence does not make me any different from a randomly chosen person. I am resistant to the idea that there are some who are “naturally gifted” for science and some who are not, and that’s all there is to it – any more than we accept this about basic reading skills. Fundamentally, we all start out as scientists. As babies and children, we are much more like scientists than like any other profession that I can think of. We look at the world anew and then we ask the how and the why about it, developing methods for getting answers to those questions, and refining the questions themselves. Just look at a toddler or a child for a while if you’ve forgotten.

So what happens when we grow up? Let’s ask some whys:

  • Why do we become afraid to look at things afresh, and to ask those questions we did when we were young? Specifically, why is it that when I tell someone at a party or on a plane, or a bus that I do science, they say “oh, that was my worst subject at school”, or something similar?
  • Why is it socially acceptable (even a source of light humour) for someone to not have a clue about what Newton, or Galileo, or Darwin or Einstein taught us, while at the same time they would not call themselves an educated or cultured person while freely admitting that they have no idea about the contributions of Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart, Ellington, or the Beatles.
  • Why is it that in most imagery in our media, and in reality in our scientific institutions and departments, are the scientists predominantly white and male? Our society is not.
  • Why is the image of the scientist in our media (both entertainment, education, and journalism) still infused with a prevailing sense of otherness? I don’t mean a positive or even neutral otherness here. There is an undercurrent of fear, suspicion, and unfamiliarity that gives rise to the stereotypes we all recognize: Scientists as socially awkward and cold, arrogant and withdrawn. Images of nerdiness, and takeovertheworldiness.

Here’s some of the how. I think that our scientist tendencies are largely beaten out of us by the prevailing sources we use to educate ourselves, in media and in all the values and icons of our culture that the media reflects and in turn promotes. We are given more reasons and discouragement to not participate in science than we are to engage in it. This is even worse if you are a woman, or if you’re a person of colour. In the latter case, for example you’re essentially continually told “You’re not supposed to do that – Be an entertainer, or sports star – those are where your natural abilities will shine”.

Well, I think that’s not the way it should be. I think that the whole natural ability thing is completely overblown in our culture anyway, at the expense of the thing that really makes a difference – hard work: nurturing that tendency in us that catches our fancy for one reason or another and teasing it out into a splendid thing. I remember as a kid in the 80s watching the big tennis showdowns between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Everybody loved McEnroe, and much was said about how amazing his natural talent was on grass. And it was. Whenever anyone talked about Lendl, it was always to mention that he was not a natural talent, and that he had to work hard to learn to play on grass. They’d show video of him learning how to volley by having a machine lob balls at him from short range, and go to great lengths to bias you against him. Needless to say, I was a great supporter of Lendl…. Even though he kept losing again and again in the big games. People thought I was weird. (For the same reason, I hate with a passion that around this time of year when the MacArthur foundation announces who they will award their famous fellowships to, the press (and correspondingly everyone else) refers to them as “The Genius Awards”, which almost entirely misses their point.)

So really, I honestly do not think that I started out any different from anyone else, in essence, in terms of my potential to contribute to science. The difference comes in how someone’s potential gets nurtured, either by encouragement, or by a little bit of shelter from the elements at crucial times. For myself, I think it was largely the latter more than the former that helped me. I spent ten years (ages 4 – 14) on a tiny island (longest dimension: 11 miles) in the Caribbean called Montserrat. We had no tv (could not afford one), and I was surrounded by a culture of people who largely had appreciation for education of any kind. There were very few people or images around me to remind me that I was not supposed to be interested in science. This did not mean that I did not get a hard time at school sometimes – my nickname from ages 11 – 13 (because I always tried to offer an explanation for how things worked) was “the Professor”. I kept it a secret that I was actually rather pleased with this moniker.

By the time I came back to the UK and started school there, I had too much momentum already. The barrage of discouragement (some subtle, some not) that occurred right from arrival onwards could not entirely disrupt my core, which had already hardened somewhat from years of (largely solitary) reading, play, and experimentation, all infused with science, and questioning.

While I do not know if I would have been a scientist if I’d lived all my childhood in the UK or the USA, surrounded by all the imagery and presuppositions I discussed, I do know that we need to work hard to provide opportunities for all to participate more in science at all levels. I don’t mean that everyone should become a professional scientist, but rather that everyone should have some basic science literacy, and not have a fear of science and scientists, and understand what science can and can’t do for them. They should find it as completely natural to engage in a conversation about a scientific issue as they would an issue in politics, or a drama, from literature, or a TV show.

To achieve this, we scientists (among others) need to work with writers, artists, film makers, playwrights, teachers, politicians, and poets, to repopulate our culture and our media with the love of science alongside love of poetry or music, or drama. We need to let everyone in society know that it is ok to love learning, questioning and structured critical thinking (the cornerstones of science) and that everyone can do it (and should). The little black girl in South Central LA should freely aspire to work at JPL one day and dream about launching a spacecraft that goes out to the asteroid belt to find out where all the water on earth came from.

This leads me to participation.

Participation. If most people giggle nervously about their basic science literacy (but not enough to see that they should do something about it) how can we be informed voters, citizens, activists – contributing members of society? We don’t have a democracy if we don’t have access and participation on scientific matters that affect us. What are those matters? The big collective decisions in our society – the ones that really matter are all about science. Start with health and medicine, then go to agriculture and food production, the water you drink, the air you breathe – all issue we care about, with science at the core (not peripherally – at the core). And all this before I get to stem cells, global warming, energy production – the things the politicians are kicking around in their big speeches now.

Basically, we’re letting a few people in large coorporations (along with their friends in government) control these things on our behalf, without so much as a question from us. Why? Because it’s science and “oh, that was my worst subject at school”.

Some more on participation. How do we make a difference in this world? Take the road less travelled, in whatever sphere. It is not guaranteed to work, but I can guarantee that you will achieve nothing new if you stick to the well-worn path. Take the road less travelled. Let me take a somewhat literal example. When people repeat to you (or you repeat to yourself) the tired clichés about there being no public transport in Los Angeles, tell them right back that they’re either lying, misinformed, or lazy. It’s usually a mixture of the three. Of course it is not perfect, but it exists, and it is usable (for a lot of things – not everything). This is actually true in many cities, and it is amazing the extraordinary lengths people go to to explain why they’re a special case and can never use it even occasionally.

A great deal of LA’s division into the haves and the have nots falls along the lines of how people get around the city. You need only look into the faces of the people on the buses, and then look out the window into the faces of the people in the cars next to them, although I’m happy to see that things are changing somewhat in this regard in recent years. How can you take part in the change, and in the improvement of the system? Don’t wait for it to get better – participate! Use it. Don’t accept what you’re told, but instead engage your brain, get out of your comfort zone and your car, and try it out, at least for some journeys. This does two things: It sends a message to the decision makers, and it sets and example to everyone else. Participation.

(Don’t misunderstand me: I drive. I love driving. I love my car, but I use it mostly on the weekends. I ride a bike, I walk, and I take the bus or the subway. It takes me 45 – 50 minutes to get to work (25 minutes bus time) instead of the 20 it would if I drove. But it is not a race. Because I can do it more quickly does not mean that I should. So why do it?

On a personal level, I get to avoid the stress of rush hour commuting (I don’t arrive at work angry due to some idiot’s actions) and I get to read, reflect, and daydream on the bus. I even write some of my lectures on it. I also get to engage with a wider variety of people – closer to the real Los Angeles. Rather than locking myself away and being afraid of those people from those neighbourhoods we’re so often reminded to be afraid of, I get daily reminders of what I have in common with those people who share the city with me, and they learn a little about me too, which can connect back to access.

Beyond the personal this goes somewhat to helping repair the fractures and alienation in our community – uniting rather than dividing, celebrating and seeking our similarities rather than our differences. Of course more use of public transport is ultimately a major contributor to changing the way we consume in our cities, reducing our environmental footprint. It also improves the structure and layout of our cities, and makes them much more human – more user-friendly. You’ll see – just watch what happens when the Expo line comes, and (I hope) the extension to the Purple line. This city will be transformed – for the better.

This leads me to reflection.

Reflection. It is vitally important to me to be able to step away from everything and find a quiet space to reflect on it all. To gather one’s thoughts and to daydream a little. Daydreaming is so vitally important, yet gets such bad press, being equated with goofing off. In reality it is at the foundation of all that that we do that it is creative, and of almost all that we do of value. It’s another reason I walk, and ride the bus and train.

Somehow, gardening brings it all together for me. There’s always something to do, or look at, whether your garden is a couple of houseplants in your room, or a window box, or a multi-acre spread. While watering, or pruning or raking leaves for compost you can reflect on the task, on yourself, the world, or whatever you fancy. What do I find in the garden, and in the gardening? I find cycles of life: Of birth, death and rebirth, of nurturing. There’s transformation, hope, conflict, surprise, and opportunity. There’s potential fulfilled, and potential wasted. There’s beauty, science, art, love, happiness, sadness, drama, and poetry. There’s the world.

Thank You.


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12 Responses to Some of What Matters

  1. Clifford says:

    I promised that I’d point to comments from the earlier thread from readers who attended the event. There was one from Sara T (one of the USC librarians) with lots of useful library and other information (following on one of the questions ..and my answer… about further reading about science for the layperson). It is here.

    There was a very generous comment from Arun, a Chemistry graduate student here at USC. It is here.

    Thanks both of you!


  2. spyder says:

    You got all that in in 20 minutes. Most excellent sir, most excellent. I am grateful you posted it here. Thanks

  3. Yvette says:

    What a great read! 😀 Thanks for sharing.

  4. Arvind says:

    Dear Prof. Johnson,

    Thank you for the thought-provoking talk yesterday as well as your answer to my question on what attitude we must adopt when science is in disagreement with faith (as in evolution versus ID). I am a grad student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. These are more questions related to the participation theme. Here are two dilemmas that may face an amateur science popularizer:

    1. How much of modern science can be introduced with qualitative arguments in a non-mathematical way? How much ‘dilution’ is permissible to make science accessible to the lay reader? There are purists who would argue that the only way to understand physics is mathematically, and trying to do so any other way would only mean humouring ourselves. They would say that all useful analogies get misleading after a stage and any person introduced to physics through these would have at best a half-baked understanding worse than ignorance. They would say, “If the only way to make it understood is through the math, so be it! Let us not trivialize and oversimplify in the name of popularization!”.

    How would you suggest a balance between quantitative rigour and qualitative approaches to science popularization? How do you respond to accusations of dumbing down?

    2. Popular science books like those by Fritjof Capra, or Chaos by James Gleick speak of the raging debate between ‘reductionism’ and ‘holism’. They argue that the reductionistic route modern science has taken, involving defining a plethora of elementary particles and investing millions in supercolliders is somewhat divorced from useful everyday science. Instead they would like the energies of scientists to be directed more towards ‘systems’ approaches dealing with emergent behavior, ecosystems and other topics seemingly more engaged with civilizational concerns.
    On the other hand, there are those whose mantra is ‘Go molecular! Leave the bulk to the rest.” Things are however not this simple, because as I heard in a recent seminar at USC, there is no such thing as turbulent flow in nanofluidic systems; though it is most common in fluid systems in the engineering scale!

    What do you think is the direction science popularization initiatives should take: take the reductionistic route and capture audience’s imagination by talk of outlandishly named particles to get them interested; or take a holistic route and immediately recruit audiences to causes like green science? Which approach according to you is primary and which is complementary?

    In a way, there are three big questions 1) science vs religious belief 2) quantitative vs qualitative 3) reductionistic vs holistic. Your considered views on all these will be helpful to readers who would like to function as science popularizers in their own small communities. In fact posts like yours can be compiled into a ‘Handbook for Science Popularizer’ some day!

  5. spyder says:

    Great questions Arvind. Let me propose one meager response. As someone who has spent decades in the study of phenomenology and histories of religions and ethnohistory (history and religion of indigenous native populations of the Americas), i have been trained in the nomenclatures, lexicons, constructs, ontologies (what have you?) of those disciplines. Yet everyone seems to feel confident discussing religion as if they know all they need to know about it. Whole swaths of databases in endless servers worldwide contain all manner of discourses on religion from laypersons who really don’t know what they are talking about. One of the blessings (see, nice word eh?) of science is, that while most are familiar with some of the rudiments (they can say things like H2O and CO2, perhaps even know something about CHO and photosynthesis even) they quickly evaporate their pool of information and shrink back from the discourse (one of the reasons ID is so attractive). Learning about science is something that matters, and requires our systems of public education to make substantive changes in their foci; sure reading and math scores are representative of good teaching to the tests, but we need kids to know a great deal more about the sciences than they do now. And we don’t need stupid sitcoms to make it worse.

  6. Jude says:

    I like having your philosophy all in one place, although none of it was overly surprising, probably because I’m a regular reader of your blog. For example, you frequently have stated that you don’t consider yourself exceptional.

    I’ve noticed that since I’m a librarian, I’m always try to *share* things with others. It occurred to me that you might enjoy reading Julius Lester’s blog, A Commonplace Book. He write’s children’s books, so there’s a chance you haven’t encountered it. The main address is:

    The post which I thought of when I read “Don’t wait for it to get better – participate!” is called “Doing Good is Hard Work.” I’m planning to use a quote from it when I put together a display on recycling. The most recent post which I’ve found myself telling people about–an obvious sign that I need to tag it in–is called “African Orphans–The New Toys?”

  7. Pingback: What Matters to KC Cole - Asymptotia

  8. Sophia says:

    I’ve never told you this (mostly b/c I don’t think you’d remember me from a brief encounter at a V&V: Science, Serendipity, and the Search for Truth), but you’re are my (somewhat-secret) personal hero. (Wow that was hard to get out.)

    When we met, we had a fairly engaging conversation (the subject of which is long-forgotten), and the one thing I (physically) took away from the conversation was your blog website, printed neatly on a USC napkin. Since I discovered the joys of a feed reader, your blog has keep me entertained and inspired. (Apologies if this sounds stalker-ish.) What really keeps me hooked is the fact that you live your life how I’d want mine to be someday.

    All this basically boils down to me saying: I think you’re awesome. Keep it that way.

    p.s. Guess what? I’m a scientist, too!

  9. Clifford says:

    Thanks Sophia! That’s awfully nice of you.

    “I think you’re awesome. Keep it that way.”

    No pressure, then! Could I have the occasional day of being sub-awesome? Seriously though, I’m glad that you like reading the blog and get a lot out of it.



  10. kim says:

    Basically, we’re letting a few people in large coorporations (along with their friends in government) control these things on our behalf, without so much as a question from us. Why? Because it’s science and “oh, that was my worst subject at school”.

    So would you say that we as the public are being blinded by their science talk so that they can gain political leverage?

    and you made some interesting points earlier about how the scientist tendencies are beaten out of us..But is ther some intrinsic reason why adults stop asking the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’?

    I dont think it is just the culture which is to blame but there is some other reason. What do you think about that?

  11. kim says:

    Professor, are you going to answer?

  12. Clifford says:

    Thanks for the reminder.

    (1) I think that the manipulation of science and scientists for political gain in recent times is well documented. Recent prominent examples include the Bush administration’s manipulation of reports, pressure put on scientists, and so forth, in connection to issues of global warming. See the press and numerous discussions.

    (2) I think that the culture certainly encourages people to stop asking “why” and “how” questions. For one thing, it is so much easier to tow the line and just accept. For another, the sorts of people who are celebrated for asking questions are often painted as outsiders almost by definition. For a third, our education system tends to emphasize training in analytic thinking less strongly than perhaps it should, partly because it is easier to set a test on a list of facts than it is to set a test on someone’s ability to reason and question in a constructive way. I could go on, but I think this is also well-documented.

    I never said that it is “just” the culture. Life is complicated, and things seldom have a single reason. I think that the culture plays a large part, however.