“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos***
I couldn’t think of a better way to start this bio than with the opening line of Carl Sagan’s revered PBS series Cosmos, as Carl Sagan and Cosmos share most of the responsibility for rekindling my intense passion for science. I recommend that you read those words in Carl’s voice, or even better, use the link at the bottom of this page to hear him say it himself.*** My story is long and seemingly contradictory, but it serves to humanize me, and, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to relate. And that would be interesting, would it not? So, who am I? How did I get here? Why be passionate about science? What’s with the name of the blog? With those questions in mind, let us begin…
Had you asked me in high school, I would have probably told you that science was boring, and mathematics was a total waste of time. (My teachers could attest to this!) “When would I ever possibly need,” I asked of my precalculus teacher, “to know that the cosine of a triangle is adjacent over hypotenuse?” She always had a response, but I never cared for it; she was never able to change my mind on the issue. This was a regular exchange between us, occurring more often than not, and I can only imagine how much of an annoyance I was to her. Looking back on it, I recognize that my ignorance was a symptom of being a teenager and a great athlete; I was overconfident in my abilities, and ignorant of the fact that I didn’t know absolutely everything! In modern times, we refer to this as the Dunning-Kruger effect, but it has been observed by intellectuals throughout history. For example, Charles Darwin* wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Bertrand Russell* also observed this, stating, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts,” and, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and uncertainty.” Fortunately, my somewhat newly found love affair with the scientific method and my studies into logic have gradually and positively evolved my systemic thinking, and I’ve become proficient at recognizing irrational and/or fallacious argumentation, though I admittedly still have much more work to do.
Now, you may have gotten the impression from the last paragraph that prior to discovering Carl Sagan and Cosmos I didn’t like science whatsoever… Well, you would be most wrong! (Aside: For whatever reason, I thought of Sherlock Holmes as I wrote that, specifically the phrase, “Indubitably, my dear Watson.” The reader may think of this what he will!)
While labeling me a child prodigy would have been an outlandish and most ridiculous thing to do as I am most definitely not a genius, I did progress quite quickly as a child. I fondly remember being given the nickname “human dictionary,” although human spellchecker would have been much more appropriate, in the 1st grade with Mrs. Moe, may she rest in peace. My standardized test scores were always in the 94th percentile or higher, and I found school unchallenging. In example, I read Dumas’ ~1300 page long “The Count of Monte Cristo” instead of the assigned “nonsense” in 3rd grade for a book report. As you can imagine, my teacher was flabbergasted when I turned that report in! It was around that time that my parents and teachers both recognized that I wasn’t being challenged, and the principal recommended I be moved up a grade. That, however, was not going to happen…
At that age I was incredibly shy, socially awkward even, and I had a difficult time making friends. Luckily, the kids in my class were, for the most part, incredibly good people. (I say “luckily,” as in the present, not a week goes by where there isn’t a tragic story regarding bullying, and I was never bullied.) I do remember one of my closer friends remarking to me in the 7th grade, “I’ve always liked you, ya know, but you really just got cool this year.” This shouldn’t come as a shock after you learn that this happened the same year I grew from 5’3 to 5’9 and made the “magical” transformation from below average athlete to above average athlete. The “magic” involved being, of course, the “magic” of puberty. I still find this funny, hilarious even, but I vividly remember making the “B” team of an AAU basketball club which consisted of the best players from the Catholic schools in the area and at the very first practice playing shirts and skins for the first time. I was placed on the skins team, and so you’ll recall, now, my shyness and difficulty making new friends, and you may see the issue I had. I looked at all the other kids with their anklet socks and shorts placed below the hips and then at myself, what with my shorts pulled up to my belly button “like dad does it” and my mid-calf socks. Feeling embarrassed and anxious, I told the coach I had to run to the bathroom where I proceeded to pull my shorts down below my hips and fold my socks under my feet so they appeared to be anklets. I just had to be like the “cool kids,” and so I did. (The teenage years certainly are strange, aren’t they?) But we’ve gotten way off course, and I can hear Lola** screaming, “Recalculating, recalculating,” so let’s find our way back.
So, we were attempting to determine how I first developed a passion for science. I mentioned that I wasn’t being challenged in school, and I didn’t want to change classes, so my parents and teachers decided on a different course of action. My mother would challenge me by presenting mathematics that were one or two years ahead of me, and I would start the “College for Kids” program. This turned out to be a perfect win-win for me, as it was at College for Kids that I “found” my love of science. (to be continued…)
*FYI, I checked Wikipedia’s entry on the Dunning-Kruger effect after writing this as I know it’s a quick and easy source used commonly on the internet, and I noticed that the authors of the Dunning-Kruger effect also used quotations from Darwin and Russell in their paper. (There was also a quote from Shakespeare.) The quote I used from Darwin is the same, but of the two quotes from Russell, one is the same, and one is entirely different. This is purely coincidental as I use Wikipedia only once in a blue moon as a source for science topics, but I wanted to point this out lest someone surfs to the Wikipedia page, sees the quotes, and then proceeds to accuse me of plagiarism. (While writing this I thought to myself, “Ha, this could be seen as fairly analogous to convergent evolution!) As a student of evolutionary theory, I’m exceedingly familiar with Darwin and his work, and as a skeptic and agnostic, I’ve read much of Russell’s work on topics ranging from human nature to religion, including, of course, skepticism. For your viewing pleasure, here is the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning–Kruger_effect
**Lola is the name my mother gave to the GPS unit she had in her car. Whenever you changed your route from the prescribed route the unit had given you, it said, “Recalculating, recalculating,” before giving you a revised route. And I said “screaming,” because my mother always had the darn thing turned up so loud!
***I suggest checking out the intro to Cosmos on YouTube to get an idea of what I’m talking about in regards to Sagan’s “way with words.” Also, for basic insights into Sagan’s philosophy, check out the Pale Blue Dot speech. Cosmos the series is available on Netflix, or you can purchase it from Amazon as I did. Sagan also wrote a number of books on various topics.