Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.

Non-Social Networking

Photo of a conference keynote presentationI usually go to two professional conferences per year. One is a smaller weekend conference here in Boston that requires no travel on my part. As with most tech conferences, all of the talks are posted on YouTube within about a week, so that conference attendees can catch the talks they couldn’t get to at the event (you frequently end up with good ones overlapping each other), but also to make the information available for everyone else. There’s always great presentations at these conferences, accompanied by the belief that everyone should be able to benefit by it being available to the world. So, the real value that you get for the admission price is the networking.

Being an introvert, networking has never come easily for me. In fact, I had to be taught how to do it while I was in school. That thing that extroverts do when they work the room and exchange cards and handshakes, making professional connections that will benefit them later in their careers? That’s completely alien to me. And, honestly, it’s completely alien to most writers and programmers. Both fields tend to be largely dominated by introverts, in my experience. Still, though, we have to network because the world is built to work the extrovert way, so….we suffer and move forward.

It’s not that we don’t like people. I love meeting new people. The concept of being in a crowd or group of people that I don’t know, however, and needing to interact with them at any sort of meaningful level, is completely exhausting. Like most introverts, I need hours of quiet time after to recharge my batteries.

This weekend, two things struck me about my conference attendance. One was that, by lunch, which is the prime networking opportunity, I was already drained. I retreated to an outside park bench on the school campus at which the conference was being held, on a beautiful Boston afternoon, and ate alone. I even saw some colleagues across the way that I hadn’t seen in a year, but I just couldn’t get into the head space of talking to them.

Honestly, though, those sorts of moments just happen when you’re an introvert. Even though you might gear up for one of these events as an athlete would for a game (which is required when we’re to have a lot of people contact), sometimes you still just can’t pull it off. It happens.

There was another moment, however, that struck me as particularly apropos of our time in a bad way. Another conference-goer and presenter followed me on Twitter after liking something that I had tweeted.

This happens a lot. For tech conferences especially, it’s another way of networking. The conference always has it’s own hashtag, and developers especially tend to hang on out on Twitter, so you end up connecting with people there. This one grabbed my attention because this person’s profile claimed a lot of geographical similarities to me. So, the confluence was sort of cool. What was telling, though, is that I passed this person later in the vendor area. We looked at each other, but exchanged no verbal greeting at all. We just kept moving.

Now, some of this could be that awkward moment when you’re not certain if that is who you think it is based on a profile photo. In fact, I could have been completely wrong that it was who I thought, but I doubt it. I also don’t think that acquaintances that begin virtually are always shallow or nonexistent in this way. I’ve experienced quite the opposite, and, lest we forget, I met my wife on Facebook. I just think that, from a professional networking standpoint, it’s telling that these sorts of things happen. Perhaps networking professionally and social networking are alike in that they are both shallow events? The goal of professional networking, in my experience, is ultimately to advance one’s own career, after all. Rarely do I intuit the motivation to be selflessly giving back.

Perhaps I’m being curmudgeonly on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps this was just an awkward introvert moment. Perhaps, though, our networking should be less about connections made than relationships entered. There would be exponentially fewer of them, but the relationships that existed would be much less virtual and much more substantive.

Or, perhaps that’s just an introverted way to look at things.

On Immaturity and Language

Wisdom comes with age.

I’m not just saying this because I feel…well, older…of late, but rather because we’ve already discovered this. There’s not only a time-honored tradition of, but a natural order to, learning from those older than us, those with more experience in life. That, after all, is the promise of apprenticeships, still required in many professions.

We’ve stopped rewarding this, though. Education has replaced experience and deference to elders as the point of recognition in the professional world, and post-modern philosophical relativism has replaced listening to experience in the personal realm. Thus, we have people in their 20’s with MBAs managing people in their 50’s who have been in their profession since they were 18, and a perspective that there can be no higher truth than what one sees in the moment.

The end result, I’ve come to see, is an immature culture, and this is nowhere more evident than our politics. A mature person displays careful use of language, but we use our language instead to incite conflict, resentment, and hate for personal gain. Instead of finding common ground, we paint those with diverging opinions from our own as the enemy. We take no care with our words, and thus our words consume us.

“for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body…And consider ships: though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies; it pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.” James 3:2, 4-6, HCSB

I think that we don’t have to look around much to see the course of our lives set on fire at this point. There is power in words, but we don’t recognize that power, because we are immature.  Our immaturity breeds a disrespect for our language, and the cycle continues. Language is so much more powerful than military force or laws, because language brings both of these into being.

“War is what happens when language fails.” Margaret Atwood

Our language as a culture is the result of our maturity, or rather lack thereof. We would do well to grow up a bit before we continue speaking.

Inspiration in Print

During one of my first journalism classes in college, I read a story about a new reporter who was working with obituaries. The story went that the reporter found a small detail in one of the obituaries that was about to go to print, and followed up with the family, ending up with a hugely influential piece.

This far removed from reading that (my adventures in journalism were a long time ago, and my college career even longer), I don’t recall the small detail that the reporter found. I remember the point of the story: that the smallest detail could uncover important news.

The town in which Karen and I live has a weekly paper. It’s tax-funded….delivered to every resident each Thursday. In the years since my byline appeared on a few front pages, I’ve honestly largely assumed the extinction of the newspaper, but have found since we’ve moved back to New England that I enjoy making the time to read this small paper each week. It’s a distinct point in the week. It marks time. I know what’s happening in the town. I feel more connected in a way that local broadcast news can’t provide, being mostly good only for weather and traffic. There’s some substance to print journalism, here complete even with local op-ed writers. It’s….refreshing.

This last week, I found myself wandering into the obituary section. I read the story of a local artist who had worked for Disney, then lived nearby and who had recently passed. This man’s life made for a compelling story to me. There’s an art to telling someone’s story, and I felt as though I knew this man after reading his obituary. I wasn’t struck so much by any specific aspect of the story, as I was by the totality of the story.

This will sound morbid, which isn’t my intention, so as earnestly as I can write this: I wonder how my obituary will read? As old as I sometimes feel (having a two-year old ages one prematurely, I’m convinced), I still have a lot of life left in front of me. I have no way of knowing what that will entail, and I’ve read enough dystopian science fiction to know that I don’t want to know. I hope, though, that an otherwise unremarkable life lived might inspire someone at an earlier point in their own life when it is read. I hope that I will leave a legacy of a good life lived to my children.

In short, there’s much that I gained from reading this stranger’s story, much that I will carry forward.

I miss newspapers.