Help your children become human

Here is a very short post with a bit of food for thought for you.

I have been thinking a lot about teaching and education recently. Today I came across this letter written by a Holocaust survivor and sent to educators.

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is:

Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

The Things We Believe In

In a fit of true desperation, I decided to try acupuncture.

The woman was very nice, putting “calming” lavender oil on my pillow and gently explaining that she could feel my energies. I asked her how it worked and she answered in a kind vague manner, noting that the practice of acupuncture is over 2,000 years old.

Ancient things tend to feel weighty, solemn, lending a sacred edge and advantage to their credibility. People have been doing this for thousands of years, so there must be some benefit to it, right?

I laid very still, feeling at once foolish and peaceful, and I remembered that Christianity and acupuncture must be around the same age.

Why have these two practices, largely unsupported by scientific evidence, stuck around in cultures for so long? Certain biological traits stick around for thousands of years for a simple reason: they lend some kind of advantage that helps an organism survive and reproduce. So if a trait instead decreases an organism’s shot at survival, that trait will likely evolve out.

Ancient practices have evolved, but they have not evolved away—they are giving us something, but maybe not the primary thing we think.

I think both certain religions and acupuncture are still around for another simple reason: It’s nice to believe. It’s nice to believe that, with just some pokes of needles, we can cure our ailments, flush out all the gunk inside of us that’s making us sore or itchy or tired. It’s as uncomplicated as sweeping, or unplugging a drain. It’s nice to think that fixing, cleaning, our lives is as simple as sniffing some lavender, or drinking some unpronounceable herb tea. In short, it’s lovely to believe in magic. To believe that a few thoughts, addressed to some higher being, can enact change in the real world.

Both of these belief systems have killed people—a firm belief in acupuncture dissuading someone from getting medical treatment, and belief in religion perhaps in more obvious ways. But I think these beliefs in magic are not inherently or necessarily bad for you. Quieting the mind and getting in a “zen” place—however motivated by needles or scents—is beneficial, and I think you know that instinctually, though there are rigorous scientific articles to support it. Meditating, closing your eyes and feeling your wholeness, is a form of rest and there is certainly scientific literature suggesting that rest is necessary for health. Perhaps even praying can renew hope. You cannot cure cancer by just thinking good thoughts, but it’s safe to say that some parts of these magic practices are giving people something good.

But, while it might not be as mystical and involve so many herbs and crystals, that same awe, respect, and solemnity inspired by ancient practices can come from the scientific study of the universe. Who needs to envision some nebulous chakras when you can know that you are made up of billions of tiny cells, individuals yet all working together, striving for your survival? that all of these vastly different cells, all containing the same genetic blueprint to make exactly you, arose from a single cell? that plants secrete gases that allow us to breathe? that the churning of Earth’s interior produces a magnetic force field that shields us from cosmic particles?

Belief systems, often largely in opposition to science, sometimes attempt to simply fill in holes where science has not yet been able to probe. But beliefs remain unproven in a rigorous manner, and thus the methodical and slow hunt for true answers will forever continue.

Some magic things are undeniably true. Every atom in every thing surrounding you, every cell inside of you, every person on this planet, every planet in the solar system, every galaxy in the universe—you are all made up of the same things. You, we, descend from stars. Nothing is more ancient, or solemn, or mystical as that.

Work Hacks for and from a Young Science Writer

When I entered the ~workforce~ at 21, with a degree in planetary science (the degree where you learn the LEAST practical life/social skills), I had to learn a ton of stuff on the fly. Yes, a lot about science writing and office culture, but also a surprising amount about sweat and spilling coffee. So I made this lil list about the latter, my important corporate life hacks that won’t make you a better writer or anything but that WILL make you a tiny bit less of a frazzled noob.

  1. Always carry a tissue whenever you go into meetings because a big serious staff meeting is when you are scientifically* the most likely to get a loud sniffly runny nose. Same logic behind going to the bathroom before every meeting.
  2. For interviews across campus and/or up stairs, always arrive about five minutes early so that you can go to the nearest bathroom and catch your breath and/or stop sweating. If it’s summer, arrive 10 minutes early. If it’s winter, take your bulky jacket off before you enter the researcher’s office to avoid mid-interview sweats. If you’re just not a sweaty person…. what are you even doing reading my blog
  3. When you go into the interview, if you’re holding a coffee/notebook/phone/jacket/etc, hold it in your left hand because the worst thing ever is that awkward juggle when you go to shake the researcher’s hand.
  4. HOLD HANDRAILS WHEN YOU’RE GOING DOWN STAIRS especially the marble ones in the Broad building my god please trust me on this one
  5. Don’t ask how old people are at the office birthday parties.

Good luck out there, fellow dweebs.

 

*obviously, not actually scientifically

feelings on failure

Being a science writer who was formerly a scientist is hard because it always subconsciously feels like you failed at doing the higher, nobler thing. It feels like you failed at making fundamental discoveries about the universe and now you are just the messenger. And while I think that science writing is important and I think I’m pretty good at it, these “evidences” of failure at pure science are always in the back of my head: The time when I discovered that a very close high school friend had written to the caltech admissions office to say that I should not have been admitted. The time when my research advisor fired me. The time when my grad school admission was rescinded because of low grades.

It’s particularly difficult to accept failure at science because there’s now so much push and motivation to get girls into STEM—and with this new push came, for me, the feeling that any other major, journalism or english or philosophy, anything “less” than science, was so exactly that: lesser; condescendingly expected of a girl. At 17 I really thought I would break all kinds of barriers and norms as a woman in astrophysics at Caltech. But I couldn’t do it. I scraped my way to graduation and exhaled. I couldn’t be the discoverer. Instead I am the messenger. The wingman. The assistant to the regional manager.

It’s hard to break this mindset of being disappointed in myself for leaving (not to mention, it’s probably offensive to other science writers lol) particularly because: writing is “for girls.”* Writing is “supposed” to be what girls are better at and science is “supposed” to be what boys are better at. So I’m not being a revolutionary by being a girl in writing. I’m just a girl that leaked out of the STEM pipeline because science was just too hard—and it makes me feel ashamed. I feel like I failed because everyone knows that girls ARE good at science, girls CAN succeed in science, it’s encouraged and championed and supported in order to overturn those old stereotypes. But I won’t be an example.

I look at the stories that I have published and I’m proud of them. I look at this past year of rapid promotion and growth and I am proud of it. I look at women who are boldly succeeding in science, who are pushing ahead and breaking barriers, and I will stand up and cheer and applaud and support those women. But I am not one of them. And I have to learn to be okay with that, I have to learn that success is not measured by a PhD or by papers published or by other people liking your words. I have to learn.

 

*I don’t actually think this is true

**Edited because some of you haters are real sticklers for proper capitalization damn

This year

If you’ve been watching the news with any regularity throughout the year, it’s understandable to think that 2016 was a disaster. The phrase “dumpster fire” (which I am not a fan of) is flung around a lot. So I felt some conflict about writing about what a lovely year I’ve personally had.

Am I allowed to do this? Does it reek of privilege? This was a hard year for so, so many. And yet I keep coming back to these words by Beth McColl —
“celebrate yourself. speak about your achievements. ask others about theirs. help anyone you can help. be helped.”

For me this year was one of joy and beauty. A year of wandering through big cities and across snowy mountains, of celebrating love loudly and in every quiet corner.

I think that’s all I’ll say. Yes, there are so many reasons for sorrow — external and internal — but still, the sun goes up and down each morning and night. For this I am thankful.

Yet another tribute to cold weather

It’s a sleepy hot Friday and I’m thinking how I am grateful that I did not grow up with snow. I am grateful that I never had to experience the frustration of gray slush, or, I don’t know, all the other complaints that you snow-dwellers have. I’ve been able to preserve the naive notion that snow is a magic thing, while all the cynics and haters are rolling their eyes.

This isn’t a life-long love affair; I only went skiing for the first time last year. I haven’t read all the snow-literature and poems and consequently my own writing will be full of cliches, like a pre-teen writing poems about his deep insights into middle-school love. I have very little originality to add.

But, for me, snow is an overarching symbol of a glorious soft season. Constantly having to adjust the little colored Christmas lights because I scotch-taped them to the wall and they kept falling down. That chocolate babka I baked with the wrong kind of yeast and yet everyone still loved it. Teddy eating that painfully hot pepper at that Mexican place after a long day on the mountain and then realizing that Stefan had cut all his hair off. Walking up Mont Royal alone. Making Armenian string cheese while deer wandered through the yard. Our warm and opening relationship.

2015 was hard and tiring and yet it closed with snow. 2016 has been a sweet, forgiving year, and it too will close with snow—a bookend with books on both sides.

Some thoughts on a cloudy day

Some rambles from the other day when it was cold outside, lol.

I’m writing out on the balcony, in need of an avocado. I’m extremely cozy in my ratty old university sweatshirt with coffee-ish looking stains on the wrists and chest and a bit of toothpaste smidged on one of the block letters, and as I’m looking down at myself surveying this sweatshirt I am realizing that there’s actually a lot more vague possibly “coffee” stains than I previously thought and I start to think that maybe I am actually pretty gross for wearing this thing. ????

It’s cloudy. Soft. A breath of fresh air from the exhausting acrid heat of the last few days. Is there a word for “sunshine” that doesn’t sound so fricken happy? Because “piercing, relentless sunshine” actually sounds sorta lovely and that is not what I’m going for here.

There’s something sweet when the sky is low like this, nearer to you, cozier. Not to mention the air is less like a smothering blanket and more like a friendly presence. It fills me with breath that I almost dare not let out because I know that in Los Angeles a day like this is a fleeting rare angel. Stay, stay, stay, I say; and it’s funny because I know my friends at high latitudes beg the sun the same way I beg the clouds.

The only thing I even remotely miss about being “spiritual” was that writing in mystic, ethereal, symbolic language came so much more easily, and I didn’t feel as silly doing it. This weather unlocks a little of that again in me, perhaps because it’s such a rare occurrence here. And so, something about these cool clear dim days, when the sound of every bird’s tweet and car’s passing rush is liberated from heat’s oppressing crush and amplified like a bell in a tower, something about it brings about a feeling like a butterfly landing on your finger. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or it will go. But you also want to touch it—gently—as much as you can.

Hello babies.

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

It has been five years since I got on a bus for Caltech’s freshman orientation. Orientation is largely to remind you that Caltech is exceptional and I am sure that this year’s orientation will be similar. The university boasts (not incorrectly) that it is home to some of the most intellectual students in the country, students who are all unique but share some common denominators — an appreciation for nerdy humor and clever solutions, the love of science and the love of a mathematical universe of stars and cells.

We get really caught up in the “being a scientist” thing that sometimes we forget the “being a person” thing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could also start off orientation by saying: Caltech is home to kind people. No superlatives (the MOST! kind) and no sexy quantification (3:1 ratio of nice people to assholes!). What if we could say: here, you will find people who seek to do right by others, who say thank you to cashiers and baristas, who try their hardest in this mathematical world to respect and honor the ridiculousness that is our existence on this pale blue dot floating out in a lot of emptiness. During elementary school we’re taught to be kind to each other but as soon as you get a little older, the adults assume you already know that baby stuff and move on to drilling Maxwell’s Equations into you. Can you imagine if a dean at frosh camp just spent one minute away from “the importance of hard work and intellectual curiosity” and just reminded us to be a little nicer? I think it could make a difference, even just an epsilon of difference, if we all just remember, sometimes, to be nice. In all spaces, not just Caltech. I dunno.

“Hello freshmen. Welcome to Caltech. It’s hard when you’re here and nice when you graduate. It’s small and difficult and rewarding. On the outside, freshman, you’ve got four years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, freshmen—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Back to the blaug

Look dude, I have twelve partially-to-mostly written drafts just sitting in my WordPress posts folder. Twelve. One of which is titled “A Remotivational Blog Reboot” from July 2015 that obviously didn’t serve its purpose.

Recently I came across the blog of a girl I used to know. I read a few posts, and I thought — egh, this is bad. And then I realized — her writing may be bad but hey at least she’s fuckin’ DOING IT. Anyone can post a thing with their thoughts and words, and who am I to disparage when I have TWELVE DRAFTS UNPOSTED largely for fear of being disparaged?

In a broader sense, what writer’s early, earliest works are not just that — works — not great, practice paintings?

So, time to start posting my own stuff again. Disparage away!