Thursday, 6 March 2014

Jerk chicken

I like to think of myself as a complete jerk, but in reality the "complete" is an exaggeration. I'm usually too chicken to pull it off. People will say stupid things about science, things that I know immediately are positively moronic, and I am too polite to tell them. Afterwards I feel guilty. If an actual scientist won't correct them, who will? Worse than that: by letting them get away with their crazy notions, haven't I effectively encouraged them? When some braver individual tries to set them straight, can't they now say, "What do you know? Mark agreed with me, and he's a real scientist."

I once talked to an old lady who was very excited to hear that I study black holes. "I've seen a black hole!" she told me. She had seen one through a telescope at an astronomical observatory she visited while on holiday.

I expressed mild, but polite, surprise. She attested that it was indeed true. Then we moved on with the conversation.

She was an elderly relative, so I probably earn points amongst normal people in the category of, "Awkward scientist who managed to restrain his embarrassing tendencies in a social situation." But as a scientist, I feel like I failed.

I should have told her, "Black holes are not called black for nothing, and space is rather dark, too, so anything you saw was, pretty much by definition, not a black hole. In fact, you gullible old trout, the real definition of a black hole is an object so compact and gravitationally powerful that light cannot escape -- so, of the many and varied exotic astronomical objects you might have seen through this telescope, a black hole was certainly not one of them!"

I should then, as a diligent defender of scientific truth and integrity, extracted from her the name of this observatory, if not her specific tour guide, and paid them a personal visit to ensure that they were not telling lies to sweet old ladies. ("You can't see anything through the telescope? No, don't worry dear, you're doing it right. You're looking at a black hole.") And if they were, I would come back with a gang of science heavies, and bust their kneecaps. I'm sure my research grant includes funds for this purpose. And I believe the observatory in question was in Hawaii.

I can understand that there are times when it's best just to let it go. But it is precisely at such moments when people spring their stupidities on me. For example, at my father's funeral, of all times, I was chatting with an old guy who said, completely out of the blue, "That whole global warming thing has got to be rubbish, doesn't it?" I made an especially mild protest, "Well, they probably know what they're talking about." He waved it aside. "I've lived for many years, and never seen anything like it. It's a load of rubbish." What was I supposed to do? Give this old friend of my father's, who, let's face it, had probably had a bit of a rough day, a thorough intellectual shredding? Maybe I should have. Wasn't it he who was upsetting me with his softheaded presumption that 80-odd years of ignorance integrates up to a wise old man? It hadn't been a very jolly day for me, either; maybe it was just the psychological therapy I needed, to leave this old duffer stunned in the corner with his weak tea and his cold sausage roll. If Nathan Zuckerman can explain the Big Bang and the futility of human existence on his own father's deathbed, what possible excuse could I have, apart from the flimsy one that he is a fictional character?

Plus, I'm just as much a gutless coward even when there isn't the excuse of an inappropriate social situation. I cannot count the number of times someone has said to me, "Oh, you study physics? That's great. I've just been reading about quantum mechanics. It has so much to say about our minds and spirituality." These people are not relations of even the most distant variety. They are not friends of friends, and they are not currently suffering any intense emotional trauma, beyond having to live daily with the curse of stupidity.

Examples are numerous, but my favourite was a talkative Irish taxi driver. I especially liked him, because I had not, after an entire year of living in Cork, encountered such a wonderful embodiment of a stereotypical Irishman. It was only after moving to another country, and returning for a visit, that I came across this fellow driving me from the airport. It's quite possible that an army of these guys had been laid on deliberately by the tourist office in yet another ill-conceived and thoroughly oblique effort to combat the financial crisis. He was of course fascinated to hear that I was a physicist, and just frothing with joy to talk about black holes and the big bang and other distant signs of God's power. "You know I'm a Catholic," he told me, "and I just have to wonder, What is God trying to tell us with these black holes?"

I can honestly say that this is not a question I had ever asked myself before. It was not, strange as it might seem to him, covered in any textbooks. The leading research journals were silent on the subject.

I have no idea what I babbled at him. I might even have humoured him with some fluff about black holes being a sign of the vastness and immensity of God's Creation. I was within only miles of the Blarney stone at the time -- surely I could be forgiven? What I certainly did not do was point out that, if anything, black holes were part of an astounding collection of evidence that his worldview was about 2000 years out of date, and maybe he should make a little effort to catch up.

It's moments of shame like this that make me think of the example of tougher scientists. What would Richard Dawkins have done? That's easy: Richard Dawkins would have been ejected from the taxi, probably while it was still moving.

The problem is that one of the greatest attractions of science, besides learning how the universe works and all that, is that it provides an excuse to avoid other human beings. And especially, to avoid simple-minded human beings who haven't bothered to acquire the basic understanding of the natural world that humanity has possessed for at least the five generations before they were even born. All this "public communication of science" stuff is telling me that now that I've got myself a nice quiet university office to snooze in for the rest of my life, I actually have to get up and go out and "engage" with these moronic masses. And try to do it politely. Well, all right then, if I must. But only during working hours. On evenings, weekends and public holidays, I'll nod and smile through whatever tosh I'm told.

1 comment:

  1. Great read! Funny. Only when you do science you realize how stupid and uneducated the average person is. However it is up to us to communicate science to the people, important now more than ever.


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