Friday, June 9, 2017

Letter to my students on the last day of class

Dear Students,

    Thank you for your time and participation in this class. It has been a special year with changes at all scales—in many ways fascinating and wonderful, and in other ways difficult and heartbreaking. It has been a privilege to share even a small part of the story of this year together with you.

    I hope you have learned something of value—some of our collective science stories describing how the Earth works, and also the parts of the story that tell *how* it is what it is that we know. I hope you while you have been here and in the future you listen to some of the stories about the process of how science is done—often two steps forward, and one step backwards, and always conflated with the strengths and weaknesses of the human beings who are trying to uncover truth. I think there is great richness in these stories where science and human creativity work together and occasionally collide. One of my goals is to keep my eyes out for these stories and practice telling them.

    Thank you for your patience with my tinkering with this class. I am still trying to optimize how to simultaneously encourage our best work while minimizing anxiety. I think our best, most creative learning is done when we are not anxious. This year—more so than previously— I occasionally found my energy and enthusiasm waning. Thank you for giving me reasons every day to not disengage. You helped remind me to prioritize taking care of myself so that I have plenty of room for the people and ideas that energize me.

    This university's students energize me. I am in awe of your hard work, ever expanding talent, your engagement with each other, and occasionally with me. You are skilled and capable and I have never met an exception to that during my 15 years here.

    Here are my wishes for you and us as people and as scientists as you continue your studies and after you graduate, and as you build up, carve out, and share and rework your own stories.

In seeking the truth about how the world works, when you collect your data and make your observations, suspend belief and disbelief, judgment and desire. Be dispassionate with the data, and simultaneously gentle on yourself, the scientist.

Then tell your stories. The entire story that you want to share.  Be passionate as you develop  your stories, but discipline yourself to align the stories as closely as possible to the observations and data.

    Listen well to others’ stories. Be critical of the stories. Be gentle on the storytellers. Be gentle on yourself. Try to be dispassionately aware of the stories that you tell yourself in your head. Try to align these stories as close as possible with reality. Cultivate the stories that help you keep you to the path that you want to be on, and also the path of truth and connection.

Please stay in touch.

All my love,

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Farmers' Market Report

I admit that Mr Mango Farmer and I have been flirting for a year or two. We bond over The Big Bang Theory, which we both love. He thinks I am a character on that show. He calls me an arrogant scientist.  I laugh with him and buy his mangos. that’s the banter. Did you listen to our president last night? I ask. I don’t listen to him, he says. How about our new president? I ask. He answers: Oh yes—he’s a great guy. Totally misrepresented by the media. It’s such a shame. He’s a really great guy. Oh. I say. I try to stay warm. I can see co-mango-farmer looking at my face; I meet his eyes. I don’t know if he is seeking connection because he feels differently about trump than his co-worker, or if he is just curious about how I will react. I pay for the mangos (get my usual big bang discount) and trundle over to the fresh fish booth.

There, the very cute fishmongers say what a wonderful day it is, and isn’t it a wonderful day!? Not sure, I tell them. Fishmonger looks at me and asks if I need a hug? Of course I do. We share a friendly side-hug. Thank you for the kindness. Pass it on, he says. I buy a tub of smoked fish spread. How could I not?

I call my mom to tell her NO MORE MANGOS!!  It’s the WRONG response, she says. You must engage. We must all talk with each other. It’s by not engaging that this whole mess is allowed to continue.

I run into the Farmers’ Market Fairy. She is very practical about produce, and knows the political leanings of the vendors. I share about the mangos. She rattles the list of those she discusses politics with, and those she doesn’t discuss politics with. CONNECT—ALWAYS AND ONLY CONNECT!! I say. OUR JOB HERE IS TO ENGAGE (while we’re shopping for produce.)   Our conversation has pulled in another farmers’ market denizen. She has given up all news in favor of music. “I just can’t….” she says, while filling her bag with sprouted broccoli. Can you imagine being a journalist? I said. They don’t have the option of taking a break—they have to continually engage and dig in as far as possible. The Fairy thinks maybe I am a good person for believing in engagement, but she might not be such a good fairy in that way. Fairy says the bubbles are fundamentally different—people in different bubbles think differently, and some bubbles—our bubbles—think better. I disagree about the bubbles. If those in other bubbles think the same of me in my bubble, then who am I to claim that my bubble is better? We all share the same raw material of human brains —and some of us might know more, groups of us have been trained in different ways, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident, but I think that the idea of “us” vs. “them” bubbles is a complete fallacy, and a dangerous one too.

We hug our goodbyes until next week's episode, and I walk away thinking about how even the smallest slice of the farmers’ market is a microcosm that contains the entirety of the world. Communities, friends, families, the two of us, one person and her brain.

 And then I find myself wondering: what does statistical mechanics look like from the point of view of the particle?

Every particle must think she is goddamn awesome, oscillating in her multiple degrees of freedom, with an array of interacting forces acting on her, and maybe even contributing her own forcings to the mix. Three dimensions plus time—so much freedom and individuality for each of us particles—mornings to prepare our thermodynamics lectures and evenings eating our mangos. 

Together, we several billion humans make up just a single humanity. A tiny, transient, assemblage that has been hungrily eating away at the system that surrounds us. The system is changing, and we the particles are responding.