Science as an Avenue for Pleasure

“To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, from Chapter 2

Our Obligation to the Possible

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In 2005, Michael D. Griffin, in his Senate confirmation hearing to become NASA Administrator, all but said, We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.

Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard
April 27, 2005, Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. NASA’s 11th administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

Dr. Griffin appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee a little over two years after the Shuttle Columbia disaster. His remarks make clear he and President George W. Bush saw themselves as presiding over the end of the Shuttle program, the ongoing “Space Station Era”, and the beginning of a new era of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Click here for a PDF of Dr. Griffin’s complete Statement

From a structural standpoint, Griffin’s remarks reminded me of a strategy touted in presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s book On Speaking Well. She says colloquially, “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em—tell ‘em—then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” (pg. 24, paperback edition).

What is the essence of Michael D. Griffin’s message to ‘em, ‘em being the Senate Commerce Committee?

“The strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

This is plain and simple enough. But with what literary oomph does Griffin drive his message? First, he invokes Columbus, 1492, and the political backing provided by Isabella, Queen of Aragon. Griffin’s remarks are not a tired tribute to a historical figure who has largely fallen out of favor. He uses Columbus’s voyage, and more particularly Isabella’s role in it, to demonstrate a politically savvy justification for engaging in exploration.

Why did Columbus secure funding? Because the Queen recognized the inevitability of Columbus’s mission and wanted to make sure Spain, not some other country, lead the way and took the credit.

I return to my phony quote from the top. “We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.”

Griffin’s remarks are laced with word choices that infuse a sense of achieving the possible in the context of what is inevitable and/or necessary. He speaks, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, of flying the Shuttle “as safely as possible…” He speaks of developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle “as soon as possible…” He announces “a lunar return program having the maximum possible utility…” And when he invokes Spain’s backing of Columbus, he speaks of that 15th Century effort as being “at the edge of what was technologically possible.”

Yet Griffin’s remarks strike me less as anthemic and, in word choice and subtext, more as steeped in a sense of obligation. His speech starts with a list of priorities to execute “the duties” of the office of NASA Administrator. He speaks of the completion of the Space Station as a matter of international “commitments.” Most explicitly, right after concluding his colonial history lesson, he says the following:

“In the twenty-first century and beyond, for America to continue to be preeminent among nations, it is necessary for us also to be the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

To a Republican administration in 2005 at least, exploration of the Moon and beyond may have seemed as inevitable as the European colonization of the Americas. There is even, perhaps intentionally, a little nod to Queen Isabella late in the speech. Griffin speaks of NASA’s science programs as being “crown jewels of the nation’s achievements.” A page earlier in the speech he spoke of the story of Queen Isabella “pledging her jewels to back the voyage” of Columbus.

These brief references to jewels, literal and metaphoric, are the most romantic Griffin’s statement gets. As he makes clear in his closing remarks, the nation’s exploration of space was not in jeopardy in 2005. Only at stake was its commitment to remaining on the edge of possibility, leading the way deeper into space than any other nation. For some, this obligation to the possible—for the sake of political supremacy—is reason enough to resume exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

‘Eruption’ for Fated Characters

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. HelensEruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.

“But that’s a misconception…”

–Steve Olson

The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.

As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.

For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.

Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them.

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Sermon on the Cosmic Mount

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 3/23/16. He is backed by a NASA image of Earth as seen from Saturn.


There was a time for me when the right words came from the Pledge of Allegiance. When a younger pious me served a Mormon mission, the right words came from scripture. The best examples would be The Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, followed immediately by The Standard of Truth, itself an excerpt from Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter. I remember for a couple of years in my teens, the right words came from the Boy Scout Oath. I memorized each of these and, for a time at least, regarded them as gospel.

In adulthood, I’ve known an actor who took a special joy in rereading the first paragraph of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is a marvelous passage evoking the protagonist’s urge to go to sea. It is worth repeating and celebrating. I took pleasure in hearing my actor friend read it aloud because I could hear in his voice how deeply the passage inspired him.

Be it a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, an entire speech or chapter, there are passages of literature that achieve a level of adoration in their readers best understood as sacred. People memorize them, recite them, and the collective words generate a religious fervor among true believers.

For many devotees of science, especially astronomy, the best example would be Carl Sagan’s remarks accompanied to the famed Pale Blue Dot image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  If you are not familiar, no problem. Go to YouTube and search the following terms together: carl sagan pale blue dot. You will find multiple versions, at least a couple with hundreds of thousands of views.

The Pale Blue Dot is a famous NASA image–a picture of Earth, looking back from near the edge of our solar system. Inspired by the image’s humbling qualities, Sagan crafted words now treasured by many of us.

Last week I attended An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson, held at Hill Auditorium on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. For me, it was the culmination of years of enthusiasm for this celebrity educator–time spent reading several of his books and being a loyal listener to StarTalk Radio. Not at all surprisingly, after his multimedia presentation Dr. Tyson put up a Pale Blue Dot image. This one, more recent than the 1990 image taken by Voyager, comes from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. My distant balcony view can be seen above.

Tyson said he was going to read us a passage from “The Book of Carl.” The lights dimmed and Tyson read Sagan’s celebrated remarks about the Pale Blue Dot. We found ourselves all together, made tiny and precious by the perspective of space travel and the reflective literature of a master educator.

A Foundational Quote

“It was an end that no prophet had ever foreseen–an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike.

“Yet it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art. … For the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears.”

–Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Thus Saith the Headline

“What we have are two groups of researchers who are battling it out in the technical literature. Was it an impact or was it not an impact?

“What I see when that is happening is that every time one group publishes a study, it gets reported as if that’s a definitive answer.”

–Steven Novella

The above quote speaks to a broader issue to which I am sensitive. The writing style used to cover science usually employs bold or catchy headlines and may favor declamatory source quotes. I am also reminded of training I received in criticism during college. For example, when writing a movie review a critic may feel pressure to give an unambiguous thumbs up or thumbs down. But what if their feelings about the movie are genuinely in between these absolutist reactions?

Whether in journalism or review writing, especially in the Internet age there is pressure to be simple, brief, and dramatic for attention-grabbing sake. Such stylistic mandates can slant or embellish what ought to be a nuanced, necessarily equivocal rendering of scientific findings.

It may be worth thinking in terms of the inverted pyramid format, wherein the salient points of a story are at the top. Similarly, a science news story may start out sounding like a definitive discovery in the headline and first paragraph. Toward the end though, it might reveal itself to be inconclusive with language that hedges. The burden settles on the audience to read carefully and completely. Now please excuse me so I can go read about any given exoplanet “discovery.”

For the complete story from which the above quote was pulled, visit NASA’s website.

Sceptics’ Guide Host Believes Science Communication Mostly Mediocre

340 Days Equals a Hashtag, Not a Year

In classic nitpicker fashion, when Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on March 1st after a much celebrated “Year in Space”, I found myself less than fully inspired. I was like…93% inspired. But I was about 7% grumbling. I thought to myself, um…he was only up there 340 days. That’s not a year. In fact, that’s closer to 11 months than 12.

The “Year in Space” Mission Patch, Image Credit: NASA

A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals the above mission patch to be only 93% accurate. Take it from an English Major.

Nevertheless, I joined my fellow space tweeps in welcoming Commander Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko home. I tweeted out, “So ends the #YearInSpace. Let’s do it again soon.” And with that I joined many others in giving credence to a marketing slogan that is in fact not accurate.

What is accurate? Kelly now has over 500 days of time in space, an American record. Also of note, a great deal of research will now be done on the data collected over the course of the mission. This means increased knowledge about the effects of long-term stays in space, with obvious implications for moon bases, Mars missions, and deep space travel.

Still…340 ain’t 365. I can only speak for the reality of Twitter. The hashtag to follow has always been #YearInSpace. The week of Kelly’s return is too late to switch to a less catchy #340DaysInSpace. This may be one of those times a scientific community knows the marketing slogan proved inaccurate but doesn’t need nor care to dwell on the fact. No one is being deceived here. Everyone is using an accurate day count. Besides, the real science deserves all the celebration it can get.

Why did Kelly and Kornienko come back shy of a full year? For that I send you to Tech Insider and a to-the-point piece by reporter Rebecca Harrington:

This is why Scott Kelly’s ‘year in space’ wasn’t actually a full year

Kudos also to NBC’s editors for picking a similarly details-oriented headline:

After Nearly A Year in Space, NASA’s Scott Kelly Is Back on Earth

Lastly, one from NASA. It isn’t really claiming a year if you are only citing the hashtag, right?

Looking Back at the #YearInSpace

Now, if I wanted to overdo my nitpicking I’d say the NASA Editor apparently wants us to look back at the hashtag, not the mission. Okay…I’m stopping now. And do head to the NASA article for a great music video and a rundown of the mission highlights.