Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Mother's Understanding of the Universe

I just got off the phone with my mom. The conversation required tissues to dry the tears, not from crying, but from laughing. She told me that she saw a show on television about how Pluto is no longer a star and that people are protesting. Since Pluto has never been a star, but rather long considered to be a planet, this prompted me to ask her what the difference is between a star and a planet. (Keep in mind that I study Astronomy at Columbia University.) She told me that one has water on it and the other one doesn't. I started laughing, so she figured she must have been wrong and tried another guess. She said that people live on one and not the other. More laughter. She then said that one has gas and the other one doesn't and then that one rotates and the other one doesn't. I stopped laughing because the situation was just too sad. Was this really the extent of my mother's understanding of our solar system? Is this the way the general public sees the space beyond Earth's atmosphere?

I told her that there are rocky planets and there are gassy planets. We giggled at the word gassy. I told her that the Sun spins on its axis and the Earth spins on its axis while it revolves around the Sun. She was excited to hear something familiar and said, "I knew that!" I decided to ask her a little more about the Sun. She said something about this stuff that spews out of the Sun and somehow causes problems here on Earth. I said solar flares, and she said "that's it!" So then I decided to ask her what dark matter was. She said that it's a black hole, because it's dark in there. I almost peed my pants. I can't wait to tell Professor Applegate about this because it was just the other day that I was telling him how I felt like and idiot walking through the Astronomy department. I told him that I feel like I know nothing. At least now I know that I know way more than my mother does, and since I came from her, I have come along way from where I was.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Science and Religion

My mom's memory is not what it used to be. I find that we often have certain conversations over and over again. One that stands out in particular is our discussion on evolution. As soon as I mention the word, my mother instantly responds in disbelief as though she has been conditioned to be universally opposed by the church. So I ask her who said that Adam and Eve weren't really hairy. She laughs a little, and that opens her up to further conversation.

There is no hard line between science and religion. The more I study physics, the closer I feel I get to that which is called the metaphysical. Metaphysical is a term we use to label the stuff that we do not fully understand. These things have been explained away with religion since the beginning of time. If we don't fully understand something, it must be of some mystical origin. The thing is, though, that over time we learn more and more, the mystical becomes demystified, and then it falls under the label of science rather than religion.

Another controversial topic between me and my mother is that of the big bang. So I ask her who said that the big bang did not occur at the tip of God's finger. More laughter, but again we are able to talk about something she would otherwise completely shut out. Imagine a world where religion and science work together. If this were the case back in the time of Galileo, we would have been open to the truth about the Earth revolving around the Sun. In the future, we could eliminate so many of the roadblocks that now impede the path to discovery and advancement of understanding.

The challenge is simply to be open minded. I consider everything to be possible. I also consider that anything that we believe to be fact can, at some point, be proven false and then later true again, and so forth. Current theories are simply just that, theories. We can never know exactly what happened unless we were there to observe for ourselves. Even then, we cannot fully trust our memory as our perception will certainly have skewed our view of actual events.

The point to all this is just to realize that science is humanity's way of trying to understand the universe that we live in, not to explain away religion. Religion is a human construct, and there are many variations. In my opinion, no religion is better or more correct than another. We are all entitled to our beliefs based on our own individual experiences. My experience leaves me right on that imaginary line between science and religion. It is an amazing vantage point from which to view the universe. I can see both sides of the story and how they intermingle. It is deeply fascinating.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

For the Children

Since moving to New York, I have had the distinct privilege of getting to know Charyl Gerring, Affiliate Assistant Professor, University of Washington, Graduate School of Social Work. Our relationship began when she asked me to help her learn to use her computer. (She's in her 80's, and like most people of her generation, she grew up in a world where people did not rely on computers like we do today.)

Over the years, I have grown very fond of Charyl and strongly believe that her work has the potential to help children in foster care to grow up without much of the psychological damage that the current system causes. Her idea is simple: keep the birth family involved. She has told me stories about birth families and foster families coming together to create an extended family in which the children thrive. Unfortunately, the system is resistant to change, so much so that they are unable to see the potential of something so simple.

Sadly, Charyl is fighting breast cancer for the second time in her life. She tells me that she may only have months to live, but I'm a bit more optimistic. (I've been watching her heal since her surgery and I am amazed. My 34-year-old body takes longer to heal a pimple!) My greatest fear is that her ideas will pass with her and the children will suffer for it.

Charyl has been published, so the word is out there, but the system is still reluctant to change. My hope is that, in the remaining time that we have with her, she will be able to break through the resistance and inspire a change that will benefit all of the children, present and future, in the foster care system.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

CBS Sunday Morning News

As I sit here with my laptop, I am watching the CBS Sunday Morning News, though it's not Sunday morning. (Ah, the magic of that wonderful invention: the DVR.) My father introduced me to the program when I was young, but it was rare that we caught it. After all, Sunday morning is ideal for sleeping in. When I told my dad that I was getting a DVR, he said that it was worthwhile even if it only made it possible for us to never miss this one show. I always feel at home, wherever I am, when this program is on the television screen.