Saturday, August 26, 2017

Science ("Caesar's Last Breath" by Sam Kean)

I was not a particularly enthusiastic student, at least where science was concerned. Every class I took on the subject, from middle school through college, left me completely uninterested, and I soon mastered the art of daydreaming while maintaining eye contact with my teachers, always with a notebook and pen seemingly at the ready. (In college, a required class on soil science, held at 9 a.m., was almost too much to bear. To keep myself awake, I sat beside the same student every Tuesday and Thursday, a soccer player with an active night life, and nudged him every time his head drooped to one side or the other. This self-appointed task kept me alert enough that I never fell victim to the same fate.)

Needless to say, upon the completion of my last required science class as an undergrad--and, as I was well aware, the last science class I would ever have to take--I felt a sense of overwhelming joy. I had endured years of droning lectures, filled notebooks with equations and diagrams that I would never fully understand, and devoted hours of study to textbooks that described science as though it were a piece of furniture in need of assembly. Even dissection, something I did only once, revealed itself to be lacking any real interest for me, as we spent most of our time looking over the photocopied carcass of a splayed piglet in preparation for yet another quiz. (In retrospect, I should have claimed moral objections and skipped the entire ordeal, as another one of my classmates did; my grade would have been the same regardless, I'm sure.)

And yet...buried deep in a box somewhere in my parents' basement are science books. Dozens and dozens of them. Many of them are picture books--on dinosaurs, weather patterns, birds, volcanoes, and so on. As a child, I adored anything related to science, especially if it taught me something about the strange, wild, and fascinating world I had been born into. I watched episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy with such hunger that even today, twenty years later, I can recite certain moments verbatim. The house in which I grew up was surrounded on all sides by lush forest, and I whiled away hours collecting a leaves, studying anthills, and investigating dens dug by small animals. (That I escaped childhood without once being attacked by a badger is a miracle.) Like many young boys, the effects of fire left me spellbound:  aluminum soda cans would weaken if left in a fire long enough, I noticed, but metal soup cans would not, and from these simple experiments I could make endless deductions. And at some point, around the age of ten or eleven, I became obsessed with Alfred Wegener, the man who first proposed continental drift. The thought of a fifth-grade boy becoming enamored with a long-dead German geophysicists while his classmates filled their lunchtime conversations with thoughts on their favorite football players is a little tough to imagine; for me, I couldn't imagine anything else at that age, especially the allure of football when compared to the puzzle-piece continents of our world.

My interest may have been narrow and eccentric, maybe even parochial, but they were not unusual. My hunch is that many boys and girls experience a similar baptism:  a parent or teacher introduces them to an enchanting aspect of the world, and they are hooked. As time passes, however, those interests disappear. Blame is easy to assign--we abandon many of our childhood interests over time, and adolescence makes us self-conscious about ourselves, especially if we enjoy something considered "geeky" or "weird"--but I have no hesitancy in doing so. At some point, science became less about the world around me and more about the world as it was depicted on paper. The science lessons I remember fondly from my pre-teen years--raising butterflies, making alum crystals, dissecting owl pellets, creating an electrical grid from desk to desk--slowly gave way to tedious chapters in decades-old textbooks. Hands-on experiments became fewer and fewer, replaced by thick packets and endless tests.

Even today, I shudder at what has become standard in science curricula across the country. Once, while tutoring a student after school, he handed me the packet he was required to complete for his science class, which reduced a compelling topic--volcanoes--to a series of multiple-choice questions and short-answer problems, all derived from long, droning paragraphs in his textbook. The boy I was tutoring was eleven years old. In more capable hands, he would be learning about volcanoes by building his own out of paper mache, or by studying pictures of Pompeii, or by tracing every step of an eruption with props and sound effects and destructible scenery. Instead, his study of volcanoes required him to sit at a table and search for bold vocabulary words.

Which is, of course, a travesty. Our world is endlessly fascinating, and it's only been in the last five years or so--since graduating from college and becoming a teacher myself, albeit of English--that my interest in science has been rekindled, thanks almost exclusively to writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Sam Kean.* The first wrote what is perhaps my favorite science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which explores the planet Earth from its earliest moments. What makes the book such a treasure is that Bryson, who has no formal training in science, devotes an equal amount of ink to both scientists and their discoveries. He tells their stories as though writing a novel--sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic, often inspiring but just as easily dispiriting--and employs creative analogies and contemporary examples in order to simplify complicated (but important) milestones reached centuries ago.

The same can be said of Mary Roach, who writes about serious topics--the utility of dead bodies, the science of human sexuality, the preparation needed to undertake a mission to Mars--with biting honesty and a dark sense of humor, both of which help lay readers connect with subjects that might otherwise be seen as too obtuse or irrelevant. And Sam Kean takes broad scientific concepts--elements, genetics, the brain--and weaves together dozens of fascinating stories in order to convey how rich and complicated each subject truly is. In other words, he takes topics that have become stodgy textbook chapters and rewrites them to reveal the human faces behind each.

Kean's most recent book, Caesar's Last Breath, explains the air around us:  what it is comprised of, how long we've known this, and who made these discoveries. Along the way, we are introduced to the first men to successfully fly a hot-air balloon; a crotchety old widower in Washington who defies a volcano and loses; a pig that miraculously survives a nuclear blast; an aristocrat whose house is set on fire by those who see his scientific experiments as proof of his decadence; the world's worst poet, writing an ode to one of the world's worst bridges; a man who hopes to defeat hurricanes with chemicals; and so on. Each of these stories offers us a glimpse into our attempts at understanding, utilizing, and even changing our atmosphere. Most importantly, Kean knows that every respiration is a story in itself--a remixing of the same air breathed by men and women who lived centuries ago, as well as the same air that will be still be breathed centuries from now. In other words, every inhale is a communication with the past, and every exhale is a communication with the future.

This is one aspect of science that is almost always lost in textbooks:  why the past matters to those of us living in the present. It's very easy to ignore the life of Einstein when all we're asked to do is understand his theories. But learning about where our famous scientists came from, as well as how they came to be scientists, is just as important as memorizing their formulas, identifying their discoveries on the Periodic Table, or using modern versions of the instruments they designed and built. We see the situations that propelled them into asking questions, making observations, and filling pages with calculations, until they arrived at a conclusion. This gives our modern world a depth that it so deeply needs, and a nuance that might serve as a warning to others. As Kean points out, not all great scientists were heroic beyond their achievements; some, like Alfred Nobel and Fritz Haber, left legacies of carnage and death that may very well overshadow their scientific accomplishments in the near future. Those who hope to one day work in the sciences must understand that not every breakthrough is universally beneficial; sometimes, the cure for one problem is the cause of another, and anyone who walks into a laboratory without that in mind is taking a great risk.

Studying the past is also a reminder to young people that those who do great things often come from humble beginnings, that they need to work hard over many years, that they often--and inevitably--struggle. Students often approach science class with a pass/fail mindset--they need to get the experiment right the first time because they will not have a second, and anything that does not achieve the prescribed outcome is meaningless. This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is built upon repetition and failure: every floundering experiment or disproven hypothesis adds to our scientific knowledge because it tells us to try again, change our approach, or move in a different direction. One of the great benefits to doing experiments with children is that it forces them to act, evaluate, and recalculate based on little more than what they've observed, all of which are vital skills. Learning that scientists of the past found success only after years, even decades, of failure gives kids permission to do the same--have an idea, conduct an experiment, and fail. As long as they see that failure as the beginning of a new path rather than the end of their only option, they will benefit much more than if they simply read about these experiments in a stuffy textbook.

There are writers with much more direct scientific knowledge and expertise than Sam Kean--Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku are only a few. And they are fine writers, not to mention excellent spokespeople for the importance of a strong science education. But it's Sam Kean and his compatriots who I enjoy the most, and whose work offers us guidance about how we can reclaim the joys of science for future generations. They remind us that science can be both terrifying and exciting; it can be time-consuming but also fun and invigorating; it can be frustratingly mysterious, almost petulant in its unwillingness to give up the solution as easily as you would like, but within those mysteries is something redemptive. To solve a mystery of this world, even a relatively small one, is to locate a missing puzzle piece, one that reveals even more of our existence once set in place. And the people who solve those mysteries, regardless of their own personal foibles and reputations, are just as worthy of our study as their most important works.

*A healthy diet of MythBusters reruns has also helped.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hermit ("The Stranger in the Woods" by Michael Finkel)

When he was twenty years old, Christopher Knight parked his car along a rural road in central Maine, left the keys on the dashboard, and walked into the surrounding forest. He had few supplies, no food, and no plan. For the next twenty-seven years, Knight would remain there, living in a makeshift tent in a small clearing with no contact between himself and another person save for a solitary hiker, with whom he exchanged monosyllabic greetings before moving on. He survived by stealing food and other necessities from nearby homes and cabins, many of which were only occupied during the summer months, and keeping his activities limited to nighttime and non-winter excursions.

It was, he would later profess, his own personal idea of paradise.

When he finally reappeared in society, escorted there by local police after more than a thousand break-ins, he found himself even more of a loner than before he first set foot in the woods. He had never been a social person; throughout his early years, including those spent in public school, he left little impression on anyone or anything. Raised to be honest, self-sufficient, and intellectually curious, Knight had always longed for the solitude that only nature could provide. And so he followed his desires, relying on frozen meat and junk food left behind by seasonal tourists, as well as the books, soap, shampoo, and propane tanks of local residents, to keep him thriving both physically and mentally. His arrest, which brought an end to both the world's most successful--albeit monotonous--crime spree and a generation of local urban legends, also marked another milestone: at age 47, Knight had dedicated more than half his life to living alone in the woods.

In the closing pages of The Stranger in the Woods, a nonfiction account of Christopher Knight's life during and after his time in the forest, journalist Michael Finkel attempts to explain just what his subject was hoping to accomplish:
He wasn't going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience. Nothing would ever be written about him. He would simply vanish, and no one on this teeming planet would notice. His end wouldn't create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life, of utter perfection.
A conclusion such as this might seem strange out of context--a man willing to be forgotten, and to think of such a life as perfection--but when read at the end of such a complicated story, this seems like a fitting and appropriate summation.

What makes Finkel's conclusion problematic is not how strongly it runs counter to the narratives our society embraces--that we must be concerned with our legacy, our footprints, our need to accomplish much and accomplish often--but how Finkel's entire book undermines its own thesis. If, as Finkel believes, Knight wanted to die in his encampment and be absorbed into nature, decomposed by the very same wilderness that offered him refuge, then Finkel has made such an end impossible and rendered the perfect as unachievable. Even if Knight were to return to the forest to die, as he intimates doing at one point, his death would not erase him from the world; instead, Christopher Knight, the so-called "last hermit," would be forever preserved because of Finkel's own book, which is now a bestseller.

Rarely do we encounter those who willingly remove themselves from society and are better for it; more often than not, those who live in this world, whether they do so in large cities or rural towns, belong to a community, and their absence from this community, whether it be for days or weeks or years, causes irreparable damage. Those who do separate themselves often descend into a strange form of madness; they may not suffer from a recognized or diagnosable illness, but something about them changes, something slightly perceptible at first, then unavoidable, until they become an entirely different person. They become a stranger, as though the isolation has jolted unseen fault lines into dangerous movements, which cannot be traced back or undone. Knight, as depicted by Finkel, seems to waver between becoming one of these people--his inability to make eye contact or engage in social niceties are startling aspects to his personality, ones that don't seem to have been a part of him before his exile into the forest--and preserving that small, pulsing nucleus of his individuality, which thrived as he devoured books, honed his survival instincts, and developed an appreciation for classical music, all in the wilderness of Maine.

Finkel wants us to believe that more of us should follow Knight's lead--abandon society, even briefly, to rediscover the benefits of silence, of boredom, of self-sufficiency, of nature, of solitude--even as the very subject of his book, the soul of this thesis, refuses to play along. Given every opportunity, Knight refuses to speak the words of Thoreauvian wisdom Finkel so desperately wants and expects, even as he simultaneously acknowledges that such wisdom--if it were to be delivered--would benefit almost no one. When asked what he's learned after so much time in the wild, Knight takes a long pause and recommends we get enough sleep; he then turns and is taken back to his prison cell, his wisdom seemingly spent.

Finkel's attitude towards Knight is never consistent, despite having had more contact with him than anyone else outside of his immediate family. At first, he initiates a conversation through letters, which rarely focus on Knight's time in the woods. Eventually, he takes a further step and visits Knight in prison, where the hermit's strange mannerisms become clear. Eventually, once Knight is paroled, Finkel begins stalking the man; he schedules flights to Maine from Montana and arrives unannounced at Knight's home, despite the fact that all of Knight's family members have refused to comment on the matter. He drives around Knight's small town speaking to those in his community about him, temporarily sets up camp in Knight's old clearing, attends Knight's sentencing, hounds his brothers, teases Knight about a potential girlfriend, and continues writing letters to him, all of which make the reading experience increasingly uncomfortable. Only when Knight insists that Finkel stop and threatens him with a call to the police does the author finally--and mercifully--relent, and for the first time since his arrest chapters earlier, the "character" of Christopher Knight is given the peace he has so desperately wanted.

Perhaps Finkel believes all of this is well-intentioned:  an attempt to connect with a man who struggles to do so. Perhaps he believes he is doing a service for his readers, who--he imagines--would want to know more about someone who seems so unwilling to share anything even remotely personal. Instead, Finkel becomes the very thing Knight had spent so many years eluding:  the ever-present set of eyes that is constantly judging, constantly questioning, constantly demanding. Among other people, Knight was forced to wear a mask of society's making, one that offered up meaningless small talk with ease, exhibited the appropriate facial expressions, watched mindless television, avoided anything intellectually engaging, and scorned those who didn't do the same. Among the trees, Knight could chip away at the mask, piece by piece, until he was finally himself. Even prison offered him enough structure and solitude to keep the full mask at bay.

But a journalist who arrives unannounced and uninvited, pries into his personal life, asks unwanted questions, and initiates contact with family members is little more than those prying eyes come back with a new mask in hand. And in publishing a book devoted exclusively to Knight, whose only real desire is to be left alone and forgotten, Finkel has committed the most heinous crime of all:  he has forced Knight to remain a public figure long after he's passed away. Rather than being the subject of some long-forgotten online articles--the very kind that require refined Internet searches and hours of scrolling--Knight will be preserved as caricature and exhibit, his mask made of paper and ink and bytes, and his name synonymous with freak. Michael Finke could have used this book to explore the ways in which our society has disconnected us from one another and the world around us, and the benefits of getting those connections back; instead, he has reminded us that, no matter how we work to fix ourselves and pursue our redemptions, there will always be those who stand at the forest's edge, mask in hand, waiting for us to emerge.