Cosmic Thoughts

A stray thought while taking a break from prepping for my dissertation defense…

Over the past few Sunday nights I’ve found myself an exicted passenger on the Ship of Imagination, the gimmick used by Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explore the universe in the reboot of Cosmos airing this spring.

This show has a very personal connection to me, one which I didn’t realize until watching the debut episode. It’s a bittersweet connection, full of wonder, tinged with questions of “what if?”.Image

When I was 13 or 14 years old, my father got me a mass-market paperback version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, by then in its second decade of continual print.

My father was an astrophysicist, among other things. He had grown up fascinated by math and science, pursuing them in school. He had met my mother at the University of Tennessee, where he was a professor in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics. Later he took a job at NASA Headquarters, and even though he rejoined the faculty at UT after a couple of years, my family remained in Maryland.

As a young child I excelled in school, across the board, which certainly pleased my parents. While my reading and writing skills continued on their upward trajectory throughout childhood and adolescence, my math and science abilities regressed to the mean around the end of elementary school.

This was not so pleasing to my dad.

Perhaps it was the abstract nature of increasingly-advanced mathematics, or more likely the fact that I adored my English and Social Studies teachers and found books more amenable to my outsized imagination than formulas and scientific theorems.

When my father gave me Cosmos for my first or second birthday as a teenager, I didn’t know what to make of it. I assumed it was dry, technical scientific information, and I may have never even cracked open the cover. I certainly didn’t read any of it.

While I understood at the time that Cosmos was my father’s attempt to last-gasp effort to turn my academic interests back toward his, I never truly understood the reason he chose that text in particular. Even years later, when the occasional pop culture reference crafted a vision of Carl Sagan (rightfully or wrongfully) as a man with great hair and turtleneck sweaters who fond of saying “billyuns and billyuns,” and that’s all.

“The Greatest Explorer,” print by Dustin Harbin. Click photo for link to purchase. This sat on my desk (pre-office renovation) as a reminder to approach the world with eyes wide open.

Now, I see that for its practitioners science is not just data and theories, it’s a story, and the most talented astrophysicists and mathematician are visionary storytellers, just as much as any novelist, playwright, or painter.

Not until after his death was I spurred to research my father’s deep scientific interests and discoveries. One of his discoveries – the presence of specific gaseous substances on the outer edges of the solar system – was even obliquely referenced on a recent Cosmos episode…I think. Even still, I can’t claim to truly understand what he did, and never will.

Did my father think of himself as a storyteller, at the same time he was a scientist? He probably did. He saw his work as vital, with meaning sufficient enough to share with the world.

He also recognized the human impact of science, how discoveries didn’t just accumulate upon each other in and abstract framework, but directly affected our planet’s population – he also worked on nuclear energy, attempted to refine and streamline the production of power for the betterment of society.

He would have witnessed the negative toll of the pursuit of knowledge from the control room at NASA on January 28, 1986, when the exhilaration of the Challenger shuttle launch quickly turned to despair.

Placing a fresh copy of Cosmos in my hands was my father’s attempt to meet me on my own terms. He knew the wonders of the universe would capture my attention, enthrall me beyond belief, if only I gave a few minutes of my time to its chief evangelist.

I never read a word.

Cosmos said on my bookshelf for years. As I aged, I developed an increasing amount of respect for the book and its author, though never enough to read it. It’s no longer in my possession, most likely donated to a charity book sale or Goodwill.

What would have happened had I read Cosmos as a teenager? Would I be earning my PhD in Physics rather than Art History, following my father’s footsteps into a research lab, preparing to make the next great discovery about the fundamental structure of our universe? Probably not.

I do truly regret, however, that I never gave the book a shot. While it may not have turned me into a scientist, it may very well have changed the structure of my relationship with my father. He always respected my zeal for scholarship, but I think it pained him to see his beloved scientific pursuits completely ignored by his offspring. To have explored his work from a different perspective could have given me an opportunity to express more interest in his work, and as I delved further into my own work, to explain my academic passions on his terms. He understood the credentialling system of academia, and that a master’s and a PhD were, in and of themselves, worthy accomplishments, as were the peer-reviewed articles and book chapters I published along the way, but I don’t think I ever truly explained the importance of my work, the why that made it worthy of research and publication.

I wish that I had read Cosmos as a kid. I with that my father were still alive today, so that I could tell him finally, that I understand. I wish that I could go over to my parents’ house on Sunday nights to watch the show with him, and have him explain the great many things in the show that still baffle my mind. I wish he was around so that once I finally get my hands on a copy of the book I could rely on him to explain it.

I wish that I had realized that the gift of a book was a singular act of love, and that for one last time, I could tell him that I love him too.


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