Tag Archives: luck

Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part IV: Nature vs. Nurture

15 Sep

No, this isn’t another biology post. This is a post about family — specifically, my family, and what they’ve taught me about being a nerd.

Let me start with a story. When I was around 8 years old, my grandpa lent me his copies of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I guess in and of itself, that wouldn’t be much of a story, but the real point is, I didn’t see anything at all unusual about that. Reading mid-twentieth-century science fiction was just what you did, whether you were 8 or 70.

My mother and father, they taught me that reading is fun. I know. It’s ridiculous. In other words, I had no choice in the matter: I was always going to be a nerd.

That baby will be a neuroscientist someday. Also, a major nerd.

It took me a long while to realize that not everyone reads for fun. (High school, to be honest. And even now, sometimes I think it might all be a hoax. I mean, what do you do in those spare hours that you’re not reading? Just stare at things? Watch youtube videos? But if that’s the case, what did people do in the 90s? I sincerely want to know, and I’ve always been too embarrassed to ask.)

Being a nerd means being passionate about things. My parents may have missed out on a few life lessons (“how to change a tire” and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” stick out), but they did teach me that when you care about something, care about it. Even if it’s not cool, even if it’s not important — what matters is that you care.

And on that note: Happy birthday to the only Dad in the universe who is cooler than Rory Williams & Bill Adama combined.

Bertrand Russell

9 Sep

You could say that staying up reading Bertrand Russell until 2 in the morning for a few weeks during the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college made me who I am today. Of course, you could say a lot of things — but few of them would be so obviously causally true as the above.

The following quote by Russell (source) manages to say approximately everything I have ever intended to say about life, better than I could have done.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

What else is there to say?  “With equal passion I have sought knowledge.” “A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.” There are no better words.

I found especially relevant the lines on pity:  “Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth.” This is the common and fallible argument against investing in space exploration and other scientific research — that the money would better be spent here on Earth, on everyday problems. I love that Russell acknowledges that it’s all right to sort of exist in both planes, to acquire knowledge in your ivory tower, as it were, but still to be fully engaged in the social injustices of your time (as Russell himself certainly was). For me, at least, there is this sense that I’m privileged not only economically and materially, but really privileged over anyone who has ever lived in my ability to study modern neuroscience, considering the advances that have taken place even in the past 10 years.

On the flip side, of course, an optimist would have to conclude that I am to be hopelessly pitied by future generations who feel the same about the neuroscience of my generation. It is certainly the best that can be hoped for. But still, discounting possible futures, Russell hits the nail on the head when explaining the balance between the elevation of love and knowledge and the way in which suffering diminishes even those who do not themselves suffer.  (Although I have spent years learning, as another great philosopher once wrote, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.)

Anyway, there is nothing more to add, except to suggest that you scroll back up and read the passage again.

10 Things I Learned This Summer

15 Aug

Classes don’t start for another week, but for me, leaving Chicago for Los Angeles always signals the end of the summer. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on how–cool?  brilliant?  amazing?  rad?  ace?  brilliant?–this summer has been. So here are 10 things I know now that I did not know in May.

1) No matter what Google Maps says, this is not SpaceX.


2) Camera lenses got just as fogged-up in Florida humidity as glasses do.

Also a testament to my photography skills.

3) Elmo is sassy in person.

And astronauts are cool.

4) Ned Stark does not always make the best life choices.

Par for the course.

5) Watching an EVA (spacewalk) during a power-and-internet-outage sans car is worth a half-hour trek to the nearest Starbucks.

I couldn't dry my hair in the morning, but I could watch people working in orbit.

6) Space Corps Directive 1694 states that, during temporal disturbances, no questions shall be raised about any crew member whose timesheet shows him or her clocking off 187 years before he clocked on.

Also that it's cold outside, there's no sort of atmosphere.

7) During a shuttle launch, the heat will kill you at 400 feet away.  At 800 feet away, the sound will kill you. (Also, by consistently telling this to people as a “fun fact,” I have learned that I overuse the phrase “fun fact.”)

Obviously, we were not this close on launch day.

8) Tim Minchin is both really nice in person and really funny live.

"I mean, I think you're special, but you fall within a bell curve."

9) Embroidery is fun.

Possibly too much fun.

10) It is possible to get goosebumps in 90-degree heat.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Atlantis and Good Luck

13 Jun

As astronomy-focused as the first few posts on this blog will no doubt be, neuroscience will always be my favorite field of study and my first scientific love (and incidentally my major).  But before neuroscience, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer.  My other major is Creative Writing.  So it’s particularly ridiculous that I’m having such a difficult time putting my feelings about being invited to STS-135 into words.

There was, of course, the shock, followed by the frustration of trying to explain what I’d won quickly and clearly enough that my friends and family would be properly excited (still working on that one).  There was the disbelief, the rereading of the email, and the wait for the second confirmation email, to make sure there hadn’t been some sort of mix-up.  For a while, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was–and I think that luck is a hard thing to put into words, let alone to believe in.

I think what it might boil down to is belief and disbelief (coincidentally the states of being that first got me interested in neuroscience).  I believe that NASA is one of the most worthwhile human endeavors in all of human history.  Sure, there are a few other things that come close to the Moon landing—penicillin, the polio vaccine, the collected works of Joss Whedon.  And hopefully we as a species will continue to produce such useful and important things, to be worthy of the universe that we are lucky to be able to observe, and to be worthy of each other.

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