In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.
As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’
I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.
But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.
With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’
Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’
And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.
I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.
After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.
For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.
And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.
That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.
And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.