An Open Book: Science And Humanity

Los Alamos
Last Saturday was ScienceFest Discovery Day, and it was certainly a discovery Saturday for me. I missed the prior Friday night concert (more about that later), but I wanted to make sure to walk around on Saturday and get a feel for what this ever-improving Los Alamos signature event was all about. I saw loads of kids doing hands-on science experiments or safely peering through telescopes at the Sun. There were museums, parks, vendors, and even my old LANL division sharing their passion for knowledge, curiosity and the intricacies of the universe; a universe that slowly, steadily, but only by hard work and analysis of facts shares its secrets with us mere humans. It made me pine for the days when I could kneel by one of my children and point to a neat science effect or explain a table full of mousetraps exploding from a single nudge. But alas, my children are all grown and gone, and it will be a while before I can love my grandchildren in this special, Los Alamos way.
On the other hand, though the world of science is engaging and rewards us with those “Eureka” moments celebrated this Saturday, its hypnotic appeal might lure us away from an appreciation of the equally complex intricacies and surprises of that other world we engage in, the world of cultures, language and most of all, human relationships. And this is why I missed the Chevel Shepherd concert; I was a Spanish language interpreter at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe that evening, an evening that had its own set of “Eureka” moments.
The artists at my assigned booth were two brothers from the Puebla region of Mexico, and their ceramic art drew extensively from their Mixtec roots, the indigenous culture of that part of the country. Jorge and Alfredo explained to me the symbology represented in their iconic terra-cotta “Tree of Life” pieces, some a meter high, that drew on biblical as well as indigenous themes. Adam and Eve sit under a tree where brightly colored birds and butterflies perch and remind us of a spiritual freedom we can achieve if we only first find, and then extend, our wings. There were jaguars and deer with their own symbology and historical references. They also told me about their workshop back home, led by their strong mother who worked to retain an art form refined over five generations. As each intricate piece was sold, a broad smile and a wink revealed the anticipation of sharing their good fortune with their hard-working cousins back home. Those moments highlighted that horizon can be both physical and cultural, and we can expand them not only with telescopes, but with conversation, kindness, and empathy
Los Alamos has been instrumental to expanding my own and my family’s horizons in all these ways. We have looked through telescopes at the heavens on dark-sky nights, but have also met new friends from the Pueblos, colleagues with 16th century Hispano roots, and immigrants from across the world. My kids have learned that Jupiter has sprouted many more satellites since I went to school, and also that people everywhere have a family that loves them, a religion that both inspires and constrains them, and a language that sometimes unites and sometimes separates.
And yet, while this weekend gave me the joy of both science and our humanity, Alfredo and Jorge fly home to leave me in a country where this science and this sense of humanity are both under attack. Though I am comforted by a roar of protest by scientists and engineers against an assault on centuries of intellectual progress, I am also dismayed by the silence of so many who should be not only our political, but also our ethical leaders, who were elected based on some professed integrity and honesty, and yet excuse or ignore demagoguery by suggesting some haziness of expression or doubt of meaning.
This weekend of bubbling test-tubes and hugs across continents was also a weekend that finally presented unvarnished hatred no longer clothed in a veneer of ambiguity. Via technology developed by scientists and engineers, President Trump has provided evidence of his true nature, unapologetic, even proud of his remarks. And as apparent to the eye and indubitable to the mind as Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons through his telescope, we now know one thing.
Our President is a racist.