The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once wrote, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Bohr was talking about the newly-emerging quantum theory of physics, in which events that don’t seem possible become, if not commonplace, then common enough to change the way we see the world.

I wonder, though, if this native of Copenhagen and champion of Danish science might also have been thinking of that other famous Dane, William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. I’ve spent a lot of time with the sad prince recently, and some of my ideas about Hamlet, and Hamlet, are changing. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is my opinion that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s second best play.

There is no doubt that Hamlet’s soliloquys are exquisitely written, packed with meaning and insight, and reveal Shakespeare’s most complete and vibrant character. Hamlet feels like a real person written into a play (a play he doesn’t much like). Puzzling out Hamlet’s motivations in the first four acts is intellectually daunting, as well as rewarding. The “to be or not to be” speech is some of the most challenging writing I’ve ever encountered, and I discover new gems in it every time I read or listen. For instance, consider the last sentence (which maybe gets lost in all the wonders that come before).

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Harold Bloom tells me that “conscience” means “consciousness”; in other words, being conscious of our own mortality causes us to fear death so totally that we’re afraid to do anything. Not just suicide, but anything. So that all “enterprises of great pitch and moment,” (avenging a father’s death by killing his murderer, for instance) the “currents” of consciousness “turn awry”. Hamlet isn’t asking here if he should kill himself. He’s asking if he should live quietly, ignoring the ghost’s exhortation, or if he should “take up arms against a sea of troubles” (try to kill Claudius) and likely die in the attempt. This is heady stuff, not just some oversized adolescent moping about how woe-is-me he is.

So why second best? It is because the profound truth Hamlet discovers in Act V has as its opposite another profound truth, the truth revealed throughout the play I’ve called the anti-Hamlet, the most optimistic of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m talking, of course, of King Lear.

King Lear? You mean the one where Lear’s whole family dies? The one where Lear’s daughter Cordelia, newly strangled, is carried onto the stage by a howling old man, soon to die of grief before our very eyes? That feel-good play of the year? OK, you’re thinking, Hamlet was just feigning madness, but you’ve got it down pat.

Let me explain why King Lear is optimistic. If you’re an atheist like me (and if you’re not, why not? No, seriously, I’d really like to know), King Lear gives us the best we can hope for in this indifferent universe. We make our world. We create our futures. We decide to divide kingdoms, or bring them together. We choose to go out in the storm, or to seek shelter. We decide whether to forgive, and who to love.

We don’t need gods to kill us for their sport. We do just fine on our own. There’s no one and nothing out there to rescue us. We must endure. The ripeness is all.

And this means (stay with me here) every bit of beauty we can find in the world of humans, every bit of love, every bit of forgiveness, every washing away of sin (“no cause – no cause” Cordelia says magnificently), that’s us. We did that. And we can be proud.

Now consider the opposite of that profound truth.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will-

This is the signal Hamlet gives to Horatio after the graveyard scene in Act V. It says, “Let be.” Hamlet accepts what will come.

We defy augury. There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t
to leave betimes, let be.

This is a profound truth. What will happen will happen. Let be.

It’s the truth of Eastern mysticism. It’s the truth Joseph Campbell talks about when he quotes Sri Krishna Menon in The Power of Myth. When Campbell was in India he was asked by the guru, “do you have a question?”

“Yes, I have a question.” I said, “Since in Hindu thinking all the universe is divine, is a manifestation of divinity itself, how can we say ‘no’ to anything in the world, how can we say ‘no’ to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?” And he said, “For you and me, we must say yes.”

It is not my answer. Perhaps someday it will be. For now, I hope that day never comes. I hope I never stop fighting against brutality, and stupidity, and vulgarity. I hope I never say, “Let be.”

My tradition is the tradition of Huck Finn, saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” It’s the tradition of Ahab on the deck shouting into the lightning, “Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” It’s Lear (who of course inspired Melville in his creation of Ahab), saying “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” It’s Dorothy, shouting at the Wizard as her voice trembles, “You should be ashamed of yourself, frightening him like that when he came to you for help!” And it’s Jean-Luc Picard, refusing to give in to his torturer: “There are five lights!”

Hamlet is a great play – maybe the greatest. But for me, for now, I must say, “no!” Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Give me Lear!

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Well, it’s over. The Mueller Report is an unmitigated disaster, an own goal that will put Donald Trump back in the White House in 2020. Sure, there are still those true believers out there demanding to see the full report, instead of Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General’s interpretation of it. Maybe these people have a case to make, but at this point they’re just shouting into the wind.

None of this changes the basic facts, of course. The Russians saw in Trump a man they could manipulate, flatter, and bribe into giving them whatever they want. They set about breaking our laws to help Trump win. And the evidence shows they weren’t shy about letting Trump know their intentions. Why would they be?

And the Trump campaign knew. Papadopoulos knew. Trump Jr, Kushner, and Manafort knew. Carter Page knew. Roger Stone knew. KT McFarland knew. And Michael Flynn knew, when he reassured the Russians that sanctions relief was, indeed, coming.

Knowing all this, Trump and his minions denied, obfuscated, and blocked at every turn any revelation that the Russians were, in fact, interfering in the election on Trump’s behalf. Then, when Flynn got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Trump (knowing full well that Flynn was acting anything-but-alone) called on his FBI head to lay off. When Comey wouldn’t lay off, Trump fired him. But all that’s just fine.

I’ve never been a big supporter of the idea that the Russians are directly responsible for Trump. Frankly, the American people are plenty capable of electing a narcissistic racist ignoramus all on their own. After all, the American people are generally big and stupid, and as JK Rowling said of Dudley Dursley, as Trump is “the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he (i)s the leader.” But whether or not the Russians thumbed the scale, they certainly got what they wanted. Shouldn’t that fact alone give us pause?

Regardless what you think of the Mueller travesty, you can’t look at this man in the White House without recognizing he is anti-science, practically illiterate, ignorant of history, immoral, utterly incompetent, and the most unqualified person ever to hold the office. So yeah, great choice, America.

If you thought Trump’s first term was a dumpster fire, just wait til you get a load of his second.

 

I love the ocean, partly because it is so full of possibility. Whenever I am there, I always pull myself out of bed in time to be on the beach at sunrise, so as to capture the wonder of those moments that take your breath away. A pod of dolphins appears out of nowhere, a reddish egret dances in the surf, a ghost crab scurries by your feet, and others that I still hope to see one day.

Once, when walking along the surf line, I saw a disturbance maybe 30 feet out in the waves. Something big was moving under the water. What could it be? A shark? A mammal? Maybe a leatherback turtle? But no, it was a fellow beachgoing human, emerging from the water with rubberized fins and a snorkel mask. How disappointing.

Disappointing? I thought later about this and realized how badly skewed an idea that is. Yes, humans are common in our everyday experience. Is it the familiarity that blinds us to the absolute wonder that humans are? If any other creature had emerged from the surf, I would have merely been seeing a natural behavior, repeated generation after generation in ordinary course. But a human? An African ape, a creature that lost its hair and stood upright in one small patch of a continent on the other side of the world, now swimming in the Florida surf? Not only is that creature exploring a totally foreign ecosystem, but he is using artificial devices to help him swim better and even breathe while underwater. How could anything be more amazing than that?

As I’ve worked to broaden myself over the past few years, I’ve constantly kept that idea in my head. How amazing is it that this same African ape can bring tears to my eyes by playing a violin, can send my heart racing by leaping through the air or spinning across the stage in an exquisite ballet, can make me see water lilies in a profoundly new way with a few splashes of color on a canvas or, yes, take my breath away by re-interpreting a set 400-year-old words?

I’m falling deeply in love with classical music, with dance, and in particular with the works of Claude Monet, and of course my adoration of science only grows deeper as I explore these new worlds. But in my quietest, most honest moments, the art I love most remains the works of William Shakespeare. And what I love most about his plays, as I was recently reminded, is how we modern humans have made, and continue to make, new meaning from old words.

I’m thinking of three moments in particular, though I’m sure there are more, and I will keep watching for them, as they are the magic that keep Shakespeare alive now and into the future.

First, a silly one, but so joyous that I can hardly watch it without happy tears. It is Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. In this play, the scene in which Benedick overhears Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince describing how Beatrice has fallen in love with him is the key turning point. After hearing this news (which of course is just a ruse by the Prince to bring Beatrice and Benedick together), Benedick addresses the audience in one of Shakespeare’s funniest speeches. At one point, Benedick says, “Love me? Why, it must be requited.” Branagh reinterprets this line with a modern ear. He says, “Love me!?! . . . Why?” In this moment, we have to fall in love with Benedick. Before this scene, he in many ways lives up to the second half of his name. But right there we see his insecurity and his own self-doubt. And it is, of course, not at all in Shakespeare’s original text.

Shakespeare usually used the word “wherefore” when he wanted to ask why, as in “wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s clear in the context of Benedick’s speech that the “why” is just a throwaway word to fill up the space before “it must be requited.” Branagh reached in and pulled out a new, thoroughly modern meaning for the line, and I love it.

The second example isn’t a word at all. In fact, it isn’t even, properly, part of the play. It occurs after the play has ended. I’m referring to my dark horse candidate for Shakespeare’s greatest play, Measure for Measure. In this most problematic of the problem plays, the manipulative and (to a modern ear) unsympathetic Duke, after convincing nun-in-training Isabel that her brother is dead and that the man responsible, a man who threatened Isabel with rape and her brother with torture, deserves her forgiveness, has asked (more like demanded) Isabel’s hand in marriage. It is the play’s final line. Isabel gives no answer, and I believe it is perfect. In Shakespeare’s time, I imagine the ending (while perhaps a bit uncomfortable) fit in well with the general belief that of course any woman would be happy to marry a duke. But Shakespeare didn’t write it that way. He left it open, and today I can’t imagine any production in which Isabel gladly takes the Duke’s hand as they trot off stage together. Rather, I hope that modern audiences see the ending for what it is, a tragedy.

This is exactly how the BBC played it in their 1994 production. Juliet Aubrey plays Isabel as deeply sincere and a little frightening in her desire to protect her chastity. In the end, when the “fabulous Duke of dark corners” reveals how he secretly saved her brother and then lied to Isabel about it, he seems surprised by her incredulous reaction. In the end, when everyone else has left the stage, only the Duke and Isabel remain. He for a second time asks for her hand in marriage. Isabel just stares, no words, no reaction, just . . . stares. Neither moves toward the other, as if there’s an unbridgeable divide between them – as, of course, there is.

And then, finally, there is Sir Patrick Stewart in Macbeth. On its surface, Macbeth is a fairly straightforward tale – besides the witches, of course. While Macbeth lacks the cosmic significance of King Lear and the mental gymnastics of Hamlet, the power of watching the psychological effect of Duncan’s murder on Macbeth and his wife is enough to make it – for me – one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

But then comes Sir Patrick in the final scene. Macbeth is confronted by Macduff. He finally understands how the witches have tricked him with their riddles, these “juggling fiends” who “lie like truth.” He says, “Lay on Macduff, and damned be he who first cries hold – ” and then there is a pause. Macbeth and Macduff fight. Macbeth gets the upper hand. He’s about to kill Macduff, to overcome the prophesy and continue his own murderous reign. Then Macbeth sees the witches coming toward him. He realizes this is all part of their game. And Sir Patrick drops the knife, and finishes the line. “Enough.” In that moment, Macbeth becomes modern. He becomes Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, ambassador of peace and champion of the wonder that is humanity. That pause changed the play entirely for me, to the point that I am disappointed now by any other interpretation.

The point of all this is two-fold. One, we humans are pretty incredible. We’ve come a long way since our ancestors first stood up, and a long way since Shakespeare’s era. We’re kinder now. We are more aware of the rights of others. We’re less tied to tradition, more willing to examine our assumptions. And we can get better still.

Secondly, though, all this potential for modern reading is already there in the text, waiting to be discovered. Shakespeare didn’t have to put it there. He didn’t have to put a “why” after “love me”. (OK, that’s my weakest example – he probably needed the extra syllable). He didn’t have to make Shylock or Othello (or Macbeth) so sympathetic. He didn’t have to make Isabel silent. And so many other examples. Did Shakespeare write for us? Or maybe he wrote for our descendants, people who maybe will find in his work wonders that we, still growing and still learning, even now cannot see.

I hope so.

 

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” – Carl Sagan
 
Happy Darwin Day, everyone!
 
Nearly three years ago, I began a life-altering adventure as a high school math teacher at ACPA, the Arts and College Preparatory Academy. Since then, this school has become my second home, these young people my second family. I’ve been so lucky to work and learn with them, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to spend this time learning what it takes to be a classroom teacher.
 
Now for a new adventure. When ACPA begins its next school year in August, I will be in a brand new classroom, helping welcome ACPA’s first group of seventh and eighth graders. And I won’t be teaching math, but instead will become ACPA’s first middle school science teacher!
 
I adore mathematics, with its precision and logic, but those of you who know me know that science is my passion and my love. I’m so excited to take what I’ve learned about classroom teaching these past three years and translate it to the subject I’ve been preparing to teach, well, all my life. All my experience, all my joy, all the passion I hope to share with this brand-new group of learners is bubbling up in me and I can’t wait for the next school year to begin. There are starfish everywhere!
“Oh, yeah, now I remember what that feels like.”
 
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, for a lot of people it felt like turning a corner. Racism was over, we thought, and with it other forms of bigotry, discrimination, misogyny, and downright backward thinking of all kinds. But we were fooling ourselves.
 
I’ve always been weird. Lots of people disagree with me, and always have. Once upon a time I didn’t have to be in the majority to believe that I was still right. I think in 2008 I forgot that. Now I’m remembering again.
 
In 1986, our esteemed Supreme Court ruled that states had every right to outlaw homosexuality. Anyone could see that this was the wrong decision, yet there it was. You don’t like what two consenting adults do in private? Outlaw it! The Supreme Court was wrong.
 
In 1989, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, making it a crime to go to the store, buy an American Flag, and burn it in protest. Anyone can see that burning a flag is a form of speech and should be protected, yet both Republicans and Democrats voted for this clearly unconstitutional law. The lawmakers were wrong.
 
In 1998, Democrat Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and hardly anybody blinked. Again, anyone could see that DOMA was discriminatory on its face. Yet how many people thought it was just fine at the time? Clinton and everyone involved with this act were wrong.
 
In 2001, George W. Bush promoted faith-based initiatives, which funneled federal money to religious organizations. Anyone can see that this is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Even President Obama failed to completely end this unconstitutional practice, and the current White House monstrosity has brought it roaring back. In time, history will judge this program harshly, because it is wrong.
 
And now, it appears very likely that in the near future (sooner than you might imagine), women in several states of our country will be compelled by law to carry every pregnancy to term. Anyone can see that this is not the society we want, yet an American public that allowed both the executive and the legislative branches to fall into the hands of right-wing extremists either didn’t believe it could happen or didn’t care. I don’t have to be in the majority to be right about this. History will judge us harshly, as it should.
 
I forgot while Barack Obama was president that politics isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about who has the votes. Fortunately I’m not a politician. So yeah, a certain segment of society just got what they wanted, because they had the votes. They’re still wrong.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh. I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of the charges levied against him. What I do know is that powerful men have been taking advantage of their privileged position over women for centuries. I know this because over 400 years ago William Shakespeare showed us the depths of male depravity in a little-known but powerful play called Measure for Measure.

Given the recent events surrounding Kavanaugh, #metoo, and what seems like an endless stream of men behaving badly, Measure for Measure takes its place as the most modern and relevant of all the works of the canon.

No one in this play is a hero. All the characters Shakespeare breathes to life in his fictional Vienna come replete with faults. There’s the pimp Pompey, who comments about his employer Mistress Overdone that she has had nine husbands, “Overdone by the last.” There’s Lucio, described in the cast list as “a fantastic.” In reality he’s among the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s creations. His comments about women in Act Five seem to him witty; our modern ears recognize the seeds of our society’s disdain for any woman who doesn’t toe the line – and a good deal of disdain even for those who do.

Then there’s the meddling and ridiculous “old fantastical duke of dark corners,” as he’s called by the afore-mentioned Lucio. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, abandons his rancid and sex-crazed city to Angelo, a prude who goes about enforcing old and neglected laws calling for the death of anyone engaging in sex outside of marriage. Into Angelo’s trap falls Claudio, who has impregnated his fiance Juliet.

The Duke, whose plan is to disguise himself as a friar so as to keep his eye on Angelo (why? it’s not really clear), reveals his own misogyny when addressing Juliet about Claudio’s impending execution.

  • VincentioLove you the man that wrong’d you?
  • JulietYes, as I love the woman that wrong’d him.
  • VincentioSo then it seems your most offenceful act
    Was mutually committed?
  • VincentioThen was your sin of heavier kind than his.

And there it is. To men the message is, “don’t get caught.” To women, it’s “you should know better.”

The action of the play, though, centers around the novice nun Isabella. I’ll not criticize her here. Her choices are not mine, but – unable to escape my essential maleness – I can’t know how Isabella sees a world as described by the Duke to Juliet in the passage cited above. Perhaps Isabel does know better.

When Lucio is sent to implore Isabella to beg for her brother’s life, at first she is appalled by the earthiness of it all. But she finally comes around, and is so passionate in her defense that she turns the otherwise icy Angelo to thoughts of – well, of something other than ice.

And then comes the moment. Angelo tells Isabel she must surrender her body to his desire, or else her brother will not only die but be tortured. Isabel threatens to reveal Angelo for what he really is:

  • IsabellaHa! little honour to be much believed,
    And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
    I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t:
    Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
    Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
    What man thou art.
  • AngeloWho will believe thee, Isabel?
    My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
    My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
    Will so your accusation overweigh,
    That you shall stifle in your own report
    And smell of calumny. I have begun,
    And now I give my sensual race the rein:
    Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
    Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
    That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will;
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
    Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
    I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

[Exit]

  • IsabellaTo whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
    Who would believe me?

Who can’t hear the voices of all the men who’ve been caught abusing their power here? Who can’t feel the hopelessness of all the women who’ve feared not being believed?

And yet Angelo is only the second worst misogynist in this play full of misogynists. The Duke tricks Isabel into believing her brother is dead. When he reveals, voila! Claudio is still alive, he apparently expects Isabel to fall down and kiss his feet. Then, in the play’s final, horrible action, the Duke ever so magnanimously announces that he will accept Isabella (the nun-in-training Isabella) for his own wife. What the what?

It is often said of Hamlet that Shakespeare created a real person and somehow plopped him in the middle of a play. After reading Measure for Measure again, I now believe this is true of Isabella, as well. Her final action, of simply refusing to speak, refusing to acknowledge this ridiculous proposal by the Duke (of course, the Duke being the chief law-giver in the city, it’s more than a proposal, isn’t it?) is the moment when Isabella becomes a real person, a human woman who refuses to answer to Shakespeare, to the Duke, to any of us. She is stunned into silence, unable to imagine that, after the trauma of Angelo’s indecency, after the heartbreak of thinking she’s lost her brother, somehow the Duke could believe that what she really wants is a husband. I picture Isabel alone on the stage, silent, staring out at the audience in astonished disbelief.

Bottom line, everyone needs to read this, Shakespeare’s most modern, immediate, and timely masterpiece.

 

 

I renamed this blog “Symphony” to reflect my desire to experience more of the world. I’d been focused on science and all the wonders that it can bring to us that I’d neglected so much else of the world – painting, sculpture, dance, literature, and music.

I chose the word because I believe the creation of a symphony has to be one of the premier achievements of the human mind. All those instruments, all those different parts, all somehow blending into a satisfying whole. How do they do it? It’s entirely possible I feel that way because I know next to nothing about the subject. The ironic thing is that when I chose the word I’d never been to an actual symphony performance.

Now that’s changed. For our anniversary, Julie and I went to see the Columbus Symphony Orchestra perform four amazing pieces. They were Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Wagner: “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre; Dukas: L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra. The conductor was Rossen Milanov.

The first three pieces, all performed before intermission, were fun and exciting. When “Ride of the Valkyries” started, Julie and I, both raised in the era of Saturday morning cartoons, turned to each other at the same moment and mouthed, “kill the wabbit!” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was especially thrilling. I’d expected my first symphony experience to be mostly relaxing, maybe a sit back with my eyes closed kind of time. Instead, I was on the edge of my seat. Who knew that a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra could create such a sense of drama and tension?

The second half, following intermission, simply blew me away. I was in tears again (admittedly, no great feat) as the music just carried me away. I found out later that the Strauss “tone poem” (I don’t know what that means, but that’s what Wikipedia calls it) was based on a book of the same name by Nietzsche. What little I know of Nietzsche leads me to believe that his nihilist philosophy is not for me, but Strauss’s interpretation is heart-stoppingly beautiful, deeply dramatic, and incredibly fulfilling. I’ve requested both the book and a recording of the music from Julie’s library (God, I love libraries!)

Beyond the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey beginning (the part that everyone’s heard), the contrasts between the barely audible whispers and the crashing crescendos in Strauss’s creation, and the beautiful sound of the solo violinist rising above the rest of the instruments, moved me in a way I didn’t know music could.

Julie and I were talking afterward as we walked back to the car. The thing about this piece, and really all the pieces we heard, is that the drama somehow builds to this very satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that leaves you breathless, cheerful, and dizzy with wonder. It’s an amazing testament to the accomplishments of this upright ape from the plains of Africa, not only coming to know its world but to create from its own mind a new one, never before seen or imagined in this universe.

I need to learn more about this world of beautiful, classical music, and everything that goes into it. I’m hooked!

A question someone asked me recently got me thinking about science museums. Funny that I’ve hardly written about them here, despite the fact that I spent over 20 years working in museums, and fully expected to spend even more time working there until they showed me the door.

When it comes to museums, I often come off as arrogant, as if I think I know everything. If that happens here, I apologize. In reality, there’s so very, very much I don’t know about museums. I don’t know a thing about business models, bottom lines, making payroll, or keeping the doors open. I don’t know about liability, public-private partnerships, measurable outcomes, or marketing. I don’t know how they decide what to charge for a bag of stale popcorn or a watery diet Pepsi, or where they get all those crappy toys they sell in the gift shop.

What I do know is how to get kids excited about science. I know because for well over a decade in my 23-plus science museum career, that’s what I tried to do every day. I didn’t always succeed, but I succeeded more often than not. And in the process I learned what works and what doesn’t.

So here’s what generally happens in a science museum, and why it generally doesn’t do much to get kids to love science the way I and other museum people love it.

In a typical science museum, kids come pouring in like marines taking a beach. They see something shiny and scurry over. They push buttons; maybe something happens and maybe it doesn’t. If it makes noise or lights flash, they pay attention. If it doesn’t, they go on to something else. If they can get wet or (even better) get someone else wet, they love that. If they can build something or (better yet) knock it down, they love that, too. What they learn of science from all these things, I have no idea, and don’t really care. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that they don’t learn what the designers intended. Mostly they just get wet.

Every once in a while, the kids see someone at a cart, or walking in the halls with an interesting-looking prop. If the person seems friendly, if the prop is interesting enough, the kids might go over and see what’s going on. Too often, the person at the cart or holding the prop is another kid, a teenage volunteer or maybe a college student trying to make a little money. Usually these museum staff are not much better than the exhibits with the flashing lights or the splashing water. They might have memorized a script they drone out again and again, hoping no one asks a question. The kids eventually slip away, looking for another button to push.

But occasionally the person at the cart or holding the prop is someone who actually cares about the interaction. This person might be a dedicated museum professional, or at least someone being mentored by one. These are the “museum people.” Now the interaction takes on a different flavor. There’s no rote script; rather, questions and answers fly back and forth between the museum person and the kid. The kid is invited to touch, to try, to hold, to hear, to feel. There are terrible jokes that make the kid laugh because they’re so terrible. The kid asks a great question, and the museum person says, “That’s a great question. Let’s see if we can find out!” The kid gets so excited she starts jumping up and down in anticipation. She wants to know what’s next. She wants to try it again. Sometimes, she even wants to teach someone else how it works. And the museum person has to hold back tears, the interaction is that powerful. And all is right with the world.

The museum people who catalyze these reactions have a few common traits. Museum people have “it”, an infectious enthusiasm that makes everyone feel comfortable and not intimidated. You understand you’re in the presence of someone who is not lording over you with superior knowledge, but instead is genuinely excited about seeing how you will react to discovering something new. Museum people love to laugh, especially at really bad jokes. Museum people love questions, especially questions they don’t know the answers to. Museum people love to help others explore. They have no sense of time – an interaction can be brief or extended, it can cut into the published schedule, their own lunch time, even closing time for the museum, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the exploration.

First, last, and always, museum people aren’t selling anything – nothing but their own joy and love of the cool things they know will make kids go “woah!” For a museum person, that “woah” is the greatest sound in the world. And we know how to get it.

Liquid nitrogen can get it. So can dry ice. Invisible electromagnetic fields are great at inducing that sound. Bones, especially skulls, can do the job. Fire is a sure-fire woah inducer. Flying things are great, too. So are explosions.

There are other, more subtle, ways of getting the woah. Things that feel funny, or that change color, or that light up at just the right moment get a woah, even if the effect itself isn’t the most exciting thing ever. It’s all in the set-up and the delivery. Every kid has one shot at getting that woah moment for every effect, and a museum person understands that every experience, every time, every kid is vital. They are all our starfish, in our hands for just a short time before we return them to the ocean. We have to make that moment count. Every. Single. Time.

Sadly, science museums aren’t built for the woah. They aren’t built with dedicated museum professionals in mind. Why? Lots of reasons. All of them bad.

Here’s how things often happen at science museums. A big business with an important message comes to the museum. “Hey,” they say, “we’d like to give you a wad of money. Can  you get kids excited about making healthy food choices?”

The science museum sees the wad of cash, thinks about how that wad of cash can help keep the doors open, pay the light bill, and make payroll. And so the science museum lies.

“Yeah, we can get kids excited about making healthy food choices.”

They know it’s a lie. They’ve tried before. Everyone’s tried before, and they’ve failed. Why? Because kids don’t want to learn about healthy food choices. They want the “woah!” Now maybe someone out there, a museum person who understands the woah even better than I do, has a great idea that involves healthy food choices. I doubt it, but then as I said before there’s lot I don’t know. But this I do know. You don’t get the woah by trying to sell healthy food choices. You get the woah by going for the woah – by finding that golden moment that makes kids go “woah!” and building your interaction around that. If the moment the museum people find happens to involve healthy food choices, well, they’re better than me. But it has to start with the woah. It’s not the outcome that matters. It’s how you get there. Wonder is a journey.

So the science museum lies. They take the wad of cash, and they build an exhibit about healthy food choices. It sucks. They might even have a cart activity or a traveling prop about healthy food choices. It sucks, too, and what makes it suck worse is that almost always the person behind the cart isn’t a museum person. It’s someone reciting a script, a script approved by the company with the wad of cash that wanted their name on something to do with healthy food choices.

There’s no woah. There’s no joy in discovery and no opportunity to fall in love. The journey is just a means to an end. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine. The kids walk away, uninspired.

Meanwhile, the museum people – despite being notoriously underpaid because they are doing what they love, and you can bet the museum takes full advantage (we used to say we keep the salaries low to keep out the riffraff) – are seen as a drain on the institution. As a result, they slowly disappear. Many move into “behind the scenes” jobs, jobs that pay better, get them home on weekends, and get them a lot more respect in the museum field. Having myself worked many, many museum jobs, I can tell you no one works harder than the museum people on the floor, looking every day for those starfish. It’s not even close.

Most museum people that don’t move into behind the scenes jobs eventually move on to something else. If you can’t get on full-time, you really can’t stay forever, and why would a museum make a full-time job out of something that (from the museum’s point of view) a part-timer or better yet an unpaid volunteer can do just as well?

A few museum people try to hang on, but eventually that budget will be cut and changes will be made. Because these museum people have no voice in management (they are notoriously rotten at politics, and avoid meetings like the plague because of course they’d rather be out there inspiring the woah), one by one they get cut from the staff. And because most visitors to the museum never encountered one of these museum people, never experienced the woah themselves, the museum people are hardly missed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s what should happen.

The museum, instead of selling itself as the place with flashing lights and splashing, should sell itself as the home of dedicated museum people who know how to get the woah. Then, when the company with the wad of cash comes, the museum can say, “No, we can’t get kids excited about healthy food choices. What we can do is keep paying our dedicated museum people to inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with science. These kids who love science, who love learning, who are excited about discovering the world all around them, will have the tools they need to make good choices about themselves and their world. How’s that?”

And then the museum professionals, who know more about the woah than anyone else, can go to work.

That would be a museum worth going to.

This will not be my typical post. I generally post for two reasons. Either the Orange One has done something ridiculous again, and I’m mad as hell, or (more often, I hope) something has inspired me. Right now I’m not inspired, and I am trying to discover why.

This weekend I read Toni Morrison’s book, Song of Solomon. I’d never read anything by the woman many consider our greatest living author, so I thought it was about time.

Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon (Milkman) Dead III, an African American (he would say negro) born in 1931 in an unnamed town in Michigan. The story traces Milkman’s life through his childhood and into his adult years. Milkman is forever trying to find out who he is, where he came from, the circumstances that led he and his eccentric family to their current situation. In the end he travels deep into the South and deep into his family’s past to find himself.

The book is well-written and it kept my interest throughout. Unlike The Sound and the Fury or Heart of Darkness, this book was anything but unreadable. It just didn’t speak to me. And I’m sorry about that. This entire post will be an extended apology for not loving a book I probably should love.

I think the problem is this, and it’s a terrible admission. I’m not really interested in where I come from. I don’t believe where I come from makes me who I am. I think I decide that myself.

There’s a great line in Joe Vs. the Volcano that sums it up. I know, I know. How dare I insert a goofy Tom Hanks movie into a discussion of our greatest living writer! Like I said, I apologize.

Near the end of the movie, when the Chief (played by a wonderfully bored Abe Vigoda) looks for a hero to jump into the Volcano and save his people, Joe says, “I don’t have any people of my own, Chief. I’m my only hope for a hero.” Joe is on a journey to find himself. This is his discovery. He is his only hope for a hero. By contrast, Milkman discovers that his identity, his very being, is tied up in where he comes from, who his “people” are. For Milkman, discovering who he is means finding out who his people are.

It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life he’d heard the tremor in the word: “I live here, but my people . . .” or “She acts like she ain’t got no people,” or: “Do any of your people live there?” But he hadn’t known what it meant: links.

Now it’s important to understand: I’m not saying Toni Morrison is wrong here. She’s probably right. For most people (and, I suspect, for African Americans, who’ve had their history purposely and viciously erased, even more than for most whites) who their people are is probably a critical part of their identity. I’m saying that I’m missing that piece. I’m missing the need for those links. I’m not entirely sure why.

Huck Finn has a moment similar to Joe’s (and in contrast to Milkman’s).

COL. GRANGERFORD was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and Pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.

Now Pap is Huck’s father, so here Huck is admitting that he himself is far from “well born.” Of course, we know better. We love Huck, with his self-effacing goodness and his true heart that will lead him to (as he believes) throw away his own immortal soul rather than betray his friend Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” We don’t believe that Huck’s past condemns him. We believe that Huck himself, finding his own way in the world, is wonderful.

By contrast, Morrison presents characters I really can’t like very much, characters whose flaws don’t make me long for redemption but rather just push them away from me. I don’t think it’s Morrison’s fault, I really don’t, and Song of Solomon may very well be the great book Barack Obama and others believe it to be. I suspect there’s something missing in me that keeps me from loving Song of Solomon. In my heart of hearts, I just don’t believe that I am shaped by where I come from. I shape myself by the choices I make. I’m probably wrong. But I think this flaw is what caused Song of Solomon to not speak to me. I don’t have any people of my own. I’m my only hope for a hero.

Art is the “unmistakable evidence of the best things our species is capable of creating, things made by the liberated thought, the acute vision, and the unquenchable creative fire of our shared humanity.” – Simon Shama, Civilizations

Those are the final words spoken in Civilizations, a nine-part history of art that aired on PBS this spring and summer. In this my next-to-last week of summer vacation, I binge watched the series – thanks to my wonderful wife Julie who got it for me from the also wonderful Upper Arlington Public Library.

Such a great series! I highly, highly recommend it even if (or especially if), like me, you don’t know beans about art. I learned so much – why Ramses II is the best-known of the Pharaohs (answer: he often appropriated old statues of former Pharaohs and changed their names to his), why domes became all the rage in Renaissance Italy (answer: Islam envy), even why so many Dutch paintings have dogs in their corners (answer: the Dutch artists valued scenes of everyday life, and Holland had lots of dogs). I was especially moved by the end of episode six, which compared landscape painting of the mid-19th century to the amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs of our own time.

My favorite episode, though, was episode 7, “Color and Light.” I’ve always thought light and color to be among the most fascinating topics in physics, and I love the close connections between the science of light and the art created to study light.

The idea that color has to come from somewhere, that paint with vibrant colors wasn’t always available at every corner store, had a surprising effect on the history of art. I love the story of ultramarine, how this beautiful blue was so expensive it was once reserved for only the holiest of subjects, and how when the artist Titian broke that tradition by putting ultramarine on the pagan Ariadne it was a scandal.

I didn’t know that impressionists like Monet (my favorite) were so inspired by Japanese art. It really shows how interconnected and multicultural our world has always been. While studying Monet’s paintings of The Gare Saint-Lazare, a train station in Paris, one of the commentators made the observation that the impressionists were painting not only light, but time. I was struck by the idea that a painting can convey the feeling of change and movement. The final scenes of this episode, in which we plunge into a deep black circle painted on the ground (a work by Anish Kapoor called “Descent Into Limbo”) is something you need to experience.

Episode 8, “The Cult of Progress,” was a little bit heavy. As an optimist, I know that the desire to return to an idyllic past is mostly the result of a bad memory. Yes, the past century was full of horror and bloodshed, and we owe a great debt to the artists who captured that horror so vividly, lest we ever are tempted to forget. But every century has witnessed horrors, many of them far worse than those of the 20th. What strikes me about 20th century art is that the artists saw the inequity and the stupidity and weren’t afraid to show it to us. Instead of generals, they gave us soldiers slaughtered in the field. Instead of kings and queens, they gave us prostitutes in brothels. Instead of glories to God, they gave us rail lines that vanished into death camps. The difference, it seems to me, is that 20th century artists felt the freedom to show us what they saw.

And that brings us to the last episode and the modern world. I still don’t understand Jackson Pollock. But Episode 9, “What is Art Good For?” featured many other modern artists who amaze me with their ability to see beauty and expose injustice. I was blown away by the work of Kara Walker, using black silhouettes to expose the injustices of slavery and racism. At first I scoffed at Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses gunpowder explosions to create art. But what comes from those explosions is incredibly beautiful – you have to see it to believe it.

Finally, the program highlighted artists who are speaking to the refugee crisis of today. These works, including a massive, all-black raft full of inflated figures by Ai Weiwei, will touch you in a way the nightly news just can’t.

I have so much to learn about art, just as I have so much to learn about music, and literature, and history, and science and math, too. The world is an amazing place!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
April 2019
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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