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Is It All About Us?

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Stephon’s profile.

I thought of so many ways to run with Stephon’s story, I had a hard time choosing! I finally decided to go with his anecdote about the moon chase, how his childhood in Trinidad stirred his desire to find out how things work.

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Stephon tells about the night skies on the southern coast of the island of Trinidad where he grew up. Because there was no light pollution, the moon and stars shone bright in the sky and had, I imagine, a peculiar presence. Stephon and the other kids believed in a kind of ghost they called Jumbies, and it crossed Stephon’s young mind that the moon was something like a Jumbie chasing him. It never caught up with him, though!

And he wondered why. Stephon took his curiosity about such mysteries and became a physicist. I suspect he found the real reasons behind the phenomena of nature more fascinating than the myths.

Still, we can’t dismiss the allure of the mythical, the fantastic, even when we grow up. It holds some attraction for most of us. We like supernatural and science fiction/fantasy literature. We dress up on Halloween, and we enjoy the preternatural sensations that creep up on us when we hear the scuttle of dead leaves across the sidewalk. Centuries after we’ve learned better, we like to think the dead can walk. Maybe we’ve yet to evolve out of a need for the liminal, the fantastic.

Is It All About Us?-easter_island.jpg
Easter Island… another great place to see the moon

Because myths and legends are records of our adaptations to our environment, we can’t disclaim them without ignoring whole, huge facets of our culture and history. It’s worth noting the way people have explained the mysteries they observed in nature before they had the scientific methods to get closer, if not all the way, to the truth.

Take, for example, the Inuit people’s beliefs about the moon. The Inuit believed the moon waxed and waned because the moon god wore himself thin chasing the sun goddess. He’d waste away, disappear altogether, get fed and re-energized and start showing up in the sky, chasing her again. It’s interesting that the Inuit thought this, but it’s better to know that the moon doesn’t really wax and wane at all. It’s just because of our perspective that it appears to wax and wane. How much of the moon we see depends on where it is as it orbits the earth. If you think about this, it blows your mind.

The real workings of nature are many times more fascinating—and just plain weirder!—than anything in myth and imagination. We can pursue the real while enjoying the fantastic as long as we know the difference. But too many of us don’t know the difference—or won’t accept it. Some people still believe the stars dictate their fate. Too many people believe that an unseen power, angry at the sins of a nation, steers hurricanes ashore and drives planes into skyscrapers as punishment.

Why do we turn a blind eye to the wonders of the real when we know better? I guess we’re still not ready to accept that although we’re part of nature, we’re really not—and never have been—the center of it. I guess it’s just more fun to think it’s all about us.

And when the moon’s chasing you, it is, for a time, all about you!

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.