Explanations- The Scientists

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

I was invited to post my show copy as part of the summer essay series, please enjoy!

Explanations: Part Two
The Scientists
By Daniel Messer

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of public broadcasting, indeed PBS was my favourite station. There was no childlike devotion to knowledge in this preference. I was nothing like a child prodigy with an advanced curiosity of the world. My love for PBS was very easy to understand and just as kidlike in its nature. I knew that, if I watched the public broadcasting station long enough, sooner or later I'd get to see some Muppets.

I'm still a huge fan of Sesame Street and the Muppets in general. But as a kid, I had no idea what television schedules were. My parents didn't get the TV Guide. For all I knew, the appearance of any show was a happy accident so, since I wanted to see Muppets, and Muppets were on PBS, I watched PBS quite often just on the off chance the Muppets would show up.

One night, while sitting on the floor of my parent's living room, I gazed glassy eyed at the screen before me. Since I was watching educational programming without any prompting from my parents, they didn't see any need to educate me regarding television timetables. "Just keep an eye out, son," I can hear my father say "The Muppets might be coming on next." So I sat there and waited through the closing credits of a nature show. I liked nature shows. Animals are great, but they were a poor second to Sesame Street. So as the show ended I waited in anticipation for the familiar chords that kicked off the Sesame Street theme.

Instead I got something different. When the next show started, beautiful music played over stunning images of space. I loved the music and the pictures of space were thrilling, like a science fiction movie. I probably thought that's what was coming on, but then a very soothing voice spoke over the music and explained to me that "the cosmos is all that ever was, or is, or will be."

That voice belonged to Dr. Carl Sagan and the show was part of the award winning documentary series called Cosmos. I sat there, enraptured by what he said. The things he said made sense to me, even though I couldn't have been older than five. Those images of space coupled with the way he spoke so lovingly about the stars and the cosmos changed my life in a couple of ways. On one level, the music was composed and performed by a Greek new age musician calling himself Vangelis because Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou is harder to say. My parents owned a piano and I knew that I wanted to learn how to make music like that.

On another level, I remember turning to my parents after the show was over and saying something along the lines of "I want to be an astronomer when I grow up."

I wasn't the only one affected by Carl Sagan in such a way. Even people who didn't care about space tuned in to watch Cosmos. Through he spoke with a quiet calm, you could tell that he was deeply passionate about astronomy and that passion carried over to the millions of people who watched the original broadcasts of the documentary and subsequent rebroadcasts. Dr. Sagan did something very special. He introduced people to complex concepts, the mechanics of a supernova for instance, and did so in such a way that everyone could understand. Even as a young boy, I understood most of the things he said. He didn't try to impress you with his intelligence. He didn't use jargon and, when he did use unfamiliar terms, he explained them thoroughly. He wasn't trying to bowl you over with the grandeur of space and the cosmos. Instead, he simply wanted you to understand it just a little bit better than you did before you watched the show.

I didn't become an astronomer, though I came close. I was well on my way to that end when another person I'll talk about on the next show demonstrated that I could have two things I loved at the same time. But that's another story.

Later in life I heard about a brilliant cosmologist and physicist. His best known book became an international best seller for many of the same reasons that Carl Sagan became such a sensation with his documentary. Like Sagan, he wanted to explain complex and, frankly, daunting concepts and he wanted to explain them to the common person. A lofty task when you consider that he wrote about quantum physics, black holes, and the birth of the universe - still, Dr. Stephen Hawking did this beautifully. In his masterpiece, titled A Brief History of Time, he set out to popularize a scientific concept so difficult to understand that even the experts will freely admit to not understanding how quantum physics works.

Dr. Hawking is a study in deceiving appearances. His body wracked by motor neuron disease, he sits in a wheelchair and is able to speak only though the aid of a speech synthesizing computer. It matters not, because while the body may not be one hundred percent, his mind certainly is.

I picked up Hakwing's book for the same reason tens of thousands of others did, because I'd heard all about it from friends and it sounded interesting. I opened to the first page and started reading. I think I finally put it down when I was well over halfway through it. For me, Hawking picked up where Sagan left off. The fact that I have any base knowledge of quantum reality at all is completely due to Stephen Hawking's clear explanations and insight into the minds of non-physicists.

What does this mean to librarians? I see a few things we can learn here. First, there are times I think we become a little too proud of our profession. We herald ourselves as the guardians of human knowledge and I have no disagreement with that description. However I think some take the metaphor a little too far, as if we're in a Boris Vallejo painting; muscular men and lithe, powerful women standing over the stacks of books and the instruments of learning. It makes for a lovely fantasy portrait, but the fact is that it helps no one; not us, not our patrons, and certainly not the public perception of our profession.

Sagan and Hawking did their best to make their professions accessible and open. They did this through passion and through restraint. Goodness knows that Hawking could've filled his book with equations and tensor calculus. Dr. Sagan could've written highly technical studies of planetary astronomy and spoke in astronomical terms reserved for times when one scientist speaks to another. But they didn't, did they?

No, they spoke to people based on two assumptions. The first assumption was that you weren't an expert in their professions and not likely to ever become one. This means that they still assumed you to be an intelligent individual. So while they didn't talk down to you, they certainly didn't try and go over your head either. The second assumption is that you had a curiosity and that they could foster it. They could nurture your questions and watch them grow beyond simple questions to the more complex.

How many stories have we all heard of a librarian "helping" a patron and ultimately scaring them off? We should never expect our patrons to be educated in the ways of library science and we should never expect them to care about it either. The person comes to the library seeking knowledge and/or entertainment. Instead of regaling them with the brilliance that is the library institution, how about we instead help them find what they want without imposing our profession on someone who merely wants information?

Finally, the reason that people listened to Sagan and Hawking is because they were sharing something they were passionate about. Most of us love what we do and we want to share it with others. If you do endeavour to impart your love for librarianship upon others, take a note from these two scientists. Make your profession an open one, not closed off to outsiders. Invite others to see what you see and don't worry if they don't fully understand something. Very few people fully understand the Large Hadron Collider, but that hasn't curtailed interest from the layperson. As long as a basic grasp is attained, the rest will work itself out. The curious one either walks away slightly better educated for you efforts, or they become more involved.

And if that's the final result then, folks, we all win.

* * * * *
Dan Messer is a public circulation librarian and has worked in library circulation for 16 years. He’s a science historian and amateur astronomer living, working, and netcasting in Arizona. Every other week, his alter ego makes an appearance on LISNews as The Faceless Historian, the host of Hyperlinked History.

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Boris Vallejo disagrees

http://www.bibl.u-szeged.hu/ejszaka_2005/kepek/vallejo-librarian.jpg

(Couldn't resist...)

Kidding aside, we're public servants with all the respect and pay that implies. We're thought to all be 65 year old women that look like Nancy Pearl (not a bad thing, but...), and you know, we are from day to day teachers, job counselors, babysitters, historians, tech support, clowns (if you're YA), and advice columnists. A little openness and pride balanced with professional dignity is a beautiful thing, and might as well have fun with it.

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