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Nadia Drake

How Can We Write About Science When People Are Dying?

Posted by Nadia Drake

25-11-2015 17:42 CST

Topics: about science writing

This article first appeared at National Geographic's Phenomena blog site on November 19 and is reposted here with permission.

Earth! A Spectacular

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Paris was horrific.

Yet as I watched that horror unfold, in a city that was once known as “The Paris of the Middle East,” dust clouds were falling onto a street streaked with blood. Beirut had been hit by one of the deadliest bombings since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

It was a story that was both a world away and yet deeply personal. My mother’s family came to the United States from Lebanon when she was a teenager. Decades earlier, my great-grandmother had left Syria and moved to a small fishing village north of Beirut (later, my grandparents would honeymoon near Aleppo, if you can even imagine a time when that was possible).

In other words, the blood that ran through that street also runs through me.

It was hard, in the face of such unrelenting violence, to focus on work. I found it incredibly difficult to try and describe bodies in the solar system when bodies on Earth were falling to the ground.

I felt utterly useless.

I stewed and stewed, and stewed some more, and emerged briefly and wrote to Kareem Shaheen, a friend who’s based in Beirut and covers the Middle East for the Guardian.

“I wish there were something I could do to help, or something that would at least make a difference. Want to swap jobs for a bit?” I suggested, half joking.

His response was, in a nutshell, that science has the power to redeem and inspire, and that casting our eyes to the stars can unite every human on Earth. Then he echoed a sentiment I’d heard a day earlier: Keep writing about science. It’s important, and it’s inspiring.

“There’s a unifying beauty to it–you can appreciate the stars and planets whether you’re Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Christian, Jew, atheist or Wiccan,” Kareem said. “Finding new things to discover, wondering at what could be up there, us being the universe contemplating itself, setting our sights at conquering a new frontier, that’s what we should be doing.”

It’s true. We can all walk outside and look up and admire the same stars, regardless of the stories we inscribe upon them. Kareem went on to describe how watching Venus cross the face of our sun helped bring him closer to his dad, and to the threads that connect our planet with the cosmos.

“I was in college and wanted to see the Venus transit but couldn’t find any filters to use on my telescope,” he recalled. So, his dad went out and found a welding mask that would let Kareem safely observe the sun. As he peered through the mask and into the eyepiece, Kareem saw Earth’s sister marching across the great golden disk that powers life on our planet.

“Venus was just a speck in my feeble excuse of a telescope, but it was gorgeous,” he said. “Seeing it as a tiny fleck against the sun was sort of like the pale blue dot idea—of how fragile and vulnerable the thread is—and now, thinking back to it, it drives home how insignificant our differences are in the grand scheme of things.”

I’m not an optimist by nature—“realist” is the description I prefer—but I’d like to think that he’s right, that sharing the wonder of science, exploration and adventure can be an antidote, in some small measure, to suffering and destruction.

In retrospect, I should have known this all along. Finding solace in the sights and patterns of the natural world has been a part of me since year one: Before I was old enough to walk or talk, my family discovered that showing me the shimmering moon was often the only way to calm me down.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is be good to one another and share stories of the human mind and spirit at their best.

The last story I published before Paris and Beirut erupted was about how Pluto’s heart grew from the crater left by an enormous impact. Instead of turning into another big, ugly scar on the planet’s surface, the crater instead played an important role in the birth of a feature that we see as a symbol of love and compassion. I hope there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Read more from Nadia Drake and other great science writing on National Geographic’s blog site Phenomena.

See other posts from November 2015


Or read more blog entries about: about science writing


Karen: 11/26/2015 02:36 CST

Beautifully put :)

Tony Fisk: 11/26/2015 04:40 CST

Charlie Chaplin was halfway through filming 'The Great Dictator' when Germany invaded France. Appalled that he was writing a *comedy* about these events, he was close to cancelling the project but was told pretty much the same thing: what you're doing will help others, and it's important not to stop what you're doing, because that's when the oppressor wins.

Olivier de Goursac: 11/26/2015 06:57 CST

Dear Nadia, thanks a lot for your kind and delicate words. A cousin of my wife lost 1 nefew in the Islamic attack and one is still at hospital. A nefew of mine was to share a beer with friends at 'La Belle Equipe', but luckily the appointment was cancelled at the last minute because he was overburied with work in his office and had to work late : this saved many lives... As we say in France, we must continue living our lives to show the Islamists that we will never surrender. Olivier de Goursac (Charter Member of the Planetary Society)

masanori: 11/26/2015 07:00 CST

Hope the picture of Earth with US in the centre, which seems not existing on the original blog post, is not suggesting some meaning which the blogger did not suggest originally.

sepiae: 11/26/2015 07:34 CST

Beirut at first seem to go almost unnoticed, I myself first saw the Paris reports alone. Yes, the question should rather be, how could we stop writing about science. It's not just that reason and the scientific method *could* be an antidote. It *is* the only antidote I can think of. It's the opposite od everything that happened there, and before and will continue to happen. It's the opposite to everything hateful, to bigotry, repression, regression, superstition and bullying. The more so because the gifts of science require the omitting of borders and personal differences to be achieved, require a true and realistic siblinghood. And that includes everyone who wants to learn.

Anonymous: 11/29/2015 05:51 CST

I'd like to say that Russian science is being threatened, especially after the failure of the Russian Phobos-Grunt space mission. In June 2013, Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov introduced a bill to liquidate the Russian Academy of Sciences, thus essentially eradicating crime and corruption in the country. However, with intervention of organized crime groups within the Academy and the Kremlin, with the latter being such, the bill was heavily amended, with Vladimir Fortov praising it. After the signing of the bill into law in September, the protests continued somewhat by the same crime groups, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is no doubt a gangster who run the country for eternity, saved the Academy by permanently suspending the Academy reforms by introducing and extending a moratorium on personnel and property matters. In August 2014, Olga Golodets, Vice Premier who's one of the principal authors of the reform and the initiators of the changes, was replaced by Arkady Dvorkovich, who later became responsible for ceasing all academy's institute mergers on criminals' interests. 2015 saw the fires at INION Library, and director Yury Pivovarov was fired, charged and placed under house arrest, although young scientist Vera Mysina was constantly threatened and attacked, with the recent attack involved someone trying to break into her car and pull her out of it. Geochemist Erik Galimov, who was a member of the Phobos-Grunt team, was fired from the Vernadsky Institute, but was reinstated at criminals' vehement protests, and will be working at the Institute for eternity, just like many other academicians. The following month saw the Dynasty Foundation being slapped by the Justice Ministry with a "foreign agent" label, which is a term associated in Russian with treason and espionage, and its board made its decision to close in July, and was closed three months later. I cannot say whether all of this have come to pass, though.

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