My Favorite Scientists (Physical Sciences, Part One: Contemporary)

There are so many amazing minds in our history that I absolutely love reading about. I find it really fun to start at their Wikipedia entries and go from there, finding primary source material from the people themselves. As the title relates, these people aren’t named for their exclusive importance, but because these minds and their labors are the reasons for my appreciation of and interaction with the sciences.

These two are important to me in the manner of which they’ve brought the hard sciences and the scientific method to the minds of science-curious laymen (yours truly). I stopped math somewhere in the middle of Calculus II. I didn’t have any astounding patience for antiderivatives, and so ended my path to astro- or quantum physicist. Still, this halt to my formal education didn’t stop me from discovering the wonders of string theory, the search for our Universe’s GUT, or the new ground we break everyday at places like Fermilab and CERN. The next two men put those wonders in the reach of millions of armchair physicists, and even those of us that couldn’t even get to Diff. Eq. in college.

Carl Sagan

Watching Ted Turner’s interview with Doctor Sagan and Sagan’s series COSMOS accelerated my curiosity at a young age. One of mom’s friends had let us borrow the series, and I ate every VHS tape up. It was incredible. It set the stage for my reading of Sagan’s works a few short years later, but of every contribution that he made to the world of science, it’s my sincere hope that The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark will endure among his other works. (I’d add “become required reading for every science student in the country,” if I didn’t believe Sagan would think the sentiment too heavy-handed.) His principal discussions–the importance of science, the scientific method, and most of all, of marrying skepticism and wonder as we seek the mysteries of the universe–reflect the core of my scientific passions. His writing style brings an elegance and a softness to what many humans perceive as world of controlled experiments and hard data. Sagan passed in 1996, and though his insights are greatly missed, he has left us with an incredible knowledge of our solar system, the wonder of science, and an extensive collection of his thoughts and hopes for humanity.

Stephen Hawking

The stuff the world was made of was interesting to me. I was a sophomore in high school, looking behind me at a shelf of books about the laws of physics, and I picked up a book called Elementary Particles. Imagine my surprise upon finding a book (from thirty years ago) that explained the universe wasn’t as simple as the protons, neutrons, and electrons everyone had let on about. My science teacher for the 6th-8th grades, Mrs. Hezel, had hinted at quarks and recited their names (now that I look back, probably in 1995 upon CDF and D-Zero’s confirmation of the top quark), but until I found that book I had forgotten hearing about it. How quarks related to nuclei,  how they could be put together in different combinations to create exotic particles,  and how they couldn’t ever seem to stand alone were mysteries that I’d discover later thanks to Doctor Hawking. Most everyone has heard of A Brief History of Time, but Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays is just as relevant.

Next Segment – Physical Sciences, Part Two: 20th Century
Richard Feynman
Buckminster Fuller

What I Communicate

It was existential dread passing through me this morning. I looked at my twitter account, at the myriad posts on my blog, at my criticisms, my attempts at humor, my ignorant rants, my populist attitudes and libertarian platitudes, and I realize that most of these things are actually at odds with each other.

This wild combination actually makes sense because, as ever, I am at odds with myself.

When I was a teenager, it used to be a simplistic battle between what I percieved as logic v. emotion. This, of course, is a sophomoric way to look at the self–there is no such response that is purely logical any more than there is any action that is undertaken via the isolation of one motive or drive.

Maybe that’s wrong too. I need more coffee.

(a few moments later)

I think what scares me the most is the possibility that my attitude toward the world hasn’t changed much in ten years, only the language in which I describe it. Having a bigger vocabulary doesn’t change any of the infantile behaviors within–it just makes my descriptions of those behaviors more eloquent.

The woman I love often tells me that I’m too hard on myself, and I probably am. It’s just that fear…if I’m not changing, aren’t I doomed to become a middle-aged shadow of the same circling thought-vulture I percieve myself to be?

My negativity about the world has hints, however hidden, about the ultimate good of mankind. I can find humanity incredibly beautiful even through the lens of the tribal hatred that still consumes us. I can find another person’s religious faith enamoring despite my personal aversion to organized religion. I can find the entertainment value in a television program that showcases human stupidity even as I assail the cathode tube (yep, still no flatscreen) and the network that delivers it.

I’m either the epitome of the ignorant hypocrite I shout “foul” against, or I’m a brilliant satirist of my own personal flaws juxtaposed against the expectations I have of our human family.

And shit, maybe that’s it. Maybe my fluidity of opinion and direct contradiction in action and word of my claimed ideals is what I’m communicating. Maybe that’s my essence.

Maybe the unknown me is poking the known me, trying to get me to admit that I don’t know shit and that what I believe to be hard and fast truths flow and change shape like water rolling down a hill.

But if I agree with that, I come to another place in my head. “What am I doing?”

I don’t know. I don’t have any proper answers to that. Where I belong, what I’m doing, where I’m going…I don’t know. I’ve never known.

I would be a liar if I said my lack of a clear direction produced raw joy or raw despair. It produces both and neither. I’d also be a liar, however, if I said I never think about the decisions I’ve made in the past in terms of how they’ve delivered me to the present–whether skipping down the path, floating on the feeling that the universe is on my side, or slumped over and clawing at the ground, trying with all my might to freeze myself into place and stop the world from changing me. Neither of these perceptions lasts long enough to say that I live a majority of my life in either one.

So maybe I don’t communicate anything but that a joyful person can be angry, or that an enraged person can be tolerant. Maybe I’m the poster child for human fluidity, even though a simple glance at a comment or an essay can easily depict me as a fundamentalist or a radical.

I’m neither. I’m both. I’m playfully silly and dead serious. I’m pouring out everything here, and I’m really saying nothing at all. I’m saying that I’m nothing like you, but that we’re both more alike than either of us ever admit.

A pile of synapses. Stimulus-response. One of billions, no smarter, no more holy, aware, or important than any of my brothers and sisters.

A human, without a doubt.

The 16 Varieties of Joe Callan Discussion

Originally posted on my MySpace blog, Jan. 2008.

The Polite Silence
This is where I let you run your fool mouth off without correcting, stopping, questioning, or arguing with you. If you’ve seen a lot of these, it’s probably because you just met me. Enjoy the peace. It won’t last long. 

The know-it-all

The kind where I butt in and correct you. This is the discussion I later apologize for, because it probably wasn’t my discussion to begin with and I just chimed in like a bastard. I’m guilty of some of these. 

The flag-waver

The kind where you direct an inflammatory or unprovable claim to me, THEN you snuggle into the cozy “it was just my opinion” position. You don’t get an apology with this one, because it was you who asked for my input in the first place. If you don’t want a discussion, don’t bother directing corrosively illogical statements at me. 

The Rant
Pure, unbridled Joe Callan. Happens when I feel the spirit of Sam Kinison take over my body. In severe cases, will pace back and forth and accentuate particular points by ending thesis statements with effective exclamatory phrases such as: “JE-SUS-FUCK-ING-SHIT!”  This isn’t a discussion so much as it is a speech from the depths of Hades. 

The choir member
This is the kind where you say something I agree with wholeheartedly, and then I praise you for saying something that I also feel to be true. I then go on to rant about previous arguments I’ve had with people who disagree with the aforementioned position. WARNING: may turn into full-force rant (see above) 

The “dude, I feel you”
These discussions happen when one or both of us is so trashed that it doesn’t matter what either of us are saying because it’s really just the agreeable mental state we’re in that’s making us agree. 

The “I think I’m in love”
These rarities happen when someone is masochistic, patient, and intelligent enough to argue circles around me all while playing by the rules of debate. These conclude with me being beaten to a logical pulp and declaring my love for the person who just defeated my position. 

The Socratic Method
If I start asking you questions and then just keep asking them, beware. I’m storing up information and waiting for you to contradict yourself. Sometimes I wait until you’ve contradicted yourself a couple of times before I decide to pounce. 

The “Jerry Seinfeld”
These discussions happen when I’m so flipped out by your lack of argumentative understanding that my voice starts jumping register. I’ll go into a high pitch and ask questions like “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” or “HOW WOULD YOU PROVE THAT?” You can tell I’m getting flustered, because I start sounding like Jerry Seinfeld after the second commercial break of any given episode of “Seinfeld” 

The Wrecking Ball
This is where I never take a clear position, but I keep destroying the foundation yours is built on. Because you aren’t able to pinpoint where I stand, you stay on the defensive the whole time, hopelessly trying to defend the city walls of your claim. 

The Jack-of-the-pulpit
This is where you just let me go on and on and on about what I think of any given topic. When I’m doing it right, I’ll remind you of your most boring college professor. This may or may not decay into a discussion about a completely different topic than the one we started with. 

The Keeper of the Ivory Tower
Very rare. Happens when I think you’re a hopeless cause. Usually ends with the statement: “I can refute your arguments, but I’m not going to sit here and give you 12 years of education.” 

The Student
Happens when I sense you’re way smarter than me. I know better than to make a stupid claim, because I know you’re like me and you’ll tear me apart for it. I ask a lot of questions in this one, too. May decay into a “Socratic Method” type discussion if I over-estimated your intelligence. 

The Devil’s Advocate
This is where I agree with you, but I don’t think you KNOW why you agree with me. These are especially nasty excercises in sophistry, ones where I challenge myself to take up an adverse opinion simply because I don’t believe you represent MINE correctly. I am such a bitch with these. 

The “Take it to the endzone”
This is where you have such a silly position that I actually TAKE your position and lay it out to its final logical conclusion, using your own claim to dig your argumentative pit. At times I get overzealous and engage in the slippery slope fallacy here, but I normally let my opposition open that box of cookies before I start gorging myself on it. 

The Weather
This is the discussion where we talk about non-argumentative and non-confronational topics because you’re sick of having one of the fifteen above types of conversations with me. 

Great Wedding, Bad Airline

I could go into a big huge bitchfest about how so very horrible it was to fly back to Newark with US Airways, but I said enough on my Twitter a few days ago. In reality, everything could have been a lot worse with Hurricane Bill off the coast.

I’m pretty impatient, but I don’t really mind waiting in the terminal where I have my choice of food, drink, full-size bathroom, and outlets to plug into. (Particularly Charlotte Douglas, which is more comfortable than Atlanta). The part that really killed me was when they loaded us onto the plane and THEN told us that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for an hour. Stupid jackassery like that just pisses your customers off–why pack them in a small space and then make them wait? Silly.

Dad’s wedding was small, but the ceremony was very cool to be a part of. I’ve never been a best man before–I was a junior usher at my cousin’s wedding (15, 16 years ago?), but that’s about it.

I need to pull pics off of my phone and get some posted. Soon enough.

My car didn’t start today when I tried it. 🙁 I might not be able to get to Canandaigua for labor day, mostly because I won’t drive 200 miles away in a car that I don’t think is travel worthy. 2nd time my battery has died in three months, and it really hasn’t been THAT long since I last started it up, so…

Oh yeah, Eastern Tennessee is beautiful. There’s a lot of National Forest in the area I was visiting that I’d love to explore sometime. I love Southern Appalachia–the heterogeneous mix of deciduous and evergreen makes the mountains a brilliant green that you don’t see so much in the north, where Evergreens are better suited to the shorter growing season. Adding to it (and something you particularly don’t see in the Adirondacks because of the Green and White ranges behind them), is the mist rolling through the valleys on cool, dewy mornings. It can tend to look like you’re inside some mythical forest.

Makes me want to hike the AT–which, interestingly enough, runs about 15 miles from where I was visiting AND 15 miles away from where I sit typing this post.

That’s my update for now…congratulations to my Dad and his bride!

resistant to Twitter at first, but…

I think it was just  me being selfish and resistant to a world where no single person’s posts really “matter more” than anyone else’s (except for Diddy’s and Shaq’s, of course).

What eventually pulled me into Twitter (and completely away from facebook) was the brevity of the service. If I have to pack what I want to say into 140 characters, I really have to think of how I want to say it.

When I think about how I want to say it, a lot of my terrible ranting posts are avoided, simply because I end up realizing: “this is too mindless. I probably should let this one go.”

Those of you who have seen my twitter account can probably testify to the fact that ALL of my posts are like that, but nevertheless, you’d see more of them if it weren’t for Twitter’s immediate length limitation.

What I disliked about Facebook was finding myself posting thoughtful and civil posts on topics, posts that would disappear forever into an unsearchable index of data. (I should have save some of them before I shut down my account, but it is what it is.)

I can still do my tl;dr posts here at the blog instead, which–if I’m being nice and posting regularly–is where they best serve the brand. Just a little lunchtime thought.

Man, I forgot how quick and easy (and also mindless) blogging can be.