I was watching a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director for the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York city, the other day. In it, he talks about what made him a nerd and some of the seminal experiences in his life of science and research. I was struck by a story he told about taking an art survey course during his freshman year in college. He’d been a science nerd his whole life, and art must have seemed like a foreign country to him.
He got through it and came away with a better appreciation of the connectedness of all things in life, art to science, science to humanity, and so forth. It got me to reminiscing about my own journey as a nerd. I didn’t start out as one, or so I thought. But, then I remembered how inquisitive I was as a kid. I HAD to know how things worked. So, I’d be out in the yard of our old house in the country, picking blades of grass and tearing them apart into smaller and smaller pieces so that I could see what they were made of. This was before I knew about things like atoms and molecules. Once I’d learned about those fundamental bits of matter, and had an idea about chemical elements, I wanted to be able to see THOSE and figure out THEY worked.
That led to me getting a microscope for Christmas one year. It was for me, but my dad was into it, so Santa had written “TO Carolyn and Daddy” on the gift tag. I remember that we explored a lot of tiny things together, my dad and me. And, as I’ve written in some of my books, my dad was the first one to drag me outside to see the stars.
Once I saw them, I think the idea of astronomy was set in my head for good. It was a good many years before I actually ACTED on learning more astronomy (like, by taking actual astronomy classes), although we certainly had enough books around the house with pictures of Saturn and Jupiter and constellations. I’d pore over those and then try to correlate them with what I saw in the sky.
In college I didn’t study astronomy as a major. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, but at 18 I was ready to tackle something different from science: music. I’d recently begun piano lessons and was ablaze to understand the background of the pieces I was learning to play. Hence, I became a music history major. But, I was one of the few majors to also take as many science classes as I could including two semesters of astronomy, biology, geology, etc. My music advisors thought I was nuts. I thought THEY were nuts for not wanting to know more about the universe. hey were slightly more impressed when I signed up for art history, linguistics, world history, and other “liberal arts” classes in between my forays into science.
Well, I never did get that degree in music history, because I got fed up with the attitudes at the music school. I switched to education, got a teaching degree, and upon graduation, ended up working at a newspaper. And, newspapers are great places to be if you’re curious about things that happen. I got my start science writing at The Denver Post, and after I left there to go back to school, my journalism experiences stood me in good stead when I FINALLY decided to major in astrophysics. You see, both astronomers and journalists ask the big questions. They also ask the small questions. They’re in search of a story, an explanation, a reason why something happens, who made it happen, when it happened, and how it happened.
Where was I going with all this? That science is connected to being human? That asking questions is being human? That wanting to know how things work is being human? Yup. All those. And, if you haven’t figured it out, being that nerd is also being human. I think that’s abundantly clear in Neil’s movie, called “The Soul of a Nerd.” As I listened to him talk about drawing pumpkins in art class, and then drawing the SPACE between the pumpkins, I knew exactly how he felt.