Date: May 16, 2010
Podcaster: Ben Lillie
Organization: Peculiar Velocity — http://peculiarvelocity.com
Description: A photograph, a real estate agent, Carl Sagan, and a thermostat. Oh, and David Bowie. A tale from the Story Collider.
Bio: Ben Lillie is a physicist who left the academy for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He now writes and performs stories about science and being a scientist, and is co-host of The Story Collider.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored by Ben Lillie and dedicated to the memory of John “Dr. Wimpy” Ward, fellow storyteller and scientist.
So, a few months ago I’m sitting in my new Brooklyn apartment when the doorbell rings. And I’m in one of those building that’s built to look like it’s a converted warehouse, but is actually just an apartment building, so the doorbell is this faux-industrial tinny ‘ding’ that’s really annoying. So, I go to answer it and It’s the apartment broker that showed me the place. Now, I don’t like this guy. Now, there are plenty of respectable real estate people, but he is not one of them. He has the gold watch and the slicked hair and the ooze and I get a creepy vibe from him. When I came in to sign the lease he made a point of the fact that the apartment opposite me single woman about my age. And, ew.
So, he’s standing there, now in his shirt-sleeves, asking to borrow a pen. And he explains to me that he’s there to fix that neighbor’s thermostat, but she isn’t home, and he doesn’t want to root around in her things, but that would be weird. Great.
Anyway, I lend him the pen, and then a minute later I lend him the piece of paper he asks for, on which to write things with the pen, and I settle back in for what I was doing. Like any good bourgeoisie bohemian Brooklynite, I’m brooding. What I’m brooding over is a picture of the planet earth from almost 4 billion miles away. It was taken by the voyager space craft at the request of Carl Sagan, and it’s from so far away that the whole earth takes up less space than a single pixel, one dot slightly bluer than the rest, and Sagan wrote a book about it, called the Pale Blue Dot where he talked about how this shows that we all have more in common with each other than we do with, say, the vastness of interstellar space and that there is only a tiny, tiny part of The Universe that we can inhabit, and we’re in danger of blowing ourselves up or destroying our climate, and that therefore should all work very hard to work together and get along. The reason I’m brooding is that I’ve decided it’s imperative that I say something about it on my blog, and the problem is that Sagan has clearly said all the good points and I need to
Ding. And the doorbell rings again. This time he wants to use my computer because they don’t actually know how to fix the thermostat, and they want to look up tech-support on the internet. And I’m getting annoyed, so I do what I always do when I’m annoyed at someone. “Oh, of course you can use it! Let’s find the manual; I can print out the manual for you. It’s not a problem. Let me know if there’s anything you need. No, no, I’ll totally print it out” And, of course he isn’t stupid, so he knows what’s going on, and as soon as he sees a telephone number for support, he writes it down — with the pen — and runs out the door.
So I get to go back to the important work of explaining to people how astrophysics means we should all overlook our differences. But I’m rattled, so I brew a nice mug of coffee to calm myself down, and I start reading. There’s a passage in The Pale Blue dot, when Sagan is discussing the time when people realized that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the other way, and how scientists quickly accepted that that was true. And go goes on to say:
“Once most scientists had been convinced, informed public opinion had swiftly changes, in some countries in a mere three or four generations.”
And what’s scary about that now is that now, in an age when we can vaporize ourselves with our nuclear arsenals, or asphyxiate on our own atmosphere, we don’t have three or four generations. We don’t have time to digest new discoveries, particularly the unpleasant ones. We have to
Ding. This time he want to borrow my thermostat. They think that it’s her wall unit that’s broken, and they want to try mine. Now, I’m livid. So I say. “Of course!”. So he takes it; it turns out they just slide right off the wall — you can try it on your own if you like. But this time I haven’t turned the music off, and he pauses and says: “I love this song, what’s that line? I’m sitting in a tin can, all alone”. It’s David Bowie, singing Space Oddity. This guy, who is entirely unlike me and creeps me out, likes my music. How can that be?
And as he says this, I remember the other reason he creeped me out. I was sitting in his office, signing my lease, and he launched into the most extraordinary soliloquy about his newfound and deep admiration and respect for tiger woods, because of his cheating.
And I’m remembering that in shock while I’m holding my feministing dot com coffee mug and I realized “I have to say something”. I have to make a verbal response to this other person. And we stood there, locked eyes, both completely unsure of what to make of each other. And right then David Bowie himself came to the rescue by launching into that exact line “For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world”. And, eyes still locked in that moment of awkwardness, he and I did the only thing two people who have just discovered that they have a shared love for a song currently playing at loud volume can possibly do: we joined in: “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I do.”
We both trailed off, having discovered together that the one thing that truly united us; the thing that bound us together in our lives on this pale blue Earth, not as generic humans occupying the same pixel, but him and me specifically. We had just realized that neither of us could carry a tune.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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