Empowerment and Eärendil’s Star

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Elegant Connections in Physics

Empowerment and Eärendil’s Star


Dwight E. Neuenschwander, Southern Nazarene University

One way to empower the next generation is through science outreach. That was the goal with this volunteer-made viscosity demonstration, shown here at a Society of Rheology annual meeting outreach event.“Empowering the Next Generation” forms the theme of this issue of Radiations. I was invited to reflect on changes I’ve seen over generations of physicists and offer thoughts on how I think today’s students will impact the field.

On the changes I’ve seen among generations of physicists, I’ll make a personal observation. The first physics conference I attended brought together over a thousand participants. As a young rookie I was a bit intimidated, unsure of the protocols and etiquette of professional physics meetings. I met a few people and managed a few conversations. For facilitating those catalyzing moments, I especially thank a professor from my undergraduate days, Sallie Watkins, who introduced me to her colleagues. Sallie helped me tunnel through some kind of barrier, so I kept going to meetings. At our next meeting, could we be Sallie Watkins to those standing on the fringes?1

One can be a first-timer only once, so I cannot say with certainty how social interactions go for first-timers attending large physics conferences today. But I have observation-based reasons to suppose the physics community makes more deliberate efforts nowadays to help first-timers feel part of the club. There are receptions explicitly for first-timers and events that encourage socializing at no extra charge—for a splendid example, the American Physical Society cosponsors the now-expected dance party at Sigma Pi Sigma congresses. When walking around physics meetings today the atmosphere seems more relaxed, with more welcoming openness and diversity than I saw 40 years ago—a work in progress, but encouraging progress.

Regarding future impacts of today’s students, I remember how wise Lady Galadriel in J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings eloquently expressed the futility of foretelling: “I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain: on the side of darkness is hope.”2 Nevertheless, Galadriel offered what gifts she could to assist Frodo’s company in their forbidding mission. To Frodo she gave “the light of Eärendil’s star … [that] will shine brighter when night is about you.” Every generation has faced a future of darkness and hope. Perhaps I can pass along a modest Eärendil’s star consisting of what little wisdom I have gleaned (mostly from others), along with key questions that have helped me in my journey.

If I am expected to say something that will empower the newest generation of physicists, I must confess to having words no more profound than any other physicist my age.3 But I will suggest this to the next generation of physicists: you are empowered already.

You know how to ask questions. You know how to use quantitative, evidence-based reasoning. You know how to be open to new ideas while looking them over with a critical eye, saying, “Is that so, eh? How interesting—but what’s the evidence?” Having earned your degree, you are near the place where Freeman Dyson said of his own journey, “I was now ready to start thinking.”4

At this point a steep mountain looms before you. A career must be established, a niche found, respect and reputation earned. It is right for us to climb this mountain, to build on the opportunities we were given. Along the way, sometimes we must do what is expedient—there are school loans to repay, rents to make, mouths to feed. But it’s not only what you climb but how you climb that makes all the difference. It’s more about the journey than the destination.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes hiking in the mountains near Bozeman, Montana, with his young son Chris. Chris starts out full of beginner’s enthusiasm, rushing to be the first to top the next rise. But he soon gets tired and frustrated. His walking becomes clumsy and his attitude degenerates to sullen detachment. Pirsig muses, “When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost always never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again … haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out.” He contrasts such ego-climbing to another climb he attempted years earlier in India, accompanying a group of pilgrims ascending a holy mountain. He dropped out, exhausted, even though many pilgrims who made it were less physically fit than he was. They were driven not by their egos but by their sense of the mountain’s sacredness.5 The climb was not about themselves.

So instead of asking how we can empower the next generation, I would like to turn the question around and ask the next generation, Who do you wish to empower?

As we ascend our career mountain, we catch glimpses of a valley beyond.6 It may emerge in the form of the reflective question Why am I doing what I am doing?, as doubts grow about what one’s talents are enabling,7 as when …
—You help your company develop an impressive new technology intended to make life easier. But you begin to notice that every technology seems to quickly become weaponized—or produces collateral damage, such as eliminating jobs through automation, invading privacy, diminishing manual skills, undermining human agency, or increasing the scandalous gap between rich and poor.

—You begin to realize that your children don’t care how many papers you publish or how many awards you’ve won. What they do care about is whether you were there for them. One cannot attend a conference and a child’s piano recital at the same time—that’s a dilemma. Or you wonder why you knock yourself out on a project that maybe only half a dozen people in the world care about. But then, you never know where even the most esoteric research will lead. That’s another dilemma.

The rude but searching question “Why am I doing what I am doing?” begs a deeper question that must be answered first: What principles guide my decisions? In my times of crossroad decisions, this question has been an Eärendil’s star to me, offering a ray of clarity amid confusing darkness. Answering this question precedes effective responses to the “Why am I doing what I am doing?” and “Who do I wish to empower?” questions.

Physics has no lack of problems, and the world has no lack of needs. But my awareness of a particular problem or need does not necessarily mean it becomes my responsibility to remedy. For me to engage the need with joyful effectiveness, there must be impedance matching between that need and who I am. And while little of significance will ever be done if one always waits for the timing to be perfect, timing is important. Before engaging the task I may first have to take care of family obligations, personal issues, or adequate experience. That’s part of the journey. I must listen to my life.8 When we know who we are and the time is close enough to being right, when we care deeply for a cause and join with like-minded others in shared commitment, great things happen. Consider a few examples:

—In July 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, NASA finished restoring the Mission Control room and equipment that guided Apollo 11 in July 1969. In a radio interview, 85-year-old Eugene Kranz, who was the Apollo 11 flight director, recalled,

…a group of people united in pursuit of a cause, and basically the result was greater than the sum of the parts… There’s an awful lot of future out there, and what you got to do, is you go out and grab it, wrestle it to the ground… You’ve got the skills. You’ve got the knowledge. You’ve got the love, and you’re capable of moving forward.9

—The Cosmic Background Explorer satellite was launched on November 18, 1989, carrying three instruments to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation to unprecedented precision. John Mather, who headed part of COBE’s mission, recalled,

The three instruments exceeded all expectations. Few people, including scientists, may realize, however, that by the time COBE scientists began making their series of announcements, many team members had been working full-time on the project for nearly two decades, some devoting their entire working lives to it and staking their careers on its success or failure.10

—In his recent book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks tells of Fred Swaniker, who grew up in four African countries. He won a scholarship to Macalester College in Minnesota, and his degree there was followed by corporate work experience and another degree from Stanford. These experiences were Swaniker’s first mountain. But he “was haunted by the fact that he had been given these opportunities while hundreds of millions of young Africans just like him never would be.” He envisioned a system of African universities that would educate promising students from across the continent. This was his second mountain. As of 2019, Swaniker’s organization has opened the third college of his African Leadership University network. Brooks shares the criteria for commitment—the Eärendil’s star—that guides Swaniker:

The world is full of problems, but very few are the problems you are meant to address. When you feel the tug of such a moment, Swaniker advises, ask yourself three big questions:First, ‘Is it big enough?’ Those who have been fortunate to receive a good education, who are healthy, and have had great work experiences should not be solving small problems…Second, ‘Am I uniquely positioned…to make this happen?’ Look back on the experiences you have had. Have they prepared you for this specific mission?Third, ‘Am I truly passionate?’ Does the issue generate obsessive thinking? Does it keep you up at night?11

Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs” offers a brilliant polar Eärendil’s star.

Sigma Pi Sigma members are hidden and explicit physicists found in all walks of life, a leaven of evidence-based reasoning and physics appreciation sprinkled throughout society. Accordingly, the Sigma Pi Sigma mission statement includes the components of fellowship and service.13

The fellowship component reminds us that we live and work in community. Whatever the cause may be in the spectrum of honorable endeavors—from preserving historic aircraft to detecting gravitational waves to stopping human trafficking—a cause can be effective only when it is empowered by individuals who care and use their talents with like-minded others in purposed community.14,15

The mission statement’s service component acknowledges that to whom much is given, much is required. Sigma Pi Sigma members have been blessed with talent, opportunities, and tenacity. Resources were made available to us. Teachers, mentors, friends, and family were there for us. They cared about us. What can we give back, and to whom, to uplift and empower some segment of society?

On this journey, there is wisdom in borrowing the wisdom of others. Let us listen to South African novelist Alan Paton; University of Vienna psychiatry professor and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl; and the Dalai Lama:

—In Paton’s moving novel, Cry, The Beloved Country, Arthur Jarvis was a distinguished engineer who became a social conscience in South Africa during the 1940s, as Apartheid was setting up firmly with the 1948 election of the National Party. Nevertheless, Jarvis persisted in his agitation for social justice and the dignity of all human beings. After his tragic murder, his grieving father found Arthur’s personal manifesto, “Private Essay on the Evolution of a South African”:

I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false with me, a compass that will not lie.16

—In Auschwitz, Frankl observed a pattern among his fellow prisoners: If one could see a meaning for one’s life, then one was more likely to survive. He concluded that “the meaning of life” is not some buried treasure that we are to uncover. Rather, life asks us, What meaning shall we create out of this marvelous gift of our personal existence? Frankl wrote, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”17 Could it be that life asks every new generation of physicists, Now that you have equipped yourself with powerful tools, what will you do with them? This is not a scientific question, but an ethical one.

—In Ethics for the New Millennium the Dalai Lama observes the empowerment that come through knowledge of the material world:
Clearly, a major reason for modern society’s devotion to material progress is the very success of science and technology … And we are impressed by the results … Unfortunately, this devotion encourages us to suppose that the keys to happiness are material well-being on the one hand and the power conferred by knowledge on the other … [But] knowledge alone cannot provide the happiness that springs from internal development, that is not reliant on external factors. Indeed, though our very detailed and specific knowledge of external phenomena is an immense achievement, the urge to … narrow down in pursuit of it, far from bringing us happiness, can actually be dangerous. It can cause us to lose touch with the wider reality of human experience and, in particular, our dependence on others.18

We as physicists have attained a type of empowerment. If we are to be wise and ethical in its use, what are our responsibilities? Who will we empower, and why? As for the next generation of physicists “impacting the field,” we know our community is far more diverse than, for example, agents of the industrial-military complex. Going forward, the choice of missions and the tone of our profession’s interactions with society can expand such public perceptions to include an appreciation of the physics community as an international treasure, respected for coupling its understanding of the physical world to human empathy. Life asks each of us, What principles guide your decisions? What do you choose as your Eärendil’s star?

1. Mary Kay Hemenway and D. E. Neuenschwander, “Sallie Ann Watkins,” obituary in Physics Today, October 2012, p. 72.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 2004), p. 376.

3. Wise or not, a sample of the author’s previous thoughts on the impacts of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma on the physics profession and society include “Cutting Across the Lines,” Radiations (Spring 1995), pp. 1–7; “Scientific Citizenship: Connecting Physics and Society,” Radiations (Spring 2008), pp. 13–14; “Physicists and Dissent: The Obligation of Scientific Citizenship,” Radiations (Fall 2008), pp. 19–21; “Applied Physics, Grand Boulevards, and the Social Dimension,” Radiations (Spring 2018), pp. 22–25, and other articles in Radiations and SPS Newsletter/Observer.

4. Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (Harper and Row, New York, 1979), p. 49.

5. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Morrow Quill, New York, 1974), pp. 210–211.

6. These metaphors are borrowed from David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Random House, New York, 2019), Ch. 1.

7. Tyler Durden, “Google Employees Revolt, Refuse to Work on Clandestine AI Project for the Pentagon” (https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-05-14/google-employees-revolt-refuse...), May 14, 2018. 

8. Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2000), p. 4.

9. Interview with Eugene Kranz, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” July 1, 2019; see Shannon van Sant, “Former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz Restores Mission Control in Houston” (https://www.npr.org/2019/06/30/737327895/former-nasa-flight-director-gen...), June 30, 2019.

10. John Mather and John Boslough, The Very First Light: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe (Basic Books, New York, 2008), p. xix.

11. David Brooks, ref. 6, p. 119.

12. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (Harper, San Francisco, 1993), p. 119.

13. “The Mission Statement for Sigma Pi Sigma,” Radiations (Spring 1996), p. 20.

14. Umair Haque, “The Real Roots of the Crisis,” Harvard Business Review (http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2010/02/the_real_roots_of_the_crisis.html), February 24, 2010. “What really caused the [2008 financial] crisis was the fact that we didn’t care…. We didn’t care because we were chasing stuff…. In the name of stuff, we sacrificed what mattered: people, community, comity, trust, education, skill, quality, happiness—and tomorrow itself.” Or recall Pirsig (ref. 5, p. 35): “…There is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing.”

15. D. Neuenschwander, “For the Love of the Game: It’s Not About the Prize,” Radiations (Fall 2010), pp. 2–4.

16. Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country (Scribner, New York, 2003), p. 208.

17. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 17th printing (Washington Square Press, New York, 1970), p. 122.

18. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (Riverhead Books, New York, 1999), pp. 9–10.

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