Redux: Embracing My Hubble Moments

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hubble 500x369LWON loves this 10/20/2011 post and is reprinting it, feeling that we’re always at any time just a minute away from our own Hubble moments.

In 2006, when I was in graduate school for science writing, one of my professors brought in an astronomer to talk about his exoplanet discoveries (just in case you don’t know, exoplanets are planets outside our solar system). We were supposed to listen to Dr. Astronomer’s talk, ask a few questions, call some scientists for outside comments, and then write a news story. Full disclosure here: I don’t care one whit about astronomy. I never have. Oh sure, I can walk you through the planets in our solar system. And I know something about stars and galaxies. But beyond that, I’m kind of at a loss.

Dr. Astronomer had made his discoveries using the Hubble Telescope and, as he talked, it slowly dawned on me that this telescope he was talking about, this Hubble, is in space. My mind was officially blown. We put a goddamn telescope in SPACE! Holy. Effing. News peg.

I soon realized, of course, that my hook was more than 15 years old. Yes, I had heard of Hubble. And, yes, I  knew it was a telescope. But somehow the fact that it orbits Earth had escaped me. Or maybe I knew and then forgot. This was not the first nor the last time I would be astounded by knowledge that everyone else takes for granted. For me, graduate school was peppered with Hubble moments. As these moments piled up, that delightful rush of discovery — we put a telescope in space! — was replaced by burning shame. What else had I missed?

My Hubble moments made me doubt myself. Everything I thought I knew became suspect. And everything I didn’t know became another potential Hubble. On the phone with scientists, I tried to avoid asking too many questions. If they said something I didn’t understand, I would “mmm-hmm” like I did. I’ve often heard teachers say, “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” but that’s not really true. You don’t want to be the science writer who asks a famous astronomer, “So are you telling me that there’s a telescope in space?!”

But the less I asked scientists to explain, the less I understood. And the less I understood, the less I could explain to the reader. Sometimes I could write around the things I did not know. Then I would feel ashamed that I hadn’t asked the right questions, that I hadn’t fully understood.

I like science. That’s why I became a science writer. I especially like learning new things. But I don’t like feeling dumb. And neither does anyone else. The blush of shame I feel after each new Hubble moment is the same shame that a lot of people feel when they listen to science talks or read a science article they don’t understand. It’s the same shame that kids feel in science class when they can’t remember the word for the green stuff in plants. Instead of asking questions, we clam up. We disengage. We “mmm-hmm” and pretend things are perfectly clear.

As science writers, we’re supposed to be advocates for exactly those people. But sometimes we get caught in the trap of trying to impress scientists or other science writers. And we forget that the beauty of our job is that we get to be idiots. It’s allowed. In fact, it’s required.

So I’m trying to embrace my Hubble moments. I often feel like a halfwit, sure, but I also get to make amazing discoveries. We put a telescope in space. And that’s pretty damn wonderful whether you’re hearing it for the first time or the fiftieth.

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I’d like to briefly thank the many scientists I’ve interviewed who have been so generous with their time. Thank  you for answering even my stupidest questions without laughing or snorting in disgust (ok, some of you did snort in disgust, but you still answered my questions). You have my eternal gratitude.

Image credit: STScI and NASA

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25 thoughts on “Redux: Embracing My Hubble Moments

  1. This is an AMAZING post. I’m sure every science writer is squirming in discomfort and nodding in agreement.

    I wax and wane on allowing my idiot to dominate. And by idiot I don’t mean the person who doesn’t know things but the “mm-hmm” one who pretends she totally gets it. Oh yeah, of course holes move through a semiconductor in the opposite direction of electrons. DUH.

    It’s so tempting to try to come off as being super-smart to scientists even though you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s. so. hard. No matter who you are, it takes massive will power to deliberately court that look of confusion-and-then-judgment in the eyes of most scientists when you ask that one dumb-ass question that reveals just how basic they’re about to have to get with you.

    You’ve put your finger on the difference between mainstream science journalism and the trade press. Knowledge is assumed for anyone reading the trade press, so much so, in fact, that any attempt at a lay explanation is absolutely savaged by the readership. Once I tried to explain how a small square of carbon aerogel could hold enough stuff in all its little fractal pores to fill a basketball court.

    The comparison provoked an outraged reader to accuse me of having a brain that was “0.000000000000000098 percent of [my] shoe size.” Not because my calculations had been wrong, but because I had used a dumbed-down analogy instead of an equation.

  2. Exactly, Cassie, just exactly. I really like (granted, in retrospect)some of the things scientists have said to me.
    But I think you said this better than I did.

    Sally, I can’t even understand what you were trying to explain about aerogels and their little fractal pores. Deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m just not getting this. Why does an aerogel have pores?”

  3. Really, really loved this. Thank you so much for being so honest. I’m going to try to follow suit and embrace Hubble moments more often! (Also, from now on, that’s my name for them. It’s much nicer than Oh-my-God-I’m-so-stupid-but-wow-how-cool-is-that? moments.)

  4. Great post, Cassie. I’m going to put a picture of the Hubble next to my phone to remind me that it’s OK to ask all the “dumb” questions.

  5. Just found your blog, and loved this post!

    I am a scientist (biochemist), working on bacteria for more than 20 years, and I will show your post to all graduate students in our lab. “Hubble moments” are always popping up for EVERYONE, and if students AND professors were a little less afraid/ashamed of them, it would be to their own advantage and self-development.

    Awesome post!

    (I left a link in the website spot, because I happen to be a food blogger too – a scientist must also eat, right? ;-)

  6. And before you answer Ann’s question, Sally, what is an aerogel and how is a carbon one different from any other? I could say, “Wow! They make *carbon* aerogels?”, but that would actually make me sound like I know more than I do.

  7. Thanks for all your lovely comments! Ann, I read your post and then forgot about it until you reminded me. Priceless! For me, astronomy and physics are minefields littered with potential Hubble moments, which is why I do my best to avoid them entirely.

    Sal – I have no idea what carbon aerogel is, but I like the idea of fractal pores. Are they what they sound like they are?

  8. Cassandra, Thank you for an on target insight into human nature and science writing.

    I can’t explain what carbon aerogel is; I would imagine it is a group of substances likely to include Cheeze Wiz.

  9. What everyone else said. But I think the Hubble moments work in reverse too. It’s horrifying for a teacher (whether a college professor or an elementary school teacher) to realize that for the last fifteen minutes nobody in the room has understood a word you were saying because you presumed vocabulary or foundations that weren’t there. You turn around from the chalkboard and see nothing but blank stares or downturned faces. Students have to sit in their seats so teachers do have the opportunity to salvage the situation but if you are not a teacher but a journalist, the students can “leave the room” by quitting their reading. As journalists we have to ask those basic-sounding questions, or our readers will just leave without having learned anything.

  10. I think it’s pretty simple: The half-wits help the less-than-half-wits become fuller-wits by explaining what the full-wits know. And you just might inspire a non-wit to become a full-wit. It could happen.

    It’s like being chased by a bear: You can’t outrun a bear. But you don’t need to outrun the bear. You just need to outrun the friend you’re with.

  11. Thank you so much for this honest post. I am currently a scientist aspiring to be a science writer. My career as a scientist has been riddled with “Hubble moments,” and continues to be full of them to this day. I have always admired people who fearlessly ask questions that I would have been too ashamed to mutter. I’m hoping that as I transition into science writing I’ll be able to shed some of that shame and ask questions… even the dumb ones. While I know I’ll never conquer my nervousness entirely, it really does help to know that other people have those Hubble moments too. Embracing them is the only way to make science accessible to everyone.

  12. I’m grateful that you coined the phase “Hubble moment.” Science journalism needed that term. Thank you Cassie!

  13. Great post. I’d say at least once a week I find myself amazed by something a scientist tells me only to find out that “we’ve known that for 10 years.” I try to remind myself that if I don’t know about it, it’s a pretty good bet that many of my readers don’t either.
    Still it takes courage to admit your knowledge deficiencies. Like the time I had to call up a local geologist and admit that I understood only the first 3 words of the abstract (“We report a”)to his very important paper. He was awesome and gave me a Geology 101 lesson. I’m so grateful he didn’t just hang up on me.
    Thanks for reminding us all that we are advocates for all those people who don’t — and probably think they can’t– understand science.

  14. @Joe… wow, you’re speaking from some non-wit experience, eh? hey Joe, there’s a bear comin’! Tell ya what! I’ll RACE ya. :-)

    I dunno about halfs and fullwits, you know, the kind of thinking which I thought we’d wiped out in 1945. Hey Joe, how about always-wanting-more-wits…. or is that just too dimwitted for you?

  15. I attended a talk by an astronaut who worked on the Hubble in space. He apologized to the group of amateur astronomers in advance that he wasn’t an astronomer. I was cool with that. He knew much more about how to unscrew bolts while wearing freezing cold and hot oven mits then i’ll ever know.

    I think of astronomy as covering any science in the Universe. And i follow astronomy news avidly. I’m sure i’m missing something, though. Maybe dental hygiene. But i did recently hear that you don’t have to floss all of your teeth. Only the ones you want to keep.

  16. I was fortunate enough to get past that “false knowledge syndrome” decades ago. Many is the time others have thanked me for saying “Huh?”

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