Guest Post: Warm Feelings About the Void (A Rebuttal)

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Last week Cassandra Willyard wrote that space bores her, and argued that astronomy writers need to highlight the human drama to hook her and other spacephobes. This is my response.

This essay being one exception that probes the rule, I am a writer who does not get assignments from editors. At best, they ask me to think up something, and then they decide whether they like it enough to want it. But I send those initial emails more often than I receive them: “Just checking in!”

Editors don’t give me assignments not for a shortage of news; they don’t give me assignments because there’s usually no inherent reason for people to care about my subjects, at least not the way there’s an inherent reason for people to care about genomes, or climate change, or earthquakes.*

Beyond our limited self-interest, there are other reasons to ignore space news. It can be hard, both because of pervasive math-phobia and because of its scale and vast remove. It is tenuous and ungraspable, literally by definition. It is unfriendly. The other planets are hellholes, empty but for desolation and death. Galaxies aren’t cute; they don’t spiral around you the way a pangolin might. They don’t make you cough like viruses and bacteria, they don’t change the seasons where you live. They are so far away. So I get it: You don’t have a reason to care.

The good news is you are not obligated to feel awed by any field of science, just as I am not obligated to cry during the Super Bowl or laugh at the Kardashians. I happen to think astronomy — the first science — is the tops, and I’ll happily try to convince you, and in fact that’s what they pay me to do, using the rough tools of pixels and language. It’s often my preference to do this using concepts and history instead of process and anguish, but this doesn’t make me a bad writer or a good writer, it just makes me a different one.

I didn’t cover the mega-breakthrough neutron star merger because I was on vacation (yeah, I missed the biggest news on my beat in years, and no, I don’t want to talk about it). Instead, I wanted to walk through why I think Cassie, and you, should care about it, and about space writ large.

Imagine walking into your kitchen and seeing broken glass on the floor. You have no idea what caused this mess; you know a glass must have shattered, but not how or why. Did it fall, and from which direction? What caused it to topple? Moreover, how did the glass get to where it was before it fell?

You can’t know because you didn’t see it happen, but you can try to surmise. Maybe your cat knocked it over, if you have a cat. Maybe an earthquake sent it wobbling, if you live in a place with earthquakes. Maybe someone in your family threw it. Based on your initial conditions, there are lots of possible answers, and that’s the best you can do.

Now imagine you are in the other room and hear an almighty crash. You turn around in the nick of time, and see your toddler’s hand slowly backing away from the countertop. And then you walk in to find glass strewn everywhere. Ah! Because you heard the crash, you looked, and saw surefire evidence of its cause. You can piece together what happened. The glass had been placed on the counter to dry, and your toddler tried to get it and it slipped from her small fingers. Cause and effect.

This narrative, “multi-messenger” information is essentially the new thing astronomers announced last week. A ripple in spacetime crashed through Earth, causing the planet to shimmy by an almost-infinitesimally small amount. This caused a faint delay in the time it took a laser beam to travel down a long corridor in the LIGO and VIRGO detectors. The time delay was telltale evidence of the shimmy. Astronomers could figure out where the wave came from, roughly, and they looked in its general direction, deep into the universe. At the same time, a space telescope saw a burst of gamma rays, a form of radiation, coming from the same place. Then astronomers found a bright flash that wasn’t there before: A “kilonova,” far brighter and more wrenching than the fantastic star-explosion called a supernova. Thousands of people — 3,566 authors are listed on the primary science paper describing the event — pieced all this together. They realized the gamma-ray burst and the gravitational waves came from colliding neutron stars: ultra-dense burnouts left over from the death throes of giants. The cosmic mashup likely formed a new black hole, and forged gold and platinum. Cause and effect. Now we know how black holes are (probably) born, how gold and platinum are made, how gravitational waves emanate, and what causes previously mysterious, possibly Earth-roasting gamma-ray bursts. Before this discovery, astronomers were just looking at broken glass everywhere and trying to figure out what the hell happened.

The other day, Cassie said she was bored by space, and challenged herself to an experiment: If she forcibly consumed articles about the biggest astronomy news in a decade, would they make her care? This experiment succeeded, in that she realized she cared sometimes, mostly when writers included stories of human drama and excitement. And some of my people, by whom I mean space writers, were very upset.

Several were offended by the exhortation to include human drama, which many of them already do and do well. Others pointed out, rightly, that some audiences who crave space news actually disagree with Cassie, and would rather contemplate the vastness of the cosmos than hear about a guy frantically pedaling his bike on the path to discovery. They felt it was hypocritical for a fellow science writer to distance herself from a field of science, especially in a way that suggested no writer could bridge the gap to her interest, and, by extension, the interest of the Average Reader. Simply put, they were hurt. To explain this last response, I call upon the man who gifted me (and many others like me) a deep and abiding love of space: Carl Sagan. “Not explaining science seems to me perverse,” he wrote in The Demon-Haunted World. “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” It’s painful to hear others say your love is misplaced in something boring.

I was not upset. I think it’s fair to note that not all writers capture the human drama of science, let alone do it well. As an interrogation of Cassie’s own role as a reader, I thought her essay was a useful exercise, and a good reminder to challenge myself to do the same.

As for me, I don’t always need the human-interest angle. The best writers — on time, parasitology, geology, natural history, seismology, etc. — make me *get* it without necessarily relying on human intervention. They make me feel a connection, a sense of longing. I don’t need human drama for that, especially if it’s forced, which, let’s be honest, sometimes it is. Good prose does not always need a character, or some chronologically unfolding lesson, to catch my breath or quicken my pulse. I promise.

Why care about space writ large? Here’s one of my reasons. Time was, as a species we were uniquely obsessed with the sky, because the sky was where our fears and hopes were made manifest. The sun could roast us, and hail could destroy our crops, just as surely as the rains could soften our fields and the winds could push us across the seas. Now that we have Doppler radar and supercomputer forecasts, threats and mercy from above are not so surprising or immediate. We don’t need to look up and hope for protection … and yet. I am not a religious person, but I find a profound sense of connectedness looking out at night. We are on a tiny rock around a humdrum star in a quiet corner of a galaxy. We are one of billions and billions, and we’re all we’ve got.

I firmly believe that one reason people don’t care about space is that we don’t see those other stars. We are too caught up with the glowing rectangles of knowledge and self-doubt that reside in our palms and pockets. At best, we are focused on the moral laws within us, but not the starry skies above us. We can’t see past ourselves. Well, if nothing else, the past year has been one big lesson in the dangers of myopia. An expanded perspective is one especially nice side effect of covering space, so maybe give it a chance.

But you know what? Even despite all this, it’s possible you really, fundamentally just don’t care, no matter how many philosophers I can wink at, no matter how many human foibles I recount, no matter how much I love what I do. I do not take offense. I’ll stay on Team Neutron Star, and you can watch from the sidelines, and we’ll still be friends.

***

* It’s possible this is also because I am not a good writer, but for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that isn’t the case.

Image: Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. A Simonnet/Sonoma State University

 

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Warm Feelings About the Void (A Rebuttal)

  1. It seems we have this innate desire to believe that everyone is like us. If I like the nitty-gritty details of how Mark Watney solved his water problem on mars, why don’t you like it? If I like the human drama behind some discovery, why don’t you?

    But we are diverse, aren’t we. We each learn and retain different things from the same story. I see this in my house where I’m a scientist, my wife is a musician, my daughter is a linguist, and my son is a writer.

    It strikes me that science writers have such a multi-faceted and difficult job. You want to communicate facts, but you also want to communicate wonder and excitement and importance. And in order to reach the largest audience, you have to communicate it in multiple ways to capture the attention of different types of people.

    My hat’s off to you. When I communicate science, I usually do it to other scientists and they’re already a tough crowd. If I want to talk science with my family, I have to use an entirely different approach. It’s fun and challenging and I usually learn about things I don’t really understand but thought I did.

  2. This is my favourite part: “I firmly believe that one reason people don’t care about space is that we don’t see those other stars. We are too caught up with the glowing rectangles of knowledge and self-doubt that reside in our palms and pockets. At best, we are focused on the moral laws within us, but not the starry skies above us. We can’t see past ourselves.” I love looking at the stars at night, because I’m lucky to live away from light pollution. There are many mysteries up there for us to discover.

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