Scientific Pleasures and Guilt

Don’t scientific meanderings propel us to a different universe? Aren’t they pleasant daydreams done on a daybed with eyes grazing the clouds, mind half way to Neptune, fantasizing about space travel, the Future, and humanity’s fate? We won’t hesitate to give it a whole day, yet at the same time nearby are neighbors with a family of four earning few hundred dollars a month.

Being able to make space in my head for illustrious distractions, while pondering about big themes in life, is a luxury. And this inevitably begs the question: what’s the purpose of all these meanderings? Is it simply for self-pleasure and reimaginings? How does this become useful to my surroundings, other than as my own mental escape?

In an On Being live conversation with astronomer Natalie Batalha and blogger Maria Popova, the host Krista Tippett nudged us on the reality of this deep financial and psychological divide that ripples through into the minutes of our lives.

Natalie echoed further:

I’m keenly aware that having space and time for contemplation is luxury. I’m deeply aware of communities that don’t have that space and time, that every day is just survival. [Upon answering the question about contemplation] How do we push that out? How can I use my small influence to maybe help that? What could be my goal? Do I even have the right to do that? What’s my language? And what’s my empathic connection to these communities and knowing in the background that they don’t have the space and time to think about these things.

Maria reminded us too that chance and choice conspire to make us who we are now – that we aren’t just a result of our decisions, but chances that collide into our daily lives. Hence, it is our responsibility “to expand that beyond our chance-bound privilege.

Yet as an Indonesian who lives with pressing question that hinges on diversity and tolerance, thinking about the nature of the universe seems out of place, if not, disrespectful to the time. It’s an excess of time, irrelevant, and not important. Because, yes, at a time when we desperately need to remember and redefine what it means to be an Indonesian, why would you think about science? What’s the role of contemplating beauty, our sense of identity in the universe, and our being?

Which then reminds me of the story of Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer who studies asteroids. At 30, he paused to question whether his curiosity helped humanity at all. Feeling that his curiosity wasn’t integral to solving humans’ problems at, he went as a Peace Corp volunteer to Africa. At one point, he decided to show some African kids his pocket telescope and the worlds you can see through it.

So, I went into the Peace Corps and the people in Kenya said, “You’re an astronomer? Tell us about astronomy! Can we look through your telescope?” They’d look at the rings of Saturn and go, “Wow!” I’m going, “You know, of course they’re going to go ‘Wow!’” Everybody goes, “Wow.” That’s what it means to be human.

Then I remembered this thing the Jesuits had taught me, “You don’t live by bread alone.”

But it goes beyond being captivated with beauty, it’s about seeking a greater identity beyond ourselves and the imaginary lines of racial and national identity because in the midst of all these racial and religious tension, in a desire to protect one identity, we are forgetting our identity as the citizen of the Earth. Looking at stars and imagining about different worlds on the other side of the universe may not solve problems, but it eases the tension in our own social imaginations, which is the narrative we tell ourselves about the world around us.

In this monumental commencement address in 1977, Adrienne Rich reminded students that:

The first thing I want to say to you who are students is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one.

Learning isn’t about memorizations and understanding, but also having presence and the ability to include ourselves in that narrative. Learning about science, too, has turned into a telescopic attempt into uncovering the invisible threads that connect all of us. So is giving minute attention to mundane things in life, from the foods in our plates to the Moon in the sky.

And what about the capital to do it, which is time? America Ferrera reminds us that sometimes at a time of privilege, we forget about the things we don’t have that those who are not a privilege has. One of them is the longstanding cultural traditions and principles that span across generations, if not centuries, that held people together in spirit and in daily conduct. It is here you can find a fertile ground for contemplation. And some cultures, despite lacking in financial comfort that often defines and justify status in modern societies, have an abundant heritage to contemplate on. It’s, in fact, misleading to assume that they are completely deprived of this space.

Perhaps each one of us was given a tool to access this room of contemplation. Some people through scientific inquiries, some through religious inquiries, and others through ceremonies. Together, we weave a narrative that can sustain human spirits even better and longer.

Blog_GuyConsol_NadiaShiraCohen
Guy Consolmagno. Pic by Nadia Shira Cohen

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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