Magic in the Written Word

by Shane L. Larson

I have interesting friends.  Some of my friends are scientists, but most are not.  Some work at Walmart; some manage restaurants; some are mental health professionals; some write comic books; some are nurses; some are theologians; many are teachers.  I’m sure you have interesting friends too.  Everyone has something unique to contribute to the world, and evolves to become an active participating member of their communities and professions.  The result is that our society is a gooey admixture of fascinating people with a diverse spectrum of jobs and professions.

But what do you know about all those other jobs that make your community tick?  What does the county assessor do every day?  How about the person who works in building 6 at the sewage processing plant?  How did that person running the D-8 Cat learn to grade the large parking lot to the right angle so water drains off of it?  What does the night shift manager at Taco Bell do all night?  What does a nurse do besides derive unending glee from sticking trypanophobics with needles?

There are all kinds of things you have to learn to do your job, things the rest of us probably have never thought of, never considered, never known.  Our jobs, and by extension our everyday lives, are much more than the cartoon pictures about jobs that you see in elementary school, more engaging than the portrayals in the glossy brochures handed out by career guidance counselors.  But here is the really interesting question: what are the things about your profession that the rest of us should know?  What should I know about everything you do every day?

This question was seeded by a recent Facebook exchange of knowledge with an old high school friend of mine.  She is currently a  professional counselor in Colorado, and had posted something to her Facebook stream about the princess phase in young girls.  By chance, she mentioned the works of Bob Kegan, a professor and developmental psychologist at Harvard. I was familiar with Kegan’s work through his book Immunity to Change, which details research in how your brain protects itself from new ideas.  During our discussion, my friend rattled off several other authors who I had not heard of.  But never-the-less, we had one point in contact, and it got me thinking about the interconnectedness of the modern world, and what each of us should know about everyone else’s profession.

By this point in most of our lives, we are out of school.  You may go back to school at some point and learn a new profession, but by and large many of us are on our professional paths.  The idea of sitting in classes again, of taking TESTS again, is an anathema!  My late graduate advisor once told me that having your PhD is simply the acknowledgement that you can teach yourself anything.  In reality, it doesn’t require a PhD at all.  Anyone can teach themselves anything, so long as they have access to the knowledge they need.  Today, the uniform distributor of all knowledge is the internet, but as most of us know the information one can find in online searches or at online encyclopedias is not always pedagogical and is always subject to suspicion with regards to its veracity!  But there does exist a medium for knowledge transfer that is somewhat more reliable, a special kind of magic that is, as far as we know, unique to humans: books.  Books are a miraculous invention whereby knowledge can be stored outside the confines of the synaptic networks of our brains and transferred to someone else.  They capture the art, the emotion, the passion and the collective wisdom of our species, all in the printed word.

The power of books is well known, and widely commented on in our culture and our art.  In the 1998 novel Eternity Road, Jack McDevitt tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic future where written books have been lost to our civilization, but a chance discovery of a single book triggers a long cross-country trek to uncover knowledge from ages past.  In his 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury tells the tale of a dystopian future where visual media rules and books are banned and burned, and how the consciousness of the Fireman, Montag, is freed by the rediscovery of the power of books.  The power of books even pervades movies (which are either “awesome” or “awesomely bad” depending on your perceptions and ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy yourself).  For instance, in the 2010 post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, the petty warlord Carnegie seeks to find a long lost book to use as a weapon, because people will believe what is written in that book.  In the end we discover the book is a King James Bible, which is safely recovered by an enclave of scholars who dutifully transcribe, reprint and archive the book next to other written religious works as part of an ongoing effort to capture the history and wisdom of the world that was lost.  In Roland Emmerich’s opus, 2012, the cataclysmic evolution of the planet drives a handful of survivors onto massive arks built in secret by the Chinese.  Quite by accident, one of the embarkees carries on board a copy of Farewell Atlantis, a little known, little read novel by the story’s protagonist, inadvertently adding it to the small fraction of printed works that seed the library of the future.

So what knowledge of professions is captured in books?  There are famous books by famous people about their careers: Conrad Hilton’s Be My Guest, Howard Schultz’s Onward, and Brian Shul’s Sled Driver. There must be many such books that capture the essential elements of a profession or life.  Captured in the dulcet art of modern print media, the wisdom, wonder and adventure of a life that wasn’t yours.  All of us resonate differently with different books.  What we internalize has the power to inspire us and change the way we approach our own jobs and careers.  The methods and knowledge of other fields can expand your consciousness, allowing you to develop new and innovative ideas about your own worldly endeavours.

Bearing this in mind then, what three books do you think everyone should read about your profession?  What has been written by you and your colleagues that can expand the perspective of the rest of the world?  Imagine recommending four books.  If you had to pick three books that everyone should read about your profession, what should they be?  If you had to pick one book (any book) to survive the end of Civilization As We Know It, what would it be?

I am a practicing physicist, a professor at an American research university.  I work in astrophysics and gravity, I mentor students who will someday become scientists themselves, and I teach, both formally and informally.  I proselytize about the wonder of science, about its necessity in modern life, and endeavour to encourage science literacy among everyone.  If I picked three books that I wish everyone would read about my profession, they would be:

1. COSMOS, by Carl Sagan.  Carl was an expert in something that modern scientists seemed to have forgotten: that everyone needs to understand science, that everyone can understand science, and that scientists must participate in reaching out to our non-scientist friends and colleagues.  Cosmos eloquently and lyrically captures the interconnectedness of modern science, exploring how our species has come to a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe.  It is one of the most formative books of my scientific and teaching career.

2. SEEING IN THE DARK, by Timothy Ferris. Astronomy captures the imagination in ways that other human endeavours seldom do. Standing in our backyards beneath the majesty of the stars, our minds comprehend that we are facing the grandest of mysteries, the tale of everything that is.  Astronomy is the one science that is still practiced by amateurs.  Ferris masterfully tells the story of spending long nights at the telescope with ordinary people like you and me, woven together with explanations of what modern science has discovered about the deep reaches of the distant Universe.  As an amateur astronomer and a professional astrophysicist, this book captures both sides of my soul.

3. THE CHARACTER OF PHYSICAL LAW, by Richard Feynman.  Feynman was an eminent scholar, and a renowned lecturer.  In 1964, he gave a series of seven lectures at Cornell University as part of the “Messenger Lectures.”  The purpose of the Messenger Lecture series is “to provide a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business and social life.”  Feynman delivered seven lectures about the nature of science — the nature of scientific laws, and how scientific knowledge grows, evolves, and adapts in the face of new experiments and new discoveries.  Those lectures have been captured in this book, arguably one of the most celebrated works of modern scientific writing.

And lastly, if civilization were to collapse tomorrow, a book I think should be saved for future generations is

4. I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF, by Bill Bryson.  This book was written by Bryson when he returned to America after living abroad for two decades.  Outlined in short vignettes of reintegrating to American life, the book is funny, heartwarming, and scary all at the same time.  I think it appropriately captures the absurdity of modern life, something scholars of the future will need to understand about why we are the way we are.

My challenge to you is to produce a similar list of four books.  Post them here in the comments at <writescience.wordpress.com> or in my Facebook feed under the link to this article.  See what everyone else recommends.  Then, go out and read.  Expand your consciousness, and change the world.

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One response to “Magic in the Written Word

  1. John C. Armstrong

    Still thinking about this…

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