Author Archives: Adam Johnston

Pipelines: Why metaphors matter

by Adam Johnston

In all of my meetings and conversations with him, my dean — the head administrator of the College of Science in which I am gainfully employed — is fond of talking about the “STEM pipeline.” Let me be immediately clear on one point: I can’t fault him for this, nor is he alone, nor is this necessarily a deliberately wrong, bad, malicious, or erroneous phrasing. It’s the collective and addictive word choice of our field, and the verbiage is particularly prevalent with those who have to converse on a national stage. (I’d go so far as to say that the higher up you are on an org chart in my business of science education, or the closer you are to the center of some government agency, the more likely you are to evoke the phrase.) Take a moment to google the term, and you’ll find an array of legitimate and even passionate webpages and citations.

And yet, any time I hear the phrase, “STEM pipeline,” I wince. Not just internally, mind you. My reaction has become physical. While I’m readily admitting that I could be alone in this reaction, I’m also telling you that my loathing is real.

“STEM” is the acronym (pronounced just like it looks) for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” There are stories about why it’s “STEM” now instead of “METS,” and there are those who could add medicine to make it “STEMM” and maintain the current pronunciation, or include arts of various form and create “STEAM”. Other iterations and stories exist as well, but the central storyline is that the acronym represents scientific fields, applied and pure, of various persuasions, especially in the context of our educational system.

Simply as an acronym, STEM doesn’t move my soul, but it doesn’t give me any ulcers, either. It’s the equivalent of folks in the South referring to a group as “y’all” in order to address them all at once, and with commonalities presumed. It’s efficient, bordering on charming.

It’s the “pipeline” piece that creases my brow. If we are to have STEM professionals in the adult world, then there needs to be some kind of preparation for them. Insert, somewhere in here, a literature review for a doctoral dissertation in science education to describe this process, its shortcomings, and what we might propose to do about it. Somewhere there is the output of these science professionals, and somewhere back in time there are those same individuals as children. The question of “How do we get more qualified STEM professionals” is echoed as “How do we get more kids to fit into the other side of the tube?” And, “How do we get them to stay in there until they get to the other side?” The vision of the pipeline is one in which we make that proverbial tube both wide and long enough, create the right amount of pressure, and assure ourselves that there is as little possibility of leaking as possible. This is where I have my problem.

I have a really clear image of pipes. My dad, himself an engineer, always admired culverts as we drove on logging roads when I was a kid. A good culvert preserves a dirt road by maintaining a flow of water from one side to the other. It keeps things clean and orderly, prevents erosion and keeps the status quo of the road in tact. Other pipes twist and turn under the ground and by the miracle of fluid dynamics displace water from one place to another. We make sure that the pipe is clear of debris and the joints are sealed, and everything works out. We don’t even have to see what’s happening inside those pipes.

Pipes are what we use to drain wastewater or to transport petroleum. Pipes are the rudimentary and passive pathways that get fluids from point A to point B. With the right engineering and cross sectional area, pipes move seawater, sludge, or sewage. The thing is, the pipe and the fluid don’t really do anything. Water, or whatever else you put in a properly designed pipe, is practically predetermined to come out on the other end. Pipes are wonderful at getting out what you put in.

That’s exactly the problem with the pipeline metaphor. On the reality side of the analogy, we’re dealing with people, my children included. True, I could lighten up; it’s a metaphor. Nothing really is “just like riding a bicycle” or “like falling off a log.” We still know what we mean by these phrases in the common vernacular. But I don’t think we really know what we’re talking about with our “pipeline” metaphor, and we may even be deluding ourselves. The problem with our plumbing is not that it has leaks, but because it may be just too passive. On one end of the pipeline there are children, and on the other end we’re imagining scientists. This is no simple work of fluid dynamics. Instead of putting pressure on one side and looking for the drips that come out on the other, we should take out the pipe entirely. We should think of something in which we’re not simply thinking about what the static transport system looks like in its completed form. Instead, we should think not just about the ends of this transport, but about the in-betweens. Moreover, we need to imagine that 13-year-old outside of our constrained pipe. We all know they’re looking around and roaming about. They are living and breathing, and even more important, they are changing right before our eyes.

A child doesn’t just move through our system, but grows in it. Children and young adults need to get out of a pipeline, find a different lane, try on a new hat. Let them spill out and interact with more than some predetermined track. Maybe they need to be on a train, deliberately getting on board, finding new destinations and opportunities at each intersection and transfer to a new route. Maybe we should build a trail system. Perhaps there should be a guided tour. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, I think that we need to re-envision our track to STEM so that it fosters students’ understanding not just within the path, but allows students to jump in and out of it. Let them leak, so to speak, and foster new talents that we don’t stereotypically imagine for our future STEM professionals. We would do well to look for STEM talent beyond our traditional pipeline. We should have a system that doesn’t feel as if it has to prevent leaks, but instead is motivating enough that it draws people into the natural flow.

Perhaps, in the spirit of the STEM acronym itself, an appropriate metaphor could be a garden. Rather than push particles through, efficiently but passively, we could think of our next generation of STEM professionals and citizens to have been grown. After all, the people in the pipeline we keep talking about are, in all ways, growing. We could do well to recognize this and, rather than constraining growth of a child and hoping that they make it through, provide rich soil, devoted gardeners, and the right amount of water. Most of all, we need to pay attention to more than just the boundary conditions on each end of the pipe. We need to value the dynamic person and all the potential changes, experiments, and curiosities they could develop. We just need to make sure they have the room to do so, and we need to provide them with the support to do this to their greatest potential.

“hard” science

I’m confused and at least a little troubled.

My job is, on the whole, wonderful. In fact, with the exception of when I need to do some accounting, I’m willing to bet that I have one of the best careers imaginable. I get to teach science, as well as work closely with science teachers, research science learning, and just generally promote science education. On the whole, you can imagine that I really like science and teaching, and on any given day they battle for first place in my list of favorite things — with the exception of my family, my dog, and some close friends.

So, you can imagine that I enjoy reading about how we can better promote science and science education with students and the public at large. I wave the Tuesday science insert of the New York Times at my students, rave about work my colleagues are engaged in, and I make them wrestle with their own difficult problems. (Yesterday, for example, we measured a molecule with some cork dust and a ruler.) I subscribe to a variety of posts and feeds along these lines, so it was natural to be referred to this Adam Frank blog piece by NPR as well as several friends. I was intrigued by the title and what scrolled beneath:

I’ve engaged with pieces of this general argument before. It goes something like this: We lose a lot of potential science and engineering majors in their first few years of programs because science is hard, and often we do a poor job of really engaging students in authentic ways. As a result, many of these students get seduced by other fields along the way. It could be that science coursework is too hard or poorly instructed. Or, as this particular argument goes, it could be that science should be hard and we should be getting students to celebrate this. Frank puts it this way:

I let them know they are engaged in a sacred task that connects them to millennia of human effort encoded in their genes. If they can fight their way to the truth, the truth will make them free, just as it did for me …

To a large extent, I’ll cheer on the idea that science and scientific fields are hard, intensive, difficult, exhausting, and the like, as well as being rewarding and emancipating. Science does fight its way towards truth, and yes, science is hard, and it should be. After all, a scientist is trying to figure out details of nature that she can’t directly see. Nature doesn’t give us the answers straight out, but rather gives us just enough hints for us to stay hot on the trail, turning around every once in a while when it goes cold and we’ve realized we made a wrong turn. And, I prefer my neurosurgeons and rocket launchers to have some patience, persistence, and scientific pedigree. We should earn our stripes before we cut into another human being or pull at the loose ends of all the knowledge that’s been knit together already.

However, it is easy to take this too far, and I’m given pause when I read a piece like Frank’s. I deplore the argument of “science is hard” as a way to suggest that other fields are easier. If you’d like hard, try writing. If you want really hard, go into education. Physics, in contrast, is a cake walk. I don’t think this is what authors of these arguments mean to say, necessarily. It’s important, however, to make it clear that we aren’t drawing a line between some elite studies and the others. Implicitly doing so may actually be part of our problem.

But this isn’t the main issue I have with this “hard” science argument. I suppose the primary source of this little writing fit has to do with where we point our fingers when we’re making this argument. Implicitly, if we say that “science is hard and students should celebrate this,” we’re putting the burden of our scientific literacy failings on our students. We, the scientists, are further alienating students who are already scratching their heads at us — even if for the wrong reasons. We need to start pointing the finger the other direction. We need to be sure that we’re taking responsibility for our students’ attitudes towards science. No one else will.

The project, “This is what a Scientist Looks Like,” is one example of this kind of effort. It’s a small drop in the bucket, but it’s at least aiming at having scientists contribute to something to help personify and endorse their discipline as something that is human and inviting. Scientists are doing some hard things, as well as some whimsical and fun and serious and even really hard (and still harder!) things. The basic message is that “you” can be a scientist, because just look at all of the examples of those who already are — surely there’s lots of room for a lot of diverse folks, white males, black females, bike riding astrobiologists, and green haired botanists.

It strikes me, though, that projects like this one tend to emphasize the people that these scientists are, rather than the science they’re doing. This isn’t a critique, because it’s all important. But we should also be paying attention to how we’re encouraging scientific disciplines and the work that scientists do. In that “science is hard” argument, the statement generally gets made that “science is power,” or something along these lines. And, yes, this is true, in so many important ways. Yet this is what falls so very very short for me. This power argument is only motivating to those who have a sense of power already. What about those who are just striving for some kind of equality? What about holistic enlightenment? What about a voice? I think in the “science is power” statement we’re unwittingly speaking to ourselves rather than to the diverse sets of others out there. And we wonder why it’s a bunch of competitive white guys from upper-middle class families in our science classes. Because they’re smarter? No. Because they’d make better doctors? Absolutely not. Because we market science to them with statements like “science is hard”? Perhaps. We need to be careful, at least.

All I ask is that we think carefully about our promotion of science. Don’t water it down; don’t make it something less than what it is; don’t diminish its power or enlightenment or thrill of discovery. At the same time, make sure we’re touting it as more than any of these things. Science is for all. It is, like art, music, and democracy, one thing that distinguishes us as humans, for the better. Let’s make sure that we’re inviting, with wide open doors, more than just the choir of scientists already in. We not only need more scientific thinkers, we need a more diverse pool of them. We need to continue to find ways to make this scientific invitation explicitly open and welcoming to all.

September’s prompt: “headlines”

This is it!  A new academic year, and a new series of prompts.  Let’s begin this month with “headlines.”  This is derived out of Shane’s demonstration of writing an efficient piece that would work as a newspaper article.  So, while there are no rules, I think we should score extra points for general readability and low word count, say 500-750 words.  Pick a headline or topic and see how to really make it meaningful.  Double extra bonus points for those who can make it especially engaging, although I think this is a given goal for this group.

not everyone grows up to be an astronaut

by Adam Johnston

As the space shuttle Atlantis landed a few days ago, it marked the completion of the final mission of the program. Depending on how you think and what you read, this is either a sure sign of the collapse of America, or the best innovation that NASA has made since its inception. Being me, I’m somewhere in the conflicted middle. Further spurning my conflict are headlines like this one from NPR:

“A child born today will never see an American space shuttle blast off from the Kennedy Space Center.” (

A child born today will not see a lot of things, including Golden Grizzlies in California (the state’s mascot, in spite of its extinction so long ago we no longer realize it is something to be missed), a rotary telephone, or an old-fashioned merry-go-round on a gravel playground. I’ll lament all of these losses, but I didn’t know how to think about the end of the space shuttle program until marking this moment of extinction. It gave me a chance to look back and realize that I was especially aware of the shuttle program from beginning to end. When I was a second grader, I remember that the cover of my school’s yearbook featured an image something like this one:


The image I remember was probably of Columbia, marking the inaugural flight of the NASA program. I don’t remember which image it was exactly, but surely it’s the only cover of any yearbook that I have any memory of. I suppose this is because the shuttle and this program captured my imagination; it was the new mode for space travel, and it was just close enough to my image of an X-wing fighter that I embraced its image and its mission — even if I didn’t really understand what it was for.

As I’ve grown older, a bit more insightful if not more mature, I’ve witnessed the program’s celebrations (Hubble Space Telescope’s initiation and subsequent repair) and disasters (I know exactly where I was when the Challenger disaster occurred, and it was the subject of a high school research paper I can still picture the font and spacing of). So, when I think of the NPR headline and the potential impact that the space shuttle program has had on me, I wonder if the end of this chapter in human exploration is also a stab in the heart of science education. What enduring image will today’s second grader have on her yearbook? Perhaps it will be one of a lonely janitor sweeping up the last remaining dustballs of an empty hangar at Cape Canaveral.

But, there are many more images than those of moon landings, shuttle launches, or even Hubble Space Telescope images. There are french fries:


This graphic represented October, I think, on a wall calendar of mine a few years ago. In spite of the fact that it flew in the face of my attitude that science is for everyone and all people have capacity to succeed, it tickled the cynic in me. To make the image that much more indelible, I once had the interaction with a student from someone else’s class when he’d come looking for some help with his physics homework. Sitting down, we stared at a problem that he’d clearly misunderstood and I started to diagnose and prescribe new routes. Without any obvious prompt other than his own frustration, he turned his head and stared up at this image on my wall. His face twisted and his brow wrinkled, and then admitted, “I don’t get it.” I tried to explain, and yet it seemed clear that the author of the image had this very student in mind when the caption was inked.

I giggle when I tell this story, but really it was just an unfortunate intersection of a frustrated physics student with an overly satirical message. I took the photo down later, and replaced it with another that represented university committee work. I had a wide range to choose from.

Here’s where all this leaves me: The imagery of the space shuttle versus the despair associated with asking “do you want fries with that?” is a false choice. There are lots of options in between — my own career path being one of them. In fact, maybe NASA, space shuttles, astronauts, and all that we associate with these things all represent the opposite of what we should be trying to promote to our public, especially our youth. Currently, the options might be presented as “you could be an astronaut,” but without any fallback or intermediate. When was the last time that we created a poster that stated “not everyone gets to be a geologist when he grows up?” Why is a research scientist who tries to understand the scale of nature at the microscopic cellular level not admired as much as those we launch only so far into space that we can still see them — with an unaided eye — when they’re in orbit? Why didn’t any of my yearbook covers have an image of a particle accelerator, a newly discovered arthropod, or a map of the Martian surface? Why had I never even heard of the possibility of medical physics until I was looking into graduate schools?

I think it may be that we don’t know how to represent science, either as a personal endeavor or as a professional pursuit. You can be an astronaut or you can serve fries, we seem to say. So, maybe, just maybe, if we take advantage of this new opportunity, we can push other science to center stage. Not everyone gets to be an astronaut, and that’s a good thing. There is much more to science than jet propulsion and a manifest destiny kind of attitude towards staking claims, a canine-esque marking of our territory. There are so many other extraordinary existences we all have the potential to create for ourselves — especially those which create new understandings that can be shared with all others among us. We should celebrate and promote these.


The theme for April is “water,” courtesy of Stacy.

Personally, I’m still working on my March post. Where did the days go?

writing prompt: memory

I almost forgot to post this: Our prompt from Shane for March 2011 is “memory”.

science as “fun”

by Adam Johnston

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about how I got to where I am in my career, and in particular why I pursued science. I’ve taken advantage of those moments as a way to amass a variety of answers. It’s funny, though, because the question gets asked in lots of different ways. There’s “why are you a scientist?” and “how did you become a scientist?” and “what inspired you to go into science?” These are all different questions, and they all have different answers. I wish I could answer even one of them.

When I was on the radio a couple weeks ago (yes, I enjoy saying that) I was asked about the personal appeal for science. I talked about it being “fun.” Later, I tried to clarify this a bit. You could call it fun, or whimsy, or curiosity, or intrigue — any of these things and many others would do, even though none of them are adequate. It’s as adequate and satisfying as saying “love feels good”. When I said “fun” I didn’t mean it in the playing video games kind of fun. I meant fun like improvising on the piano and hiking a mountain, maybe at the same time. I meant “fun” like the part of me that feels a little more humble and a little more aware than other primates. I meant “fun” in the way you say it when you realize it isn’t adequate, but at the same time you have an awareness of the inadequacy of a word, the inadequacy of your own understanding of something that’s bigger than you, but the desire to get it right, to get it figured out.

In short, I meant “fun” in the sense that it is a part of what makes me human. It’s what inspires me and justifies to me the act of bringing science to children. They should own science like they own their own humanity. On that same radio show, the other discussant talked about science being about “power”. That bothered me at the time, and it still pricks me. Not to be antagonistic, but I think it’s completely the opposite. Yes, I know that he probably meant “power” in an intellectual way. To understand something is to feel a control and awareness of your place within nature. But even that I don’t think I really buy. I understand a little more about the space within me and without me, and I’m humbled. I’m shocked that we have capacity for this stuff, the understandings, and the consciousness of what we’re doing in science. We pick up pebbles, turn them over, one by one. None of the pebbles say anything in particular, but together, the pebbles and us and the rest of it, we make something out of it. That isn’t power; it’s sublimity.

There are plenty of moments, days, and weeks that I wander around wondering if I really am a scientist.  I think I am. Sometimes I joke that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t get a job, although I’m not always sure whether or not I’m joking. There are days I’m fairly certain that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t make it as a rock star.  Or maybe I’m not a rock star because I had the opportunity to be a scientist. That was a gift I didn’t know I’d been given until much later.

I remember wanting to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer (or a scientist) is. And then I remember a switch that flipped during a physics class taught by Herschel Snodgrass.  (Yes, that really was his name.)  He did the demo where the ball launched, aimed directly up, from a moving cart, and yet it still landed in the cart, jumping over a miniature bridge in the process.  I can’t say for sure that this was the moment exactly that I became a scientist, but it’s one that I refer to.  That demo, maybe more than anything, flipped the switch and cleared up the distinction between being a scientist and an engineer.  The engineer would be building that bridge in the demo and be satisfied with it in its stability and structure.  The scientist gets to wonder things like, “What rule determines the motion of that ball?”  “What is inertia and from where does it come?” and “Holy Jesus!?!”  And we stew in that.  

I still do that demo for most every class I teach, and I tell them about that moment and the switch, and I tell them that, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen and a little bit about why and how it connects to so many other rules, it still gets me, sticks a pin in some sensitive inside part of me that loves, is in love, with that beauty.  Not the beauty of an angel or a rainbow or a unicorn, but the simple up and down of that ball that keeps perfect pace with the cart.  How did the ball know how to do that without the ability to know anything? I still don’t know. I still see that ball, up, over, down, back in the cart… I still wonder. I’m in awe. And that, I suppose, is what I meant when I said it was “fun”.


by Adam Johnston

When I hear “sustainability” and its root, I think of the sustain pedal on my piano; I think of sustenance; and, especially lately, I think about and worry about the sustaining of programs and people.  I consider what I can sustain on a few hours of sleep. But it’s not really about me, or even a program, no matter how big and important. I know this is really about a bigger sustainability, sustaining, sustenance.

Lately I’ve been wrecking our sustainability by driving an extra car instead of riding the bus or my bike.  I’ve wondered if I could, maybe just to alleviate my guilt, save the world by driving my girls to dance lessons. If I drive them to dance or violin, will they learn something that will make up for the refined fossil that I’ve just exhausted into the air they’re breathing. It’s a good question. I justify it. If they learn dance they’ll learn spatial skills and have a better understanding of calculus later. Maybe. If they learn violin they’ll learn patience and have a better sense of perseverance in graduate school. Perhaps. Or maybe they’ll just learn movement and music. Those are the hard questions, the ones that don’t have the coveted analytic solution.

There are easier problems. Call it the first law of thermodynamics or conservation of energy, but either way it’s the rule I think that determines our existence, actions, and limits more than any other natural law. With this, you can figure out exactly how fast you could possibly go when skiing down a mountain, and exactly how much gasoline I’ll use to pick up a daughter from any given class or lesson. In some ways, it reduces physics to accounting, but that’s not the image I like to portray too much. It’s accounting with sex appeal, because it’s more than just numbers on a page. It’s actions and potentials for action, and even if they’re hiding in a gallon of gasoline or in the nucleus of an atom, nature is keeping track, effortlessly and elegantly.

This first law of thermodynamics gives me hope. It is, in its very essence, sustainability writ large. It is the big constant of the universe, and with it a certain consciousness in an unconscious system. You know that if your planet starts orbiting faster or your star starts burning brighter that something else is making up for it. Everything is paid in full, and all the exchanges are equal and fair. Best of all, you can exchange energy back and forth without penalty. There’s no stockbroker fee or shipping charges.

But there is a catch. I’ll come back to that in a second. Let me interject one other point first. While I liken nature to this meta-accountant of energy, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that it’s all just a giant ledger or some kind. Galileo’s notion that “mathematics is the language of nature” is nowhere more true, and best of all it’s mostly just simple addition and subtraction. In fact, the concept of energy and energy conservation was first thought up in order to better keep track of natural systems — an invention to help us predict what might happen next. Energy wasn’t an empirical thing, but a construction of quantities that just happened to be conserved in all exchanges. It made the physics easier. Ask any physics student about how much easier the problems get once they’re in chapter 5, where conservation of energy is introduced, and they’ll suddenly have a look of relief. Using this made up system is a great gimmick that gives them a tool to solve problems. It was all invented purely for this purpose.

So, imagine our surprise when it turned out to be a real thing. This struck me particularly hard somewhere around the third year of teaching College Physics. It’s subtle. Somehow I had found myself going full circle, from thinking that energy was real “stuff,” like the caloric of old, to thinking it was just accounting, and back again to thinking it was not “real” stuff but some other something. It was the mathematics that swayed and seduced me, showing me that energy exists in these “fields”. And, too, it’s in mass. Still, everywhere accounted for and, yes, sustained.

Right, but there was that one caveat, the “catch” I was suggesting earlier. That’s the second law of thermodynamics.

If I were to step outside and not be a fully objective scientist (and let’s not kid ourselves — I’ve yet to meet someone who really is all the time) I would be upset, angry, and simply pissed at the second law. Why? Because, first of all, it doesn’t give me, nor even allow for me, everything I want. And second, it’s inelegant. It’s a pain-in-the-ass piece of physics that simply derives from stupid statistics. In class, I try to derive and explain and animate the second law in a variety of ways, but it boils down to the idea that there are far more ways for systems, including the universe in its entirety, to be disorderly than orderly. That is, energy is much more likely to get spread out than it is to get hoarded into useful corners, shelves, or even habitable planets. And that means that, while energy is conserved, we can’t keep it. Your ice cream sundae will still have all its molecules in place, but it’s going to melt. Mountains erode. Gasoline becomes exhaust. The energy is still there, but it mostly, eventually, just contributes to a slightly higher temperature of deep space.

So my driving to dance and violin lessons had better be worth it.

It would be nice to end here with some rebounding lesson, some metaphor from nature that I can apply to life. It’s not there, though. Yes, everything is sustained, and at the same time everything erodes. We could, and should, slow this down. I’ll appreciate this, as my daughters, I hope, will dance and play in a world that might still be livable.

grant us peace

by Adam Johnston

It was with the Vienna Boys Choir that I first sang Dona Nobis PacemGrant Us Peace.

Okay, I was never really a member, but I did sing with the Vienna Boys Choir. We were in the same concert hall and we were directed to sing at the same time. It just so happened that I was shoulder to shoulder with the boys of my own elementary school choir, and the Austrians were on the stage. We sang together, as directed, and it was beautiful. It was a big deal at the time. It didn’t create world peace, obviously, but it didn’t hurt, either.

I’ve been thinking about that canon lately. At Christmas, especially, I find myself poking it out of the keys of the piano, the pedal heavy on sustain. The tune, the progression of the chords, the simplicity of the sequences of notes, it all draws me.

Music is one of those things I try to teach in classes. “The Music of Physics,” I call it, rather than the converse, not simply to be witty but to make that point that what we study can be both about the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty. That’s a heavy load to bear, but one I think we regularly try to carry in physics class.

The physics of “good” music is a tricky thing. We would like to believe and even teach that the beauty of the music comes from the relationships between the frequencies. An octave is defined by a factor of two in frequency between two notes. Thirds, fourths, fifths, and all other intervals you hear in chords and scales are each defined by factors, so that each major key may be made up of distinct notes, but the same proportions from one note to the next. When played together, the difference between any two notes becomes another unique “beat frequency.” So, for example, the difference between two notes separated by an octave is the same as the lower note (delta = y-x where y=2x, so delta = 2x-x=x). We think of an octave’s difference as really being the same note simply shifted up or down — so the baritones can sing in unison with the sopranos. On a piano keyboard this just shows up as a different place on the array of keys, but the same note within the pattern of repeating white and black. This is wonderful consequence of this geometry.

What’s really splendid is that this doesn’t have to be. It’s amazing, come to think of it, that this could work at all. Why would two notes with completely different frequencies, ever have any chance to be the “same,” or in “tune” with one another? I suppose the brain hears each note, and hears the difference between these notes, forms the beats in some physiological and mental way. Hearing two notes an octave apart, there’s a pattern that’s detected that creates that beat frequency that’s exactly equal to the base, bass note. Other differences between notes (as well as differences between harmonics heard on a singular note of a singular instrument) that sound good together are created by similar geometry. The difference in frequencies is itself a frequency that is in phase with the notes themselves.

That’s one thing I think about when I’m playing Dona Nobis Pacem on the piano. This chord progression is almost the least complicated one can imagine. A garage band of 17-year-olds could be cranking away on the three chords and we’d scoff or grin at the simplicity of it. And, because the three lines can be sung in unison or in round, they are each modeled after the same pattern. (Pull out your dusty guitar and strum G-D-G-D-C-G-D-G; repeat two more times and you can accompany my colleagues from Vienna.) It’s all so fulfilling that we go to the trouble to re-create it in contraptions like tubas and cellos and pianos. Considering all the design work put into the inner workings of my piano, I realize that these simple patterns are something we are driven to re-create. Not only are the patterns there in nature, but we’re hard-wired and compelled to construct them over and over.

So, I think understand how the difference between two notes produces a beat that itself is in tune with either of the notes; and this geometry of the physics of the music makes it pleasant, interesting, coherent. And then we play with patterns in this, both in the sequences in time as well as the audial space. In class, during that “music of physics” unit, I teach this with a tuning fork, a keyboard, a microphone, and an oscilloscope. I swing a tube over my head to play a series of harmonics that emulates “Taps” and they all laugh at my cleverness, or silliness — or perhaps out of sympathy for the bizarre instructor. I can get an organ tube to resonate with a piece of wire mesh and a blowtorch; and this phenomenon can be used to calculate the temperature of the room. I know where to stroke a violin bow on a piece of aluminum in order to play that octave’s difference, and we can see the standing wave set up by sprinkling some corn meal on the surface of the metal. I’m delighted with how much we can understand, as well as what we can do with it.

But then I throw my hands up and turn up the music. I’ve been known to tear up when, for example, Brandi Carlile sings Hallelujah. When Clapton has his hands on a guitar I understand why anyone called him God, and I believe. When Bach is played on a church organ I forgive him for all the pieces I had to learn in his name (though I still curse him, the asshole, when my fingers return to those pieces). Or when I find the right notes for peace, for prayer, on a piano. My left hand finds a way to march up a scale and meet my right hand in the middle, and I think, maybe, this is what I was meant to learn from it all. The physics of the harmonics and the physicality of sound is all beautiful, but it’s only as beautiful as we choose to make it. Dona Nobis Pacem. It’s stunning, and maybe my own version and belief in a miracle, that such a sentiment can come out of three chords. Grant us peace.

whimsical design

by Adam Johnston

I believe that any man who has looked at himself, naked, in a full length mirror, can’t believe in “intelligent design.” Intelligent design is creationism with a new jacket and a shiny pair of shoes. The notion I don’t have problems with necessarily, although I fight it in public spheres and in preparing teachers. When it gets infused into discussions of science, the premise is no longer merited. Science unravels the Natural world, so seeing into the mind of the Supernatural is out of bounds. Moreover, you shouldn’t insult your god by suggesting that we can.

But there’s more to it than just the philosophical, epistemological basis of science versus non-science. There’s the naked man standing in the mirror. Because, that is one of the funniest things we should ever have to face, eye to eye, man to man — symmetrical yet baggy, hairy but not furry, upright but hunched as though there’s an evolutionary memory of some ancestor without the opposable thumbs. And we’re not alone in our absurdity. There’s the platypus, volcanic pumice, the banana slug, music, lava tubes, brine shrimp, sandstone arches, sea cucumbers, hail, tides, viruses, pi, gray whales, and love. It’s all ridiculously improbable, and if you try to convince me that there’s intelligence, planning, or logic behind any of this I scoff. Again, I’m not sure I’d want to insult the intelligent of whatever deity you’d subscribe to.

Last week in my class, a science teaching preparatory course, one of my biology students brought up the fact that, of all the cells actually inside the human body, perhaps a tenth of them are human cells. The rest, the vast majority, the ruling party who could surely outvote the rest of my body in any kind of democratic decision, are microbial. We are mostly bacteria. They’re helping us, and us them, though mostly I think we just make the best of it. We’re a convenient hull in which they have a constant temperature, and they don’t kill us immediately. What kind of a crazy idea is this? Surely, if you really wanted to design something, especially something as “highly” evolved as the human, you could imagine something much more independent, less reliant and hospitable to foreigners.*

I think about places I love like Arches National Park, and a jaunt into Fiery Furnace in particular, and I’m fascinated and moved. Red stone walls give way to slots that we navigate in single file. Rock formations like “Surprise Arch” and “Kissing Turtles” emerge out of quiet, seeping water, and geologic time. The arid desert and sterile cracks give way to a slot where water collects to host a garden of poison ivy, surprising the visitor who was only wary of rattlesnakes, sheer drop offs, and heat stroke. There’s the immensity of the stone, sharply contrasted with the ridiculousness of individual grains of sand, responsible for the staggeringly slow pace of the grain by grain drip by drip process of it all. It creates something that is not only explained by a story but pours out the subjects and imagery of the theater. From kissing turtles to craggy juniper to sheer red walls reaching up into blue space, it all seems to smile back at me. It’s as though it were all there just waiting for it to be seen.

To me, all this is waiting, not intelligently designed, but whimsically designed. It isn’t there to do something, but to be laughed at and to laugh back at us.

It’s the same whimsy as that in the eyes of a visitor looking up at Sand Dune Arch, just north of Fiery Furnace, or the whimsy of my daughters playing in the sand there that forgives the rock for trapping it, climbing on the sandstone that was built grain by grain. This sandy chasm between fins is a destination of choice when I’m here with my family. Each visit we make is a bit of a return to some Mecca, where we stare at a thin ribbon of stone that spans the sky. Eventually, though, we find ourselves playing in the sand, climbing on the rocks.

It’s fun to imagine the creator behind sandstone arches, the result of sand eroded out of stone that was cemented out of sand. Too, there’s the Teddy Bear Cactus, cuddly looking but with needles that pierce tender flesh, green and bulbous with water in a place void of the stuff. There are things with scales, things with slime, things with venom, and things with whiskers. And then there’s brains. Kurt Vonnegut put it best in Galapagos: “I am still full of rage at a natural order which would have permitted the evolution of something as distracting and irrelevant and disruptive as those great big brains . . .” A natural “order,” or perhaps it’s the natural disorder of things. We have the intelligence to be just aware enough of ourselves to imagine where we come from.

It’s ironic that we are a product of whatever source of the design there may have been. Intelligent enough to be able to imagine some intelligence in the design, and then even go so far as to look for it. Of course, this just won’t work. It just isn’t what science does. It seems that we’re just intelligent enough to fool ourselves. Some whimsical source of it all is laughing, not with us, but at us. If only we got the joke, it would be pretty funny. There is so much around us and within us that simply defies intelligence, and in attributing an architecture to a logical and planful designer, we’re looking for the wrong author of it all. The designer is a poet and an artist, but not a scientist. That’s our our own job. And that’s fine with me.


* I can imagine political implications: How do we consider the issue of illegal immigration if we, our very physical independent selves, are hosts to completely alien species?