Tag Archives: fear

Vampires, Mummies, and Ghost Fears

by Shane L. Larson

By the time I went to college, I had mastered my fear of vampires enough to not have to sleep with my neck covered. Kept my kid sheets, mastered my kid fears.

When I was a kid, I was completely terrified of the dark. I would sleep at night with the blankets bunched up around my neck (to protect me from vampires) and with a bright light on all night long so if I happened to wake up, I’d see anything sneaking up on me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still terrified of the dark. I don’t do stupid things like walk into dark rooms without turning the light on, or watch horror movies (in case you’re wondering — 25 years is too short of a gap between viewings of The Exorcist). But as I got older, my fears evolved.

I grew up during the Cold War, and I was terrified of a nuclear holocaust — my nightmares of vampires were replaced by mushroom clouds and warheads unexpectedly raining down on Saturday morning breakfast. There was a lot of general malaise about this, but a particularly strong memory I associate with my burgeoning fear was seeing a 1985 Twilight Zone episode called “A Little Peace and Quiet“. The closing shot of that episode planted enough disturbing imagery in my head to fuel dark dreams for years to come.

The final terrifying scene in the Twilight Zone episode, “A Little Peace and Quiet.” The image of a warhead hanging over a town terrified me.

Today, I still worry about nuclear conflict (moreso lately, given the instability in the United States’ executive leadership). But other nightmares, possibly far more likely, have found purchase in the soil of my psyche. I worry about the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough, the result of peoples’ resistance to vaccinations. I worry a lot about the steady and constant damage we are inflicting on Earth and its biosphere. I worry about the collapse of bee colonies and the massive bleachings of coral reefs. I worry that we see unprecedented changes in climatic patterns, atmospheric chemistry, and arctic ice that herald an uncertain terrifying future not just for humans, but for every lifeform on the planet.

There are lots of problems facing the world. (L) Rampant impact of human civilization on the environment. [Wikimedia Commons] (C) Coral bleaching, one indicator of planetary wide changes due to climate change [NOAA] (R) Viruses once held in check by herd immunity gaining footholds once again amid people disavowing vaccinations [Wikimedia Commons].

But none of this produces the same inconsolable dread in me as vampires. One of my friends was befuddled by this fact. She insisted that climate change and resurgent killer diseases were real threats that should terrify us, whereas vampires and ghosts are figments of our imagination. How could it be that I’m terrified by a figment of our imagination?

A peek inside my (irrational) nightmares.

She’s right — vampires and ghosts are a figment of our imagination, but as such there are no fixed rules about how to deal with them. There are as many ways of conquering and facing the supernatural as there are fiction authors.

But virulent diseases, arms control, and climate change? There are well established ways of finding out what’s at the heart of those threats and figuring out how to combat them. You and I call that science.

Where does my faith in science come from? A long and storied history, written by you and me and 40,000 generations of people before us. Humans, more than any other lifeform we are aware of, look at the world with a critical eye and ask “what do we see happening? what does it mean? what can we learn from this?” The result of that process, pursued relentlessly in the face of superstition and the over-active darkness of our imaginations, are all the wonders of the modern world we see around us — wi-fi and pacemakers and insulated coffee mugs and teflon pans land ballpoint pens and flying drones and digital cameras.

Technology is one of the most obvious manifestations of science in our everyday lives. Simple examples include insulated coffee mugs that exploit a deep understanding of thermodynamics (L), modern pens that utilize fluid dynamics and mechanical interfaces (C), and teflon coated non-stick pans are the product of chemistry and materials science (R).

But the process of science has also resulted in knowledge and discoveries that are as poetic and stunning as the finest piece of porcelain, the most beautiful rhythm of poetry, the most exquisite painting or the most stirring symphony. Consider the lives you and I lead — we live in a world where baseballs and rosebushes abound, we walk around at the pace our feet carry us, and the most extraordinary event most of us ever experience is a thunderstorm or a kiss on a first date.

Some of the everyday extreme events experienced by ordinary humans.

But that same world is a world where people like you and me have left footprints on the Moon. We’ve sent robots to sift the sands of Mars and photograph the far side of a remote icy world called Pluto. We’ve discovered that stars burn at millions of degrees in their hearts and when they die they explode, creating every atom in every cell of you and me. We’ve taken those atoms and broken them apart to discover they are made of smaller particles called protons, neutrons and electrons. We’ve even broken protons and neutrons apart to find they are made of even smaller particles, called quarks.

Well before science turns into ways to improve your golf game or make your life in the kitchen easier, it is simply pushing the limits of what we think is possible. [L] Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint on the Moon; the Moon is the farthest any human has ever been from Earth [NASA]. (C) The New Horizons spacecraft, after a 10 year journey, sent home the most exquisite images of Pluto ever taken. Pluto is the most distant object ever visited by spacecraft from Earth. [NASA] (R) We have the technology to manipulate and image individual atoms, a million times too small to be seen with your naked eye. [NIST]

We’ve got no business knowing any of that, because it has nothing to do with foraging for food, or making babies. It has nothing to do with sheltering from hail storms, or staying warm. It has very little to do with making clothes or making farm implements from rocks and sticks.

So why do we know about the Moon and Mars and Pluto? Why do we care about atomic nuclei and quarks? Because we let our imaginations get the better of us. Unfettered, we let ourselves ask any question we want to ask, and we set out to find the answers. Every time a curious question presented itself, we rolled up our sleeves and we figured out the answer. But discovery and understanding are only the beginning. Once we have the knowledge in hand, then our innovators and engineers can figure out how to bring it into our homes and lives.

That’s how science works.

In the end, science is the most powerful tool we have to solve problems, and we can use it to solve any problem in front of us. We should be convinced of that by the fact that we can visit planets that no human has ever been to, and that we manipulate and image the very atomic building blocks that make up the world even though we cannot see them. We have the ability to use these tools for our own good. We have the choice to use these tools to overcome those dark corners of our imaginations and create a future our children will look back on and remember for all the good that we did to save ourselves from ourselves.

The Dreams and Fears of Children

by Shane L. Larson

I was walking through my daughter’s school recently, and passed a display that had slipped by my gaze for more than a week.  It was in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the bulletin board displayed a large poster with the full text of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the masses assembled for the March on Washington.

Surrounding the speech were quarter sheets of paper, written in the large and wandering text of those who are just learning to express themselves to the world, capturing with open and startling honesty the dreams of a first grade class.  What surprised me so deeply is how little those simple notes reflected what my parental mind and little boy memories thought of as the dreams of childhood.  No dreams of being a superhero, no dreams of flying to the Moon, no dreams of visiting the pyramids of Egypt, nor dreams of swimming on the Great Barrier Reef.  Most poignantly what these children called their dreams were in fact the desire to be rid of the innermost fears of their hearts, to see the world act to address those things that frightened them most about the future.

Roughly half of those fears were about children.  In our media-saturated culture, these children were painfully aware that there were other kids in the world, not unlike them and their friends, who suffered violence, abuse, hunger and poverty.  Such terrible weights for shoulders so small to bear.

The other half expressed fears about the future of this planet.  Fear of the effects of wars ravaging our civilization.  Fears that there would be no trees or no polar bears in their future.  Fear that the bad air (a particular problem in northern Utah) was never going to get better.  Fear our stewardship of this planet is not what they would do if handed the reins right now.  Terrible worries from small minds that should be engaged in the simple pleasures of childhood –– sparkly rocks, catching bugs, stomping in puddles, and dunking cookies in milk.

The fears of our children are a painful mirror, reflecting our own deepest concerns about the future of our world and our species.  Their concerns reflect the roots of the underlying issues that frame so much of the rhetoric of our politics and the incessant, thoughtless political soundbites spewed through the hosepipe of social media.  Our children are not little rocks, unaware of the world around them.  They are highly observant students of the world, absorbing and processing every tiny bit of information they are exposed to within the framework of their own worldview.  The most remarkable gift of their young cerebral processors is the ability to cut through all the crap that dominates big-person discussion of these issues and get right to the heart of the problem.  What if there are no trees in the future?  What if there is no water for farming and large cities?  What if the pinnacle of achievement of our civilization is to fight wars over the question of what happens to you after you are dead?

As a scientist, I know my community bears a tremendous responsibility to address these fears, particularly with regards to the complex interface between humans, our planet, and the other lifeforms we share it with.  The choice of a career in science means becoming well versed with the tools to gather data, developing the ability to quantitatively answer questions about big problems, and having the skills to make predictions about the future while offering candid assessments about certainty of your results.  The responsibility of a career in science is to follow the rules of science, and vigorously defend the conclusions of science even in the face of oppression.  The rules are this (these are Sagan’s Rules, which I find to be the most succinct and honest to the process of science): (1) there are no sacred truths, all assumptions must be critically examined, and arguments from “authority” are worthless without evidence. (2) whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised.  The Universe is not bound by how we wish it to be, and we must have the courage to not shirk the truth because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

A colleague of mine from American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/) recently noted that the resistance to change comes from two viewpoints.  The first kind of resistance is that arising from issues challenging deep core beliefs: stem cell research skirts by the unknowable question of when life begins, cosmology is often diametrically opposed to beliefs about the origins of the Universe, and natural selection clashes repeatedly with creationists.  The second kind of resistance is to problems of such magnitude that the path of least resistance is opposition to a viewpoint founded on established observational facts.  The clear example here is the opposition to climate change.  The economic and ecological ramifications of a rapidly evolving climate are enormous, insurmountable on the modern timescales of political power, possibly insurmountable across a human lifetime.  Mentally it is far easier to latch onto those few uncertainties that lie on the outskirts of the enormous consensus of the scientific community.  Mentally it is far easier to invest in an alternative knowledge system of selective information designed to support your viewpoint –– opinion replaces fact as the currency of importance.

There is an apparent simple truth in this observation –– the rhetoric of the modern world is driven by fear, the fear of being wrong.  It is true of our politicians, it is true of our scientists, it is true of our Facebook friends, it is true of our spiritual leaders, it is true of me and you.  Fear is so much easier to respond to than reason.  An easy observation to make, and a difficult fact to live with.  But there are enormous consequences if we ignore this simple fact.  I refuse to accept that we are okay living with such fears and okay with letting the fears of our children go unanswered.

“All art requires courage.”  So remarked Anne Tucker, the curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  I like to think that her axiom is broader than art.  Science requires courage.  The courage to ask questions which may be uncomfortable in light of societal prejudices.  The courage to understand the dislike or denial of science as a human fault and find a way to make our understanding of Nature compelling. Facing the future on Earth requires courage.  The courage to know that there are no certainties.  The courage to accept inescapable truths.  The courage to know that the necessary actions may not be popular or easy.  The courage to know that inaction and denial are unacceptable paths forward.

Standing in front of that bulletin board, I know what we have to do.

Fear of the future should not be the dreams of our children.