Thursday, March 5, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

Last week, the actor Leonard Nimoy passed way.  Nimoy is publicly known for his portrayal of the character Spock from the science fiction series Star Trek, but like most people, Nimoy was much more than what people saw of him.  Just professionally, he was an actor, a director, a poet, a singer and songwriter, and, of course, he had a personal life of which most of us know little. But, he will always be connected to his role as Spock. 

My social and professional circles were filled with references to Nimoy and Spock upon the announcement of Nimoy's death, but people would ask me if I was in mourning over the loss of Spock (yes, Spock not Nimoy). This made me wonder why were so many people tied to the notion of Spock?  What was so important about this character?  After some thought, I realized it came down to acceptance - within ourselves and within society.  

Spock represented an intellectual and socially-detached person that had been socially accepted by the populace both within the Star Trek world and the real world.  Spock was the popular and (dare-I-say) mainstream 'nerd'.   The character enabled a group of people, that are often ostracized or marginalized by society, to connect with mainstream society via popular culture.  As a result, Nimoy will forever be linked to Spock and vice versa.  But there is something deeper here that I realized while I was contemplating these questions.

Nimoy wrote two autobiographies: one in 1975 titled "I Am Not Spock" and then in 1995 titled "I Am Spock".  The first book came after the the original Star Trek series had ended but the movies had not yet been created; the book was an attempt by Nimoy to distinguish and separate himself from the character Spock. The second book came after the last of the motion pictures to star the original cast and was more of a discussion of how Nimoy and Spock grew together and separately - how Nimoy had matured partly because of his connection to Spock and Star Trek and how Spock had matured as a character from the growth and maturity of Nimoy.  The books are fascinating peeks into human psychology.

When we are young(er), we often rail against societal expectations and pressures without always realizing that as we mature and grow and learn, we become who we are, partly, by deciding how to merge with and co-exist with these expectations.  However we overlap with societal and cultural norms and expectations, true maturity and contentment comes from an acceptance of who we are inside with a recognition that truth to ourselves is fundamental to our well-being.   Nimoy gave a nice interview where it is very clear that later in life, he viewed Spock as a part of himself and that Spock reflected some of Nimoy.

Nimoy saw the power of Spock, even back in 1968, and how he could use his character to help.  A young girl wrote to Spock to ask advice on how to live life as a 'Half-breed'.  The girl was the child of a mixed-race family (black and white) and saw Spock as someone who might understand (human and vulcan).  Back in 1968, mixed-racial couples were not common and were often the pariahs of society. Today, such a situation is much more socially accepted, and I am happy to say that I am not sure that I know what that label 'mix-raced' even means.  Nimoy's answer to this young girl is marvelous and really comes down to "you have to be true to yourself".

For me personally, when I was younger, I struggled for a long time trying to understand who I was and what was important to me.   It took me years to accept within myself that a significant part of my personality was, as society would call it, 'nerdy'.  For a long time, I hated that word.  To me, it was an insult and a reminder that I had a difficult time fitting in with the rest of society - that I could only socialize with other 'nerds'.  But, in fact, it was this rebellion against 'nerdiness' when I was younger that helped me grow and mature and become a more well-rounded man with compassion and insight into others that I had not previously harnessed.

Now in my mid-life (whatever that means), I have re-embraced the nerdy side of my personality, partly because it is a piece of who I am, but partly because I have reclaimed the word for myself and made the word mean something to me. The word is just a word, but learning to accept myself (and accepting others for who they are), that is the true measure of maturity.  Accepting others (or yourself) does not have to mean accepting poor behavior, but it does mean accepting that each person is different, and it is the differences that make up the richness of our culture and society.

Interestingly, I see the word 'nerd' being re-claimed by the nerd-community in a much more public way, similar to the manner in which the word 'gay' has been re-claimed by the homosexual community.  Owning the word prevents the word from being used in an offensive manner, but more importantly, it marks an ownership and acceptance by the gay community of themselves.

Do I use the word 'nerd'?  No - mostly because I still detest stereotypical labels.  To me, labels convey the wrong connotations in that they pigeonhole individuals into groups.  Instead of viewing people by their actions, labels enable judgement of people by their appearance. I am not a nerd; I am simply me.

And with that, Mr. Nimoy (and Mr. Spock), you will be missed.  Thank you and Live Long and Prosper.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The End is Near ... well, maybe not.

In the past few years, I have tried to make a concerted effort within my life to build upon my success and give back to my community - to live my life in a positive way with the belief that within the power of positive living, there is a positive feedback on the world around us.  When we treat ourselves and others with dignity and respect, when we take responsibility for ourselves and our communities, when we recognize the good and shun the evil, when we understand that the convenience of our lives does not mean that there are no more problems to solve, when we comprehend that ignoring an issue because it is inconvenient does not solve that issue, and when we pass these ideals down to our children, we can work together towards a better world for all of us - a world where evil will find it difficult to live. I've written about this multiple times (here, here, here), but then I found this video.  And to be honest, he expresses the idea so much clearer than I have - and I really like his voice.  Enjoy this - I did.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This Made Me Laugh ...

On a day where the news from around the country and the world is depressing - on all sides - I needed a laugh.  So not in anyway to diminish the seriousness of what is happening today around the country and elsewhere, I thought I would share a small smile.

A boy is getting ready for prom and is trying to get up the nerve to ask the cutest girl in school to the dance. After a day or so he finally musters up the courage and asks her and she says yes! He’s bouncing with excitement and starts planning to get ready for prom in a few weeks.

Later that week he goes by the local florist to get a boutonniere for himself and some flowers for her. He gets to the shop and there’s a line out the door of boys all getting flowers as well. After waiting in line for a few hours, he gets the order placed and goes home.

The next day he goes out to rent a tuxedo. Driving up to the shop, he sees another line out the door, all boys getting ready for prom as well. He patiently waits his turn and after a few hours gets fitted for a tux and goes on his way home.

Lastly, he realizes he needs to rent a limousine to take his date to prom in style. But of course, when he gets to the rental company, there’s another line of boys trying to rent cars for prom night. The boy waits in line and gets one of the last limos.

So prom night comes, he picks up his date in the limo he rented, gives her the flowers he bought, and they take pictures. They go to prom and have a great time. Halfway through the night, his date tells him that she’s thirsty and would like something to drink. So the boy walks over to the refreshments table and there’s no punch line.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sometimes We Forget to Laugh ...

Read and watch the news, listen to your friends or colleagues, or simply walk down the street, and the world can be an overwhelming place: there is hunger, poverty, war, riots, protests, racism, hatred, pollution, politics ... the list is never ending.  It is so easy to focus on what is wrong with the world that we often to forget to acknowledge what is right in the world.  I am not suggesting, of course, to ignore such injustices in the world, but I am suggesting that your positivity has a positive influence on the people around you, your community, and the world - and that positive influence makes a lasting contribution to the world.

I am strong believer that you have the power to make world a better place each and every day through your own small actions.  The power of positive thinking does not just make your life better; it makes the world better. To me, positive change in the world comes directly from each person's positive interaction with people and the world.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about my personal philosophy on how to bring positive change to myself and by extension the world, and I realized I left out one very specific and important item: Laughter! So I have altered my original post to specifically include laughter.
  1. Choose to be Positive: this is a hard step. It is easy to remain negative, and in particular, it is not always obvious that one can choose to be positive. Some times bad things happen, but it is up to me to find the positive. By doing so, I choose to handle the situation the best that I can, and knowing that I choose my own attitude empowers me, and no one can that away take from me.
  2. Everything is a Learning Experience: in every situation there is good and bad and sometimes finding the good is hard - very hard. But it is up to me to learn from what is happening and incorporate that learning experience back into my life. By learning from the situation, you inherently find the positive and that is what carries forward. Not every situation is immediately fixable, but every situation does carry an experience from which I can learn.
  3. Take Care of Myself: only if I am mentally and physically healthy, can I truly gain what is offered by life and only then can I impart back on to the world a constructive and positive attitude. Self-doubt is the most insidious enemy of self-care. It is easy to turn on yourself, but if you don't care for yourself, who will? For me personally, this is the most difficult step and the one with which I struggle the most.
  4. Laugh!: This is related to the item above; positive living grows from learning how to laugh and learning how to take yourself (and others) not so seriously.  There is plenty of research that shows that laughter is physically and mentally beneficial to humans.  This does not mean that everything is funny, but it does mean that everything should be kept in the proper perspective.
  5. Love: this is, by far, what we do best (thank you HIMYM). Don't shy away from it and hide it, but rather, embrace it, share it, expand it, and show it. And I don't necessarily mean love in the sense of a lover, but rather love your family, your friends, your pets, the sky ... whatever. Love is an emotion that, like all emotions, gets buried away if it remains unused. Don't save it for some rainy day - use it and enjoy it.
  6. Work Hard, Play Hard: positive living grows from self-fulfillment which comes from knowing that you have done your best. From there, you can be in a healthy place for yourself and for the world around you. Not everything will work out and sometimes you will screw up. That is all ok - failure is part of life; taking responsibility for yourself and your community turns that failure into a positive. In short: Have fun, sleep well, and tell good stories.
    So ... with that in mind, go ahead and laugh; it's infectious! And besides, I think the dog has figured out the right priorities!

    Sunday, September 14, 2014

    I am a White Male Astronomer

    Astronomers, in general, tend to view themselves as liberals or progressives, particularly towards social issues.  But at the same time, our field is dominated by white males; the fraction of women in our field with faculty jobs is on the order of 20% , and the fraction of non-white people in our field with faculty jobs is of the same order 20% (and significantly less than that for blacks and hispanics).  Exactly how all this is counted is a little difficult to digest given that physics and astronomy are sometimes counted together and sometimes not, and there is a strong bias in these studies against non-faculty permanent jobs, faculty at two-year institutions, and other non-university positions, making a full accounting of everyone in the field incomplete, at best, and biased, at worst (but that is another post).  Having said that, it is, however, very clear that the field is dominated by white males.

    Anecdotally, it certainly seems that there are more woman in the meetings and conferences that I attend, particularly women in the earlier stages of their careers, than there were in the past.  That is, young woman seem to be entering the field and moving through the early career steps; it does remain to be seen if they will remain in the field and move into more senior positions. However, I do not see (again anecdotally) the same increase in the number of people of color at these same meetings.  My personal (and probably skewed and biased) observations seem to be in agreement with my reading of these reports; women have made some noticeable, but not spectacular, strides in our field over the past decade, but people-of-color - particularly, black people - have not.

    I do not know the exact number of black astronomers in our field, but I am sure the number is small, and I can probably call out a significant fraction of them by name - which indicates just how few there are.  My graduate school Ph.D. adviser was black (well, of course, he still is; I never know what verb tense to use in this context), and at the time, he was the only black astronomer I knew.   In contrast, I am sure I could not name all (or even a significant fraction) of the women in astronomy, indicting their numbers are far larger.

    So the question arises (at least in my mind) what can I do?  After all, my perspective is from the point of view of the white male - and in particular, a relatively senior white male astronomer.  Part of what I can do (and you can do)  is to recognize that with my (and your) experiences come a set of unconscious biases.  That is human nature.  Being aware can help me (and you) make conscious decisions that counteract these unconscious biases.  By being aware of these potential biases, I can help work towards not allowing those biases to influence my decisions.

    But perhaps one of the most important things I (you) can do is listen.   I have learned from my wife, tenured faculty of physics and astronomy and a member of our field who has endured much in her career as a result of being a woman, to listen to the concerns, to listen to the fears, to listen to anecdotes ... to listen.  From a point of view of privilege, it is very easy for a person to see equity and fairness all around them, and to dismiss stories of unfairness and bias as just that - stories.   It is also just as important to not simply assume a person is biased or racist - every person has a story - listen - hear them; hear yourself.

    Towards that end, one of the blogs that I read regularly is by John Johnson who is tenured faculty at Harvard and a black astronomer.   When he writes about bias and race, particularly in our field, he often can make me uncomfortable, but he has helped me to continue to assess and re-assess my opinions.  He is beginning a series of blog posts on racism within astronomy (and by extension elsewhere).  Do I always agree with John?  Of course not, but I do respect his opinion and his observations, and I use his thoughtfulness to help me address and focus my own.

    I eagerly await the next post.