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How Can We Write About Science When People Are Dying?

(NASA GSFC)

Paris was horrific.

Yet as I watched that horror unfold, in a city that was once known as “The Paris of the Middle East,” dust clouds were falling onto a street streaked with blood. Beirut had been hit by one of the deadliest bombings since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

It was a story that was both a world away and yet deeply personal. My mother’s family came to the United States from Lebanon when she was a teenager. Decades earlier, my great-grandmother had left Syria and moved to a small fishing village north of Beirut (later, my grandparents would honeymoon near Aleppo, if you can even imagine a time when that was possible).

In other words, the blood that ran through that street also runs through me.

It was hard, in the face of such unrelenting violence, to focus on work. I found it incredibly difficult to try and describe bodies in the solar system when bodies on Earth were falling to the ground.

I felt utterly useless.

I stewed and stewed, and stewed some more, and emerged briefly and wrote to Kareem Shaheen, a friend who’s based in Beirut and covers the Middle East for the Guardian.

“I wish there were something I could do to help, or something that would at least make a difference. Want to swap jobs for a bit?” I suggested, half joking.

His response was, in a nutshell, that science has the power to redeem and inspire, and that casting our eyes to the stars can unite every human on Earth. Then he echoed a sentiment I’d heard a day earlier: Keep writing about science. It’s important, and it’s inspiring.

“There’s a unifying beauty to it–you can appreciate the stars and planets whether you’re Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Christian, Jew, atheist or Wiccan,” Kareem said. “Finding new things to discover, wondering at what could be up there, us being the universe contemplating itself, setting our sights at conquering a new frontier, that’s what we should be doing.”

It’s true. We can all walk outside and look up and admire the same stars, regardless of the stories we inscribe upon them. Kareem went on to describe how watching Venus cross the face of our sun helped bring him closer to his dad, and to the threads that connect our planet with the cosmos.

“I was in college and wanted to see the Venus transit but couldn’t find any filters to use on my telescope,” he recalled. So, his dad went out and found a welding mask that would let Kareem safely observe the sun. As he peered through the mask and into the eyepiece, Kareem saw Earth’s sister marching across the great golden disk that powers life on our planet.

“Venus was just a speck in my feeble excuse of a telescope, but it was gorgeous,” he said. “Seeing it as a tiny fleck against the sun was sort of like the pale blue dot idea—of how fragile and vulnerable the thread is—and now, thinking back to it, it drives home how insignificant our differences are in the grand scheme of things.”

I’m not an optimist by nature—“realist” is the description I prefer—but I’d like to think that he’s right, that sharing the wonder of science, exploration and adventure can be an antidote, in some small measure, to suffering and destruction.

In retrospect, I should have known this all along. Finding solace in the sights and patterns of the natural world has been a part of me since year one: Before I was old enough to walk or talk, my family discovered that showing me the shimmering moon was often the only way to calm me down.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is be good to one another and share stories of the human mind and spirit at their best.

The last story I published before Paris and Beirut erupted was about how Pluto’s heart grew from the crater left by an enormous impact. Instead of turning into another big, ugly scar on the planet’s surface, the crater instead played an important role in the birth of a feature that we see as a symbol of love and compassion. I hope there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

25 thoughts on “How Can We Write About Science When People Are Dying?

  1. Phenomena in my in-box keeps me from utter despair. Despair is a kind of giving up. We cannot afford to give up.

    Keep up your work. You help sustain us. You help lift us out of despair. You point out the wonder. You give us perspective. You challenge us to think beyond ourselves.

    Thank you.

    1. thanks so much Pennington – it means a lot to us at National Geographic to know our love of the wonderful in this world helps to lift the spirits at a time like this.

  2. Thank you!!

    As you describe the stars, the same ones that shone over Paris that night, and Beirut, and Baghdad on the previous nights, I think of the leaf warblers I studied that flew all the way across from Europe and Central Asia to southern India, and continue to do so every fall, with no care for how the nations they fly over are places of such strife and misery and heartbreak for us humans. I take solace in science too, pointing my binoculars at the stars at night and at birds in the day, and realizing how little our squabbles amount to in the larger scheme of the universe. So I join you and your friend in hoping that science and our sense of wonder about the universe can help unite us more than politics and religion and nationalisms divide us as a species.

    Thank you!

  3. 129 people died in the Paris attacks; 47 IIRC in the latest outrage in Beirut. Terrorism has caused around 130,000 deaths worldwide between 2006 and 2013 (http://www.statista.com/topics/2267/terrorism/) and the death rate is increasing.

    Meantime, thanks to science, a planet that seemed close to famine 70 years ago now has a smaller fraction of its population living near starvation, even though that population has increased threefold. That is one reason for writing about science right now, in addition to the even deeper reasons given in this article.

    I hope no one will imagine that I am minimising the insult to humanity involved in these attacks, if I point out that the number killed that dreadful day in Paris is roughly equal to the number of people who die in France every 20 minutes. We would be brutes if we were not saddened and appalled by what was done, but if we lose perspective, as Americans did after 9/11, we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

  4. Lovely and timely piece Nadia!
    Science writers, communicators and journalists must rise to this fill up huge void that our mainstream news media has left us with. All we are bombarded with is despair and hopelessness. We seriously lack inspiring news, communications that will rekindle our sense of wonder.
    I am right now in my small garden in Mumbai, where a shrew is busy digging earthworms and other invertebrates. How unmindful of how the human world around him is imploding. The shrew clan has seen this planet unfold over a huge period of time. It was from shrew like ancestors that tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars etc. evolved. And surprisingly enough that even modern day elephants have evolved from a shrew like animal.
    Science communicators have to rise up and help the already stressed masses away from the drudgery, the mundane and help them rekindle hope and momentarily do away with despondency.
    Thanks once again.

  5. Intelligence, science, empathy, and a little humanity are what separate us from the thugs and cowards who kill. Keep writing and never look back. Faltering means they win; we do not falter, or fail in this confrontation.

  6. Thank you for this. I too was paralysed after what happened, stewing and wanting to write about it but not really finding the words to describe such a complex situation. I too find solace in thinking about how every living organism we know once shared a common ancestor, and how that ancestry can still be traced by comparing DNA between us and the other species we share this planet with. Thank you for this, it is both inspiring and motivating at the same time.

  7. thank you for sharing. Close to Lebanon and Syria and have lovely friends from there – heartbreaking to read about them.

    Your note is inspiring and helps cope with that sense of loss. We must keep moving on…

  8. The Golden Age of Islamic Science ended in the 1200’s. Today the islamic countries contribute about 0.1 – 0.5% of the world’s scientific or biomedical information. Attempts to include people who retain a 6th century mentality in today’s sophisticated dialog is wasted effort. Much as I love reading your writings, Nadia, the mental “hand-wringing” expressed in your column is not productive. Rather, the final comment by Satish Pai says it all: “We must keep moving on…”

    1. We do not have to try to include them. They are already included. First, we are on the same planet, in the same world. Perhaps we should realize that attempts to exclude them or any other group on this tiny globe we all call home is not only wasted effort but is at the root of our problems? A challenge before us is to move forward with all of us together by continuing to do what we do, including writing about science, in such a way that brings out the best in us. And if what we are doing is not bringing out the best in each and all of us including those of us who may seem stuck in the 6th century, it is bringing out the worst and it may be time to stop it.

  9. This is a true fact!

    Science, in its significance and its ability to present the Cosmos, has been my motivation and inspiration since childhood. Humility and caring is what looking at the Cosmos can create, and maybe this is the way to save the human species from self destruction!

    Peace and unity to the World
    With respect!

  10. Well, on a serious note, the climate change, bandwagon has destroyed, development, in third world countries, which is no laughing matter. Assante Saana. From sanitation to Electricity. Amen.

  11. I looked up in the sky and I realized that we’re so small compared to our grand universe. Thank you Nadia for inspiring us with your writings. I look into the future with high hopes that Science will inspire and unite us. Keep writing Nadia for your work will continue to inspire the young to make this world a better place in the near future.

  12. Nadia,
    That’s a great post!
    An avid fan of National Geographic since childhood, inspired by the words and pictures I devoured, it led me to create a bucket list of must visit or even live-in places. I was really fortunate to travel through Syria and see Palmyra, the Aleppo Souk and Krac des Chevaliers, in a quieter time, before they and all the warm and generous Syrians that welcomed me there were systematically blown to pieces.
    Our humanity will always overcome the evil and destruction. The incredible catalog of science that you and others at National Geographic share with the world will help us endure and find daily inspiration.
    Thank you for helping us discover the world many times over!

  13. I sometimes wonder how I can do science when the world around me is hurting. Your post has given me hope that my research is making the world a better place!

  14. violence and terror have no place here ,in our world,i think that we can leave and sharing joy of moments with all around us.those who try to change the world by killing and terrifying innocent people have no chance to achieve their goals.

  15. It’s beautifully written, Nadia. These horrific events should affirm a recommitment to what is best in us –our curiosity, our vision, our confidence that bringing together people whose minds were shaped by diverse perspectives is a certain path to creativity and insight. Perhaps out of the astronomy that you care so much about can come the knowledge of and a kind of comfort with deep time. And for me, a neuroscientist, these horrific events say that we need to understand ourselves better–how our brains can so easily generate fear of “the other” but can also show compassion and empathy.

  16. On this day after the tragedy in San Bernardino, you’ve given me a smile. This retired science teacher says thank you for not only this column, but for all your writing.

  17. It’s hard to explain how the attacks made me feel, because I was affected in an unfortunately unique way; being helpless to listen to what was going on, comforting a newly made friend via a Skype call, who was barely even a hundred meters away from the horror that took place within, and around the Bataclan. I still don’t know what to feel, or think about that night, and in reality I should seek professional help, because it’s hard to think when you have that type of weight on your shoulders. It’s tougher yet to write when that’s potentially all you think about, and are reminded of via the occasional news cast, or meandering thoughts and mentioning’s of friends or family in discussion. But what gives me hope for this world is people like Nadia, reminding us all of what it all amounts to, and what writing stands for as a medium, and what it is for others– Escape from wretchedness, despair, the absolute terror as a world falls apart in front of you. It’s a light in the darkness, meant to illuminate truths, knowledge, and remove ignorance. It’s not everything, and it might not be as good as a doctor in a war zone, but perhaps through writing, and teaching through that, those who deem it fit to unjustly kill, or attack another unsuspecting Human Being, can be shown a path outside of violence. That perhaps a child may gain a spark of curiosity, and rather than pick up the gun, will pick up the book, and study rather than kill, is why I chose to write in the first place. It’s an interesting sentiment, but I believe that is what it all means to me.

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