This is an Oppenheimer-style science centre. In fact, it is my Oppenheimer-style science centre. Well, not mine, of course; and there are elements to it that are not quite like in the Exploratorium, but you know what I mean. I work there. I have had a miniscule part in developing it.
Fortunately, it is busy as hell, too. People like science and the expertise that comes with it, no matter what they want to make you believe on TV for the sake of “balance”. People like to know how things actually are.
Facts are cool. Simple as that.
There is one thing this particular science centre does differently from others. If you feel like you have exhausted the exhibitions and playgrounds, if you feel like you want to know even more, you can book guided tours or lectures with an actual scientist.
Enter yours truly. I am that scientist you can meet. I love the assignments as a rule, but sometimes they come at the end of a very long day; and sometimes people do not quite get the meaning of the word “fact”.
“How can you stand here and talk about all of this as if it’s fact?” he said. “It simply isn’t. Everyone can see that!”
I did not make an answer while he had to take a breath.
“See, you scientists are so arrogant in your know-it-all globetard attitude towards the rest of us. You just think you’re better!”
I am not better, no. However, I most certainly knew better than to do what I did: I took the bait.
“Know it all?” I said. “I know only one thing: I know nothing.”
“Ah! So, you admit to not knowing that the Earth is a globe!”
“I knew it. Don’t deny it now!”
“Can I speak?”
“I do know that the Earth is a globe, yes, or something quite close to a globe, to be a little more correct.”
“You just said, you know nothing! Don’t deny it. I heard you!”
The conversation, if you can call it that, went on like this for a much longer time than I had ever wanted to. No, I will not repeat or even link to flat-earth beliefs here. That part of it all is too absurd to deserve more attention. Besides, it turned out not to be the real issue either.
Sometime later, I heard myself say:
“Listen. I don’t know by heart how many miles exactly the horizon is away from some given point on Earth. Why would I memorize stuff like that even? I can look it up everywhere if I want to, or even calculate it for you if you’re into that kind of thing.”
“Not only do you know nothing, you’re not even a scientist!” he said. I remember asking myself why he would say this. I could only make sense of it in one way.
“Hold on right there.” I said. “Listen, a scientist is not somebody who recites numbers and facts. A scientist looks into nature and finds correlations, figures out what causes what and, after having answered one question, finds millions of others to explore next.”
He did listen. I continued.
“Believe it or not, but I’m not at all interested in knowing by heart how far away exactly the horizon is. I simply don’t care. I carry a cell phone in my pocket. I don’t spend time remembering what I can look up.”
“In other words, you have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“No. Er. Yes. I just won’t fool myself into thinking something is true just because I like it. Besides, I do care for the beauty of it all. Nature’s so wonderful! Why would I memorise numbers when I can spend my time thinking about nature’s awesomeness? Humans are part of it, too, you know. I mean can you imagine how Eratosthenes must have felt when he measured the length of shadows and ended up knowing not only that the Earth is a globe, but how big that globe is? Over 2000 years ago! Do you even begin to understand how amazing and wonderful it is to use something as common as a shadow to obtain such grand knowledge…?”
“Can’t be done. And it ain’t neither grand nor knowledge either. It’s wrong.”
“…it means that there is an underlying sameness to it all, to literally everything. There is a story there. A true scientist tries to uncover fragments of that story. In the case of Eratosthenes there are geometric laws which are applicable everywhere and every-when —”
“The story told by God.” he said.
I was stumped at that point. Where did that all of sudden come from? He had gone from yelling to religion and, actually, a sort of agreement with me in what felt like a split-second. I began to realize something: I had thought facts to be important for me in this argument, only to proceed telling him that I did not really care about them. And, yes, that was something I agreed on with him. It took me while to process that insight during which he, too, simply stood thinking.
“I am not sure about God,” I said eventually, “but for us, it’s definitely more about correlations than it is about facts; it’s about how things come about. The story of nature if you will.”
“To me, the story of nature is the story of God.”
I stayed calm. I felt calm.
“How is that story told?” I asked.
“Well, by God.” he said. “Who do you think tells the story?”
“I asked how, not who.”
“Somebody has to do it.”
“Somebody, you say. It’s important for you that somebody tells that story, right?”
“God tells it!”
“Yes. I heard you.” I stood thinking. “How do you know that God tells this story?”
“I know it.”
“I grew up with this knowledge. My parents raised me with this knowledge. My church taught me this knowledge.” he said. “It’s old knowledge!”
“You still haven’t answered my question.” I said. “Be that as it may, though. You know, I think can understand you.”
“So, you don’t deny God?”
“I don’t.” I said. “At the end of the day, I don’t care enough about deities to get worked up over them. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’d wish you’d think more for yourself. I ask of you the source of your knowledge and your only answer is other people. What do you know that you have found out for yourself?”
He made no answer. I smiled.
“You know, I once stole my nanny’s glasses and set hay on fire in the backyard with the help of sunlight. I didn’t mean to be naughty, but I was curious as to why this would be possible. My nanny wasn’t all too happy about it. But I know now why it’s possible. You know, too, right?”
“Sure, I do. There ain’t a kid in the world who hasn’t done stuff like that. But —”
“When did you stop putting those glasses to the grass yourself? Scientists never stop doing it, and in the process they find out more and more. See, you disallow yourself the pleasure of knowing so many, yes, grand things by listening to a pastor talking about other stuff than sheep and shepherds and things. Your pastor isn’t all-knowing, is he now? That’s somebody else. I mean, how would your pastor even know?”
There. I said it aloud. I expected him to explode right in my face, figuratively, of course.
He did not do any such thing. He stood there. I am not sure he thought about anything. Perhaps he thought about too many things at the same time.
It hit me that I did not know his name or where he came from. Most likely Middle America, I thought, but I could be wrong. I knew less about him than I did about the rest of the universe. After a few seconds, which felt like a lifetime, he simply turned around and left.
I still wonder whether that conversation would have continued if it had happened in the morning. As it is, I am left with the feeling that I could have done things differently. In the beginning, he argued, but I keep thinking he simply wanted to talk and get things off his chest. I should have let him, and tried to understand from the get go instead of patronizing him. It is what I have tried to do ever since, at any rate.