Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Real Anti-Racism:

It’s not what you think

Shaking the hand of someone you disagree with isn’t as much fun as shouting them down, but it is far more effective.

When you live in small groups on the savanna, as our ancestors did for most of our evolutionary history, it pays to be suspicious of strangers. Other groups were competition. Strangers didn’t drop by for a cup of tea and a friendly chat about our emotional well being. We couldn’t afford to see a stranger as a real person at all.  It was an “us versus them” world. Fear and aggression were the only rational responses. People who did well in that world (AKA our ancestors, the people from whom we get our DNA), knew that the only safe thing was to beat strangers with a club first and ask questions later.

Fear of “The Other” is hardwired, and talking about it doesn’t help.

We may not live in small groups on the savanna any more, but our brains don’t know that. For better or worse we are stuck with our evolutionary baggage. Nothing is going to change that. When you encounter someone who your brain perceives as “other”– and by this I mean you personally, dear reader, as well as myself and every other human on the planet — all of that machinery jumps to life in milliseconds. Long before we are consciously aware of anything, our brains are screaming “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!”

Call this tribalism. Call it racism. Call it in-group/out-group dynamics. Call it identity politics. Call it polarization. Call it whatever you like. It all comes down to the same thing. When we perceive someone as other our reactions are hard wired, preconscious, and impossible to turn off.

Good intentions don’t matter. Get high and sing Kumbaya all night. Talk about it until the cows come home. Hold workshops. Post platitudes or scream about it on the internet. If you want to judge the effectiveness of those strategies all you have to do is pick up the paper. The louder the mob screams, the more ground they lose. We’ve tried those approaches. They make things worse, not better.

Quoting Einstein’s famous parable, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

There is only one solution: Humanize yourself by embracing the humanity of others.

If you perceive someone as other you will respond to them as a threat. There’s nothing we can do about that. Or is there? Take a step back and the answer is obvious. We can’t change how we react to other, but we can change who we perceive as other.

There is going on 70 years of really fascinating sociological, psychological, political and even neurological research that all supports the same conclusion: If you know and respect someone, it’s hard not to care about them. Break bread together, laugh together, talk deeply, listen, show respect (even when it’s difficult), build bridges, find common purpose and work arm in arm.

I could dig into that research, but mercifully for you I won’t. Instead I am going to share an uplifting and illustrative story of what effective anti-racism really looks like.

How did a Black musician change the hearts of hundreds of Klansmen?

Daryl Davis is a Black blues and jazz musician with a very strange hobby. He goes to events like KKK rallies not to shout or protest, but to listen, shake hands, talk, and befriend. Literally hundreds of the Klan members who Daryl Davis has become friends with have renounced the Klan. He has a large collection of their robes, including the robe of a man who, when they met, was the Grand Wizard himself.

Read that last sentence again. Then if you honestly care about fighting racism you owe it to yourself to invest 18 minutes and listen to Daryl Davis’s story in his own words.

This is not your Woke friend’s Anti-Racism.

It feels good to gang up and shout at people. The difference between the shouters and the shoutees makes it really easy to tell who is “us” and who is “them.” Our brains love that. The dopamine flows like a river.

But that is not what Daryl Davis did. There was no shouting about racism. Terms like “White privilege” and “White fragility” were never used. Daryl Davis never complained about microaggressions or political correctness. DEI workshops were not part of the program. Mr. Davis did not wear his feelings on his sleeve. Quite the contrary, Daryl Davis listened even to open hatred and tried to understand where it was coming from. There was no talk of victims and oppressors. There were no social media attacks or calls for deplatforming. There was no virtue signaling about Wokeness.

Instead, Daryl Davis treated those who were predisposed to hate him with dignity and respect. He listened. He questioned. He befriended. He humanized himself by seeing and acknowledging the humanity of others, including those with whom he deeply disagreed. In the process he did what few have ever accomplished. Daryl Davis changed the hearts of hundreds of the most committed racists in the nation.

This is what real, effective anti-racism looks like. And as Davis mentions at the end of his talk, if he can do it, so can we.

The Blue Marble

The Illusion of Disciplines

The mortal risk of pidgeon holing science

The boundaries that are used to separate one discipline from another are illusory. They are nothing but creations of those with a need to administer. What matters is reality and the insights our backgrounds and experiences bring.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


In his 1949 memoir, Diplomat in Peace and War, former British Ambassador to China Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen recalled a conversation from years earlier. “Before I left England for China in 1936 a friend told me that there exists a Chinese curse — ‘May you live in interesting times.’ ” While the curse itself seems apocryphal, the underlying thought is not. The Chinese adage “better be a dog in peace than a man in anarchy” dates back at least to 1627.

Regardless of source, if the curse fits, use it.

Today is June 3. I need to say that because anything that I write will be a period piece from the reader’s perspective. If you remember your ancient history, for me the nation is just “opening up,” even as centuries of social tension spill out onto the streets and serious threats of martial law are in the air.

COVID-19 is below the fold at the moment, but it won’t stay there. We’re about 110,000 dead into this thing, but only about 4 percent of the population has had the disease. If 80 percent of the population must ultimately get COVID-19 to establish herd immunity, that’s a factor of 20. You can do the math — although by the time you read this you may not have to.

Scientists, regardless of their “discipline,” see the world in a similar way.

Lately, I’ve noticed among friends and acquaintances that scientists and nonscientists are likely to see things very differently. Physicists, astronomers, geologists, mathematicians, biologists … we aren’t epidemiologists. At first glance, you might guess that we have no more insight into this thing than anyone else does. And, yet, independently we all seem to be reaching the same conclusions that epidemiologists reach. That this thing is far from over. How is that?

Those of you out there who are scientists know the answer. It’s handy to draw boundaries between disciplines when it’s time to balkanize a university and start fighting over who gets faculty lines and new buildings. But the brain doesn’t come equipped with nice, well-defined barriers that separate thoughts about physics from thoughts about epidemiology from thoughts about economics. Organization charts of universities can be balkanized, but knowledge cannot.

Pidgeon holing scientists is a mistake.

For quite a while, the really cool stuff has often come from people who are willing to run roughshod over artificial divisions. People who refuse to respect those boundaries are called “interdisciplinary,” “transdisciplinary,” or just plain “innovative.” Quite often, it takes the perspective of an outsider to see what the insiders are missing. Physics turns out to be a good jumping-off place for such excursions, as witnessed by the fact that physicists have helped revolutionize everything from financial markets to biology to models of brain function.

In the real world, math is math is math. Systems are systems are systems. Everything is ultimately physics. Lessons of complexity and chaos generalize. I have a former colleague who made the jump from the dynamics of physical systems to biophysics more or less overnight. I asked him about it and he said that the transition was easier than you might imagine. He would look for biological systems described by equations that are formally the same as equations describing some physical system. Deep insights into biology came from simply translating known solutions from physics into a biological context.

Lift the hood on computer models of anything from epidemics to astrophysical shock waves to Earth’s climate to the evolution of the structure of the universe. You will find the same kinds of math, the same kinds of tools, the same kinds of relationships, and similar solutions to mathematically similar problems.

It’s a lot like lifting the hood on a Chevy, a Ferrari and a Mazda. The parts look a bit different and the manuals are written in different languages, but if you know your way around one, you’ve got a good start on figuring out the others.

Sometimes it would be a lot more comfortable to get to stick your head in the sand.

Right now, the downside of understanding differential equations is that you don’t get to go to bars and be carefree. The upside of understanding differential equations is that you recognize that it might be a good time to stock the larder.

In the past, I’ve written about the remarkable extent to which we all construct our own unique perceptual and experiential worlds. I cannot know the world of your mind, and you cannot know the world of mine. But it would seem that scientists share some of the scaffolding upon which our personal worlds are constructed. That scaffolding is built around appreciation of structures, patterns, and relationships in the objective world we all share.

Sometimes, that way of constructing minds is especially powerful, and sometimes it is a pain in the backside. Scientists can get befuddled at how nonscientists think, just as our framework is incomprehensibly alien to many others. But this I can say: Looking at the world through the eyes of a scientist, these are indeed interesting times.

Schools in the Time of COVID

The Decision Will Ultimately Make Itself

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

Surfer riding huge wave.

After COVID’s First Wave

No getting back to normal

Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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