“Proportions alternate between infinitesimal and astronomical. The signals are infinitesimal. The sources are astronomical. The sensitivities are infinitesimal. The rewards are astronomical. The human ambition to understand the universe is merely epic, and astronomical trumps epic.” – Janna Levin in Black Hole Blues
My father, the wonder-full layman, and I, the one who broke up with professional science, read the same pop science books. We know that where they make bald declarations they are wrong in significant ways. From the ones who seem to have their noses thrust up skywards as they declaim we keep a correspondingly disdainful distance. Stephen Pinker is too confident. Malcolm Gladwell pushes too many Unified Theories. The collector and commentator E.O. Wilson of The Diversity of Life is far more compelling than the later E.O. Wilson grasping after ultimate meaning in Consilience. I find Wilson on social insects more beautiful than Wilson on beauty—in his care, his wonder, his generosity towards both subject and audience.
All the authors I’ve cited put forth simple, big ideas. Simplified, too. They leave out most footnotes or make them endnotes, as I believe they should. As best I can figure it, the ones that inspire wonder and midnight conversation differ from the ones we condemn as condescending and simple-minded mainly in whether they are inviting us to sit in front of or next to them.
The expositors who profess in their books like they do in the lecture hall are hit-or-miss. If we don’t buy or even are simply skeptical of their One Big Idea, the whole reading experience falls on the rocks. Knowing that 10,000 practice hours does not necessarily make one an expert knocks a whole subgenre of performance psych books out of consideration for what to spend my learning time on. I am so wary of the it is so because prehistoric man… just-so stories that I missed out on gems from behavioral ecology like Joan Roughgarten’s Evolution’s Rainbow for years out of fear of proximity to pop evolutionary psychology. The authorial voice in these works is strong, ruining even meaty evidence and anecdote with tiresome insistence on the Big Idea. It doesn’t matter how much good there is to be found in these books (often very much!): I come away resentful, my curiosity dulled. The author didn’t really trust me to follow along, so I don’t follow up. I imagine that he (often he) resents staying for the Q&A after he has given a talk.
The writers whose words ripple through me long after my first reading have strong authorial voices too. But they modulate them for the audience in the room. Janna Levin, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Atul Gawande, Maria Popova—they invite me to wonder with them, rich in offerings while declining the high throne of authority. Reading their work, it is simplified, too, but we both trust the other knows that. We are vulnerable with each other: we don’t know, we say, and we want so badly to know, knowing we can only ever do so in part. We are no nihilists: we treasure little fragments of knowing. Like the proportions Levin sings, we are small and great, pieces and wholes. Wandering the world of astronomy we are astronomical: that is to say, we dance between the infinite and the infinitesimal and see them together dialectically in freeze-frame. As a reader I am not frozen in the spotlight of the author’s brilliance—rather, the author has a pocket flashlight to illuminate the next few steps, or invites me in as observer when she gets her few hours a year on the radio telescope, or maybe just knows where there’s a working lighthouse beaming onto this thought world I am just meeting.
So, to those, like me, who fret over telling simple stories of their nuanced worlds: show us more than telling us. Give us a map of your terrain and let us loose, but be there when called upon—whether with notes, correctives, countermelodies from other voices, or a URL that grants access to more context and sources. As your reader, I promise that I know you are telling one simple story of many not yet told. I know you have woven this one with care, oh, so much care. But I do not grieve as you do at all the untold stories, because I trust that the path you charted through them for me will lead to others—other stories, other tellers from your same world. I thank you for the courage you’ve shown in inviting simply. I will invite others in turn—my dad, first of all—and slowly, in wonder, I will learn to know better. Only open the door: we have been waiting. We who do not want perfect—who would be insulted if you claimed it. We ask, simply, for a thread of connection into your world of meaning. For a voice to end the silence, even if it trembles.