Week Eight: Story Time

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Sunday, July 21, 2019


Joseph Tibbs

“Tell me a story.”  This is the prompt of children the world over.  Be that as it may, we never outgrow our desire for a well-spun tale.  Long or short, light or serious, humanity has always held a special place for the sagas, fables, and legends which build culture from the ground up. And no one has more control over the direction of a culture than those who tell its stories. 

 “But Joseph,” you say (go ahead and say it out loud right now, it’s fine), “you’re a research scientist.  In Physics.  What stories can you tell?”  Sure, I’m not a science journalist like Jerry.  I’m not researching the history of the discovery of black holes like Cate.  I’m not even researching rheologists or women in science and how we can make their stories known.  No, I’m just measuring things.  There’s nothing glamorous about it, and my hours in front of the microscope are not exactly amenable to a Hollywood plot.

 But it does have its challenges.  Challenges which can be overcome, sometimes in surprising ways.  The triumphs of battles won are set against the failures of broken instrumentation and damaged samples.  Side plots of theory and simulation interweave with experiment, and the careful reader begins to notice the connections.  Research includes the classic Mentor archetype—in this case, literally.  And research might not have an end, but then again neither do the best stories: the true ones.  And maybe that’s a good thing; as Meg has taught us (for those keeping up with her blog), the most engaging stories are the ones told in the present tense[f].  And in research, you can still get closure and a sense of finality when the paper is written, the result is shared, the technology is produced to benefit humanity. 

 I’m focusing on stories this week because, for one, we learned about scientific storytelling from the publishers and editors at The Optical Society during a tour there on Friday.  They are responsible for nineteen publications, ranging from the highly technical to the general and popular.  In the talks we heard, the speakers stressed the ability of scientists to present their work in a way which makes it feel relevant, engaging, and relatable—all elements of a good story. 

 I also visited a few locations this week which hold some of our Nation’s stories—The Library of Congress[8] and the Newseum, which is a museum dedicated to the history of journalism, free speech, the first amendment, and the American voice.  Within those edifices (with architecture old and new) were exhibits dedicated to keeping record, not just of human knowledge, but of all aspects of human experience. 

 We found more than a few scientific stories during the tour of NIST that I and fellow intern Nicholas led on Tuesday.  Walking through the NIST museum, we saw pieces of the WTC, the first Neon lights, and an entire room dedicated to a man with exactly 400 patents to his name.  But the research labs we visited had stories to tell, too—like how they succeeded in measuring Planck’s constant to eight decimal places.  To give it some perspective on that level of precision, that’s like taking everyone in America and putting them in one big crowd, and asking an observer to tell exactly how many people there are.  We also got the chance to walk into what is, possibly, the quietest place on earth: an anechoic chamber built to block all external sound and deaden all the sound inside it.  It’s so quiet, the noise level registers as a negative number of decibels.  It was highly disconcerting to realize that, when none of us spoke, the loudest things each of us could possibly hear was our own heartbeats, and only because those vibrations traveled to our ears directly through our bodies.  Needless to say, those minutes may have been the most surreal of this internship.

 This week, we got to re-live one of the greatest stories ever told: the Apollo 11 Moon landing.  A reenactment, with life-size rocket projected onto the Washington Monument, drew crowds of over 50,000 at multiple showings.  I’ve never seen the Mall so packed.  Ice cream, and a viewing of the stellar documentary “Apollo 11” (which uses only original, if restored, footage and audio) completed the night beautifully.

 But as cool as science stories are, the best stories will always come from people.  Take the man from Morocco I met today as I dangled my feet in the National Sculpture Park fountain to get some relief from the incredible heat (feels just like Iowa, only more asphalt).  He’s here with 14,500 others from across the world to participate in the World Scout Jamboree.  As a former Boy Scout, I’ve enjoyed seeing the neckerchiefs decorated with a multitude of colors, the badges and backpacks proclaiming countless countries of origin, and the crowds of young people crowding the metros with dozens of spoken languages.  He only spoke Arab, French, and broken English.  As my French is only good enough to recognize the occasional word (like figuring out he worked for a law firm back in Morocco), we ended up passing his phone between us.  Google Translate took our spoken words, turned them into text in real time, and translated them for the other to hear.  This is just one example of how the world is getting smaller.  As the Newseum noted, the events and issues of the world have become accessible to us no matter where we are, and the people a continent away can tell stories just as compelling and relevant as your own neighbors. 

 Being here in D.C., I’ve heard (and witnessed) many things would make good stories.  Just look at the photos I’m including this week.  Or, take for instance something that happened a few weeks ago: A car stopping suddenly at a red light was struck by the vehicle behind it.  Instead of the angry tirade I expected to hear from either vehicle, the drivers got out, inspected the cars, found no damage, shook hands, and resolved the conflict before the light changed back to green.  I was stunned by the humanity, unexpected as it is to anyone who’s spent much time in or near the typical D.C. traffic.  That’s just one example.  I’ve heard stories from co-worker Donald about some wild times in Grad school, been regaled with tales of Kayla’s fight with winter weather, and watched Jerry spin a riveting campaign (which is still unfolding) at the sessions of D&D I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on.

 My point is that everyone has a story to tell.  And at this point on the page, I’ve written enough words that this post could qualify for most short story competitions (it’s even too long for some of them).  So I’ll leave you with one final thought, for all you scientists, engineers, or just curious people:

If you've questioned how things work, what makes our world tick, you've experienced the same kind of excitement that a child feels as their favorite story reaches a climax.  What happens next, you ask--or perhaps, what happens if.  Everything we learn about the world adds one more chapter to an unfolding story of the best kind. 

What part of it will you tell?

The assembled tour group in front of the NIST entrance logo
This little guy flew down and landed on my hand as I was using it to gesture at everyone to get together for the photo.
The anechoic chamber was a lot of fun, if disconcerting
A look through the high-vacuum chamber to the Watt balance held inside--the world's most advanced mass-measuring device
The LEGO version of the Kibble balance, capable of measuring small objects to a precision of about 1%.  It follows the same operating principle as the big one, but with one important difference: you can build this one at home, and instructions are online
I found this milk carton sitting on the sidewalk as you see it here.  Is it interesting?  Maybe not.  But with a bit of imagination, it can be.
This one was slightly contrived. I was waiting for a bus, and noticed Twizzlers strewn across the ground.  I also noticed nearby a discarded strawberry container.  Putting the two together seemed to evoke just the right type of whimsy.
The Mall was packed on Saturday night as we celebrated 50 years since the first human steps on the Moon

Joseph Tibbs