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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

The Making of a Geek

I should have known that at some point in my life I would become a geek.

Perhaps living in the orbit of Silicon Valley has done this to me. No humanist can be averse to science, just as scientists cannot neglect history and the arts. Einstein, a dedicated amateur violinist, said the theory of relativity occurred to him by intuition: “Music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

My adult interest in science started when “Star Trek” was a failed television series. I repeatedly watched episodes as Captain Kirk piloted the starship Enterprise to new worlds and into forbidden themes like cultural dislocation and race relations. I was just off the starship Columbia where I had fulfilled my science requirement with a course in astronomy for non-astronomers, which was designed to soften the science blow to delicate undergraduate brows.

When the series returned with Jean-Luc Picard, the aloof historian and archaeologist, I became a determined Trekkie. I bought a Starfleet pin and wore it on trips even though I guessed people would think I was crazy until a flight attendant told me she had one too but couldn’t wear it at work.

Many people in the space program got started watching “Star Trek,” including Charlie Bolden, the current administrator of NASA. His scientists are exploring warp drive, and he likes the Federation of Planets (a cosmic UN), which his agency is working toward. Astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson, a tireless science advocate and environmental activist, and I share a devotion to Trek. Stephen Hawking thrillingly appeared as himself in one episode where Commander Data played poker with holograms of Newton, Einstein, and Hawking. (Data is the Enterprise’s android who tries to become human by acting in Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes stories and playing the violin and poker.)

Over the 35 years we lived in New Mexico, I developed an interest in the history of the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories (based in Albuquerque) started to shift some funding from weapons development to energy research, and while the budgets still tipped toward weapons, a quiet struggle continued among scientists about righting the balance. Several books had covered figures like Oppenheimer, Teller, and Bethe. During the furor over Three-Mile Island, for a story on nuclear energy, I interviewed Norris Bradbury, Oppenheimer’s successor. (The solar-heated library at Los Alamos is named for him.) A quiet scholarly man, Bradbury told me that the nuclear reactor in a plant is safe, but outmoded “plumbing” is dangerous. When I was working on a New York Times story about the 50th anniversary of Los Alamos, I realized that no one had told the stories of many people who had worked there during the war years and were dying--not just the scientists but also the lower level people who were mechanics, janitors, cooks--and wives. Some critics have suggested that “Manhattan,” the WGN series about the bomb project, is unrealistic. Although it takes dramatic liberties, it captures the culture, science, and mood. It also reveals the lives of the mostly invisible women at wartime Los Alamos.

When we moved to the Bay Area, the science bug bit again. My breakthrough experience was a course in the Fromm program at the University of San Francisco. Delirious with anticipation, I signed up for a class in elementary algebra taught by a retired math professor from the University of Chicago. I expected a small group but from the first day, the classroom was packed with gray heads. For weeks, we solved equations together on the blackboard and diligently did our algebra homework. (When was the last time you did algebra homework?)

My interest in science remains scattershot. I’ve been reading Thomas Forrest Kelly’s Capturing Music, a history of the invention of musical notation by Guido D’Arezzo, a medieval Umbrian monk. (Undoubtedly, the book also piqued my interest because Guido is my father’s name.) It’s a beautiful book, with lavishly illustrated pages of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and a handy CD. The story grabbed me, because I had always taken for granted the notations in my piano books. Musical notation happened mostly because of new music that began to appear about 900 years ago. Monks had always learned music simply by aurally memorizing straight-line Gregorian chant (the way I learned it in Catholic grammar school.) As music became polyphonic, the singers needed guideposts to hang on to. Voila! Written notes, staves, sharps, flats, etc. The book’s difficulty increased in complexity, as the music history grew more complex. The book evolved into a story about mathematics, cutting time into little pieces, giving it measures such as tempo, pitch and dynamics.

The popular press and arts produce plenty of fodder for newly-minted geeks. I read The New York Times’ Science Times--the paper’s most popular special section--every Tuesday. Every day I get terrific postings on Facebook from I Fucking Love Science. Yes that’s its name and it’s a serious site. Today, posts offered new NASA’s new maps of the oceans and information about the dreadful Zika virus. Sci-fi movies have grown in popularity and sophistication. (I exclude such pop adventure movies as “Star Wars.”)

Recently, my science interest hit home across the sea. A cousin in Italy has started La Nuova Scuola Pitagorica (The New Pythagorean School) dedicated to the Greek philosopher, mathematician and vegetarian. The organization is based in the modern city, Crotone, Calabria where Pythagoras settled in the sixth century BCE, when it was Kroton. My cousin is a humanist who writes about Pythagoras’ interest in peace and women’s issues. The Aquinian essays he sends to me are in highly-literate Italian, and reading them is a challenge that sharpens my senses.

Finally, Christmas brought me Mary Beard’s SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome. Not much science. Beard does calculate the size of Roman army and the empire’s population—not an easy task. But I’ll bet she used algebra for it!

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