Tag Archives: scimom

Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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A note to my boy, who is six today

Dear Declan,

You are six today. Six!

That’s halfway to twelve.

That’s one-third of the way to 18.

You’ve grown so much this year. Taller. Wiser. Kinder.  More confident, and though I didn’t think it was possible, more curious. Aggressively curious, even. And infectiously thrilled by every new thing that you learn.

You wander around the house, wondering aloud, asking questions I don’t know the answers to, like “Why is Qatar so small?” Or quasi-rhetorical ones, like “3.5 billion years isn’t a very long time for life to take to evolve, is it mom?” (Props to Carl Sagan.)  You quiz me to find out if I know which continents use the most electricity, or sit up with a start, just moments after waking, and tell me “I just got what plasma actually is.”

On Mother’s Day, you explained how the Himalayas were formed to three separate audiences, how they are folded and getting taller every year. No wonder I got so excited when I found a DNA stencil at the craft store yesterday.

We’ve traded in bedtime storybooks for brief tomes about Silicon, Chlorine, Fluorine & Iodine, and Sulfur. Then you always manage to extract sciencey, psychedelic stories from my imagination in which you are the star (sometimes of the plasma variety) before you fall asleep.  Thankfully, you return to storybooks now and then when I grow weary of molecules. When there are pictures or short chapters, you do most of the bedtime reading.

All that, and I can still say silly things like “hey, my son turned into a pink punch balloon” at the dining room table, watch you peek over said balloon and say to me in earnest, “no mom, I’m right here.”

Earlier in the school year, you started asking me six times four, three times seven, nine times ten from the back seat of the car, using your fingers like the Montessori chains.  “I’m not sure if it’s safe for mommy to do math and drive,” I told you.  You kept testing my multiplication skills anyway.

A few weeks ago, you sat down at the dining room table with me and asked “what is 122 times 365?” I thought you were just seeing what I could do in my head, but you had a greater purpose. I leaned on my phone calculator for an answer. You repeated the number I read — 44, 530 — and looked thoughtful for a moment before you declared: “that’s how many days the oldest person who ever lived was alive.”

I am always a little stunned, although I shouldn’t be at this point, at the things you understand – like the kind of math you have to do in order to find that number. And then I’m a little sad, because I also understand why the length of a life might be of such interest to you. You watched your Grandfafa fade away last summer, and bravely read a book at his funeral.  The last year has taken us to a plethora of hospitals and funeral homes. You know I spend every Saturday morning with someone else who will be passing soon. You dive-bomb me with hugs and kisses the moment you sense any sadness.

Sometimes, I am overcome with worry around 4 a.m., feeling this is all much too much for you – deaths, illnesses, separated parents – all this while you’re figuring out how to keep your feet clean in the muddy world of playground politics. But we’re good about talking right now, you and me. We share and work through things.  We feel sad when we need to. We rebound. It feels like most of what we do when we are together is laugh.

I try to remember to stop and breathe you in the way I did when you were a baby, to breathe in these fleeting moments when I can still carry you, still snuggle you so that you can feel little and safe.

The real reason I imagine that you want to know how many days are possible in a lifetime is because you are busy calculating how to make each one count. And you do. You really do. More than anyone I have ever met.

Declan, I love you so spectacularly much that my heart can hardly stand it.

Happy sixth birthday.

I love you infinity,


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The re-education of a science mom

The other day, my son was asked to draw a picture of something he is grateful for.

He made semi-scribbly, red twisty lines. Above them, he wrote “DNA.”

I asked him why. Why DNA?

“Because it’s here,” he said. “No life would be here without it. Not the trees, not you or me. Nothing.”

To be honest, I am far more grateful that he is happy we exist than I am that he understands DNA.

I asked him if I could blog about what he said and he agreed.

“What should I say about DNA?” I asked him.

“Life needs it in order to be here, just think about it,” he said. “Just write about it in a long sentence. Write that it controls cells. That cancer happens when DNA is broken.”

I think back on high school and remember myself as a girl with an aversion to science.  Today, I don’t know that it was an aversion so much as something that my teachers presented in a way that I couldn’t find relevant to my daily life. I was technically adept, but confounded by chemistry. And if there were programs designed to promote women and girls in science and math in 1980s Central Ohio, we never crossed paths. I veered into social science and the arts and humanities, where the world seemed to invite me.

So now I live with an almost six-year-old whose aptitude for understanding quantum mechanics, geology, biology and especially astronomy have long since dwarfed my own. This is thanks to Google, several extremely cool kids’ science books, our fantastic local science center. a great, old-school observatory, the vast array of images in discounted Hubble Telescope picture books, PBS, National Geographic, the History, Science and Discovery channels and the availability of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix.

When my son was two, he was in love with everything he could find out about the planets, moons, stars, dark matter and endless nebulae (he loved watching the short film Powers of Ten over and over, which we found on a now-defunct kids’ astronomy site). Around that time, Neil DeGrasse Tyson floated the idea on some talk show or other that he was working on a book that would tell parents the key things they needed to know to be scientifically literate and raise scientifically literate children.

I’ve longed for this book, although I think my re-education in science has gone okay without it. My son used to get frustrated with me over the things I couldn’t answer. Now we’re both content to let him do most of the teaching.  Truthfully, he always has.

Here’s the thing, though: If it all went away tomorrow, if his interests suddenly took a radical turn into Batman and baseball and fart jokes, I like to think that I wouldn’t turn into a judgmental parent who turned her nose up at “lesser” pursuits. I’d be sad to see interests that have been so fun and exciting and integral to his life diminished, but our lives would be easier. I wouldn’t have to evaluate, every year, the thorny politics of introducing him to a new classroom and new teachers. Parents wouldn’t dislike me because I’m worried about my smart kid.  To most, it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like bragging.

If you go around telling people that your kid is smart, special, or at least has a high aptitude for a particular subject, I’ve found out that you’re likely to do that child more harm than good in the classroom, on the playground, in life. What you say can turn morph into a temporary blind spot for teacher, who has heard a thousand parents’ confident descriptions, many of them wrong, or at least lacking the perspective on a sea of children that an experienced educator has.

I try to let my son unfold before his teachers without my assistance. And if they are good teachers, they find him. They see him.  And if they are very good, they know how complicated it can be for sweet-faced boy who still has all of his baby teeth to know so much, so very, very much. Together, we see him recognize the reality of things that once just seemed cool or interesting to know before, not scary or heavy. I see it suddenly weigh on him and I sometimes wish I could erase that thing he learned a year ago, that thing I thought he would forget. He rarely forgets.

And so I let him explore Super Mario Galaxy, joke books, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Justin Beiber. I am relieved when dances like a lion, puts a pylon on his head or tells me about playing “crazy baby” on the playground with a friend. I don’t want him to be the ultimate brainiac of the universe. That’s lonely. I want him to be every bit his brilliant self, but I also want him to be happy. I want him to feel okay and whole when he’s not feeling brilliant.

I imagine Sagan, as well as Tyson and the wide host of living celebrity science advocates I am now acquainted with as people with a dark blue sense of humor.

I keep joking with friends: “If you’re going to raise an astrophysicist, better to raise an astrophysicist who can make jokes about his balls.”

Or maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s my science mommy prayer.

This post is a contribution to the #scimom collection, an experimental conjunction of mom and science bloggers.

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