A Few Mom Reflections

My Mom, Lucille Burnett Garmon, died on Sat Oct 17. From Obituary:
Lucy is remembered as extraordinarily devoted to helping others gain the empowerment of greater scientific understanding. She was driven by faith that the world could be made better through wider participation of an engaged and scientifically literate citizenry. The history of science, she well knew, like human history generally, is replete with missteps and the distortions of ego, yet science, more than any other endeavor, she believed, is ultimately self-correcting, continually teaches humility, and represents our best hope for expanding knowledge and, thereby, human freedom.
She inspired a number of the reflections which I have blogged about in the last few years.
From "Walls and Fridges," Lake Chalice, 2012 May 5:

I have come to recognize how certain of my childhood lessons both cut to the heart and have been taken to heart. Sitting seems to be significant. I sat on a wall. I sat on a refrigerator. Now I sit on a zafu (round cushion).

The wall. When I was about four-and-a-half, at the end of our front yard was a 3-foot wall going down to the sidewalk. My Mom was then working on her PhD in Chemistry. I was very sad about something, and I went outside, sobbing, to wait for her return from the lab. I sat on that wall and cried for her. She didn't come and didn't come and didn't come. After my distress had passed on its own, after my psyche had hardened a bit because sources of comfort could not be counted on, she finally did.

I understood she was committed both to me and to something called “work.” Not just any work. Both Mom and Dad were academics, scholars, college teachers. The unspoken lesson of their example was that the only sort of work that was truly worthy, that was worth being away from family, was learning. And teaching others. Expanding and transforming ourselves and helping others be expanded and transformed.

From "The Force of Levity," The Liberal Pulpit, 2013 Dec 16:

When tribal identity is at stake we become rigid, inflexible, dogmatic about "speaking correctly" -- and this is just as true for those who call themselves "atheists" as for those who call themselves "theists." When our tribalism is not at stake, almost all of us, whether we call ourselves "atheist" or "theist," are flexible, creative, open, and charitable in the ways we use and respond to nonstandard language. The question then arises: What's more important, defending our tribal identity or connecting with other people where they are?

For instance, here's a story from my childhood. A couple Thanksgivings ago, Mom recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of ever having heard this story before – nor do I have any recollection of the incident itself, which occurred when I was about five years old. We were back at home after my first visit to some fair or carnival where I had seen helium balloons. I had evidently been turning over the experience in my five-year-old brain, and I asked: “Mom, why do they go up?”

Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they go up?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.”

And this satisfied me.

When Mom told me this story a couple years ago, I did NOT think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? She might have tried explaining that gravitational attraction is proportional to mass, and that stuff that’s more dense has more mass for a given volume, and helium is less dense than air, so gravity pulls the air harder than it pulls the helium in the balloon, so gravity pulls the air down and under the balloon, pushing that less-dense object upward. Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she gave me this word, “levity” as a sort of placeholder. With wisdom and quick wit, she used language to connect with me where I was, rather than to leave me behind.

I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it is, in fact, so true. I love knowing again what apparently I was first taught at age five but forgot: there is a force called levity that makes things rise.

The world is full of wonder. At times when I might think gravity makes everything go down, I recall that some things go up.

Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.

From "Which Is To Be Master?" Lake Chalice, 2011 Apr 27:

Can we say that the cosmos, then, is God – even though the cosmos is neither supernatural nor person-like? May reality thus described reasonably be called God? May we call “God” a cosmos that has “most” of the qualities traditionally associated with God – or must we insist that supernatural and person-like necessarily must be a part of the definition? How shall such a question be answered?
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.' (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)
My mother was a physics and chemistry professor. My father was an English professor. Once, at dinner, Mom posed a question to my sister Alizon and me, as she was sometimes wont to do.

“If you throw a rock into the air, straight up – perfectly vertical – it will reach its topmost point, and then start to come straight down. At that instant at the top, is the rock accelerating?”

“No,” my father interjected. “For just an instant, it’s not moving at all.”

“At that instant it is stopped,” agreed Mom. “But it’s still accelerating. Acceleration means that its velocity is changing, and the rock’s velocity is changing throughout its trajectory – on the way up and on the way down.”

“No,” said my father, “that is not what 'acceleration' means.”

Since Dad’s specialization was 18th-century British literature, perhaps Dad had in mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. Dr. Johnson defines accelerate as:
"To make quick, to hasten, to quicken motion; to give a continual impulse to motion, so as perpetually to increase."
“You scientists,” fumed Dad, “don’t get to change the English language.”

Actually, scientists do get to change the meanings of words. Sorry, Dad. Sometimes scientists even do so through an explicit and formal process, as when the International Astronomical Union, on 2006 August 24, adopted a new definition of “planet” for our solar system. Their definition excluded Pluto, which had been within the definition of planet since its discovery in 1930. More often, the shift in meaning disseminates slowly and informally.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. As we learned more about motion, we saw that all regular changes in velocity were mathematically describable, and we needed the word “accelerate” to refer to all such changes, not just to speeding up.

From "Drawing the Line," Lake Chalice, 2012 Sep 14:

A couple years ago my mother had a point to make about my environmental concerns and the actions I take out of that concern. She clipped out and mailed to me a Sunday comic strip of “Zits.”
Jeremy asks his friend, Pierce, “Why aren’t you wearing your boots today, Pierce?”
Pierce: “Can’t. I’m boycotting leather in support of animal rights.”
Jeremy: “Then couldn’t you just wear your sneakers?”
Pierce: “Nope. The rubber soles are made with petroleum-based plasticizers, and I’m against arctic drilling.”
Jeremy: “What about your wooden sandals?”
Pierce: “And support deforestation? Not likely. I’m an activist, Jeremy. I have to set an example to show others that there is a better way to live.”
[In the last panel, we finally see Pierce’s footwear: goopy blocks of tofu]
Jeremy: “Hence, the tofu shoes.”
Pierce: “Teriyaki flavor. Want some?”
Sometimes the quest to do the right thing with our purchasing decisions can just seem silly.

I wrote back to Mom:
"It’s worse than that. Tofu is made from soybeans, and if the soybeans aren’t organic, there’s the harm of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and there’s pesticides. Even if it’s all organic, there may have been monoculture growing, without proper crop rotation and variation. Finally, even if you fix all that, there’s almost certainly some oppressed labor somewhere along the way. So, Mom, where do you draw the line? Do you so thoroughly trust your government as to figure that anything they haven’t outlawed has got to be morally and environmentally OK to participate in?”
She never answered. When I saw her some months later at Christmas, I asked her about it.

"I assumed the question was rhetorical," she said.

I can imagine my children writing to me with that question: “Well, OK, Dad, where do you draw the line?” I don’t know if I’d answer either.

From "Falling Apples," Lake Chalice, 2012 May 20:

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. – German Proverb

Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. – “Isaac Newton,” Wikipedia

My mother was, and still is at the time of this writing, a scientist. Since her research was at the boundary between chemistry and physics, her teaching career has included some years on the chemistry faculty, and other years on the physics faculty. In 1960, women scientists, and, in particular, mom scientists, were still a novelty. The Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch that year ran a human interest story about a mom and her little boy: me, age 15 months.

Along with the brief article the paper ran a photo of Mom, Dad, me, and her electron microscope. The captions says: "Gerald Garmon [Dad], and Steven [my first name; "Meredith" is my middle name] pick mother up at her office. Electron Microscope Mrs. Garmon uses is much bigger than Steven."

My perch is not steady. An electron microscope is not firm grounding. But Dad's holding me, and I am holding on to the microscope. In my short pants and toddler shoes, I'm looking at Mom, and she's looking at me, while she has a finger on the control panel.

Mom looked for truth, in the way that scientists do. With the then-high-tech electron microscope, she looked for tiny, tiny truth to contribute to a grand edifice. She investigated the structure of nickel electrodeposits on copper monocrystals.

Mom wanted to know, to understand – and not just for her own sake. She was called – called by the cosmos, ancient and infinite, immediate and infinitesimal – to toil in orchards where Newton and so many other scientists had plucked fruits of empirical knowledge. Her life has been dedicated to service to future generations, to participation in the processes of unfolding truth so that those who come after will understand this world better than our brief lifespans will allow to us.

As the years rolled by, I grew, a product of my times, my parents, and my own predispositions. I went not into science, but into philosophy. For several years of young adulthood my primary interest was in philosophy of science. I explored questions about how science works, what legitimates its claims. Does it discover truth, or invent fictions of ever-increasing convenience? And how would we know?

Scientists, like the rest of us, are apes descended from apes, built to be social animals, learning from each other as we must, and learning biases and prejudices as we do. The direction of science is set by its leaders; they become leaders through some mix of social skills and charisma as well as scientific brilliance. Is this a regrettable condition that we should strive to overcome as much as we can? Or does the scientific enterprise in some essential way depend on the very humanity that "skews" it? (If so, what would "unskewed" even mean?)

Our brains are flukes of evolution. Animal brains are selected for ability to do three basic things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. Primate brains have the special challenge to do these three things in a fantastically complicated social context that requires, on the one hand, intricate cooperation, and on the other hand, complex intrigue and competition. How is it that a brain thus produced can do theoretical physics? Can build, and peer through electron microscopes? Can discover the structure of nickel electrodeposits on copper monocrystals? In doing these things, are we mirroring reality, or projecting our own brain functions upon nature? And, again, how would we know?

These are some of the philosophy of science questions that captivated my attention for some years as a graduate student. Scientists gaze in wonder through telescopes and microscopes, and I gazed in wonder at the scientists -- just as I gazed at Mom in that Times-Dispatch photo.

Many of us spend much of our adult years coming to terms with our relationship with our mothers: consciously working it out, or unconsciously playing it out. For me, this relationship involved a relationship to the entire scientific enterprise, from Isaac Newton on down.

I came to stand – the apple finally landed – upon the conclusion that science is for controlling and predicting. Mom says science seeks to explain. There are, however, many forms and functions of explanation, and the sort of explanation that is “scientific” is the sort that affords prediction and control – for prediction is the only test of an explanation in science, and ability to control is a product of ability to predict.
The powers of prediction and control, steadily growing from Newton’s time to ours are truly impressive. They made possible our modern world of cars and computers, cell phones and internet, CAT scans, artificial hearts, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, and food production and distribution that sustain a world population orders of magnitude beyond Thomas Malthus’ wildest imaginings. Yet I want to do more than predict and control my world. I want to befriend it. Our story and picture of reality must be consistent with the well-confirmed conclusions scientists reach, yet provide also for awe and wonder, humility and gratitude, moral grounding and aesthetic bliss. The truth we need is not merely the truth about which observable causes yield which observable effects. We need also the truth that each cause is a sacrament, and each effect a revelation of divinity. We need also the truth of love and connection. We need also the truth that control, along with the ego that believes itself to be in control, is an illusion.

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