As a college student and young newspaper reporter, K.C. Cole was interested in exploring solutions to international human conflict. She didn’t think science would have much to do with her mission — that is, until she met Frank Oppenheimer.
Brother of atomic bomb builder Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Oppenheimer left a scientific legacy as founder of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum that delves into confluences of science and art as filtered through human perception.
Oppenheimer’s liberating scientific ideas inspired Cole, who had been writing for The New York Times on a variety of topics, to specialize as a science writer. After a stint with Discover magazine, she made a home in Santa Monica and worked for years as a Los Angeles Times science writer.
Cole has written eight books, including the memoir/biography “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up.” She is currently a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where she teaches journalism classes that emphasize critical and creative thinking.
For nine years Cole helped carry on Oppenheimer’s philosophies as a host and organizer of “Categorically Not!” at Santa Monica Art Studios, a discussion series that explored overlapping boundaries of science, art and politics.
In keeping with that spirit, Cole will lead a discussion titled “The Consoling Universe” on Saturday at Santa Monica Public Library. The concept — a book in progress in search of a publisher, she said — explores how a better understanding of scientific principles can improve one’s quality of life.
— Joe Piasecki
Many people see a sort of cosmic indifference in science. What’s comforting about it?
I think knowing a little about science makes you feel more comfortable about chaos and change. Things are always changing. They have to; that’s the very meaning of being alive. It’s also the meaning of time. There can be no time without change. So instead of being freaked out, you can learn to ride things out a bit. It’s not like your life is going along smoothly and every now and then there’s an obstacle. No, the obstacles are part of what’s there.
If you’re uncertain about things, that’s natural. That’s the uncertainty principle. So until we make a decision about anything, all the possibilities are up there.
You know how sometimes you love somebody and hate somebody at the same time? How do we deal with these contradictions? Well in quantum theory, that’s built in, that the opposite of a deep truth is also true, as Niels Bohr put it. To me that applies directly to journalism because it tells you the answer you get depends on the question you ask. If you do an experiment that’s looking for particles, you’ll get a particle. If you’re looking for waves you’ll get a wave.
Every atom in your body is replaced every seven years, so who are you? What are you? You’re this pattern of stuff that stays constant even though the individual parts are changing, and I just think that’s amazingly cool. It’s like how the arms of a spiral galaxy stay constant but the stars are coming and going all the time. Also we’re as much microbes as we are human cells, so that makes it really hard not to think of the environment as part of us. It’s not like we’re here and the environment is something out there. We’re all a piece of it.
There’s the anthropic principle — the idea the universe is the way it is because if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Because it goes close to religion a lot of astronomers haven’t liked it, but if there’s an infinite number of ways the universe can be, matter can be and energy can be, it’s kind of nice to think you’re here because the whole universe conspired to bring you here, in a way.
How much does science factor into human decision-making?
My students are always talking about how they can’t find the right guy but they’re really trying hard, and that’s a great example of attention blindness. Attention blindness is what happens when you’re talking on your cell phone and everything else disappears — why it’s so dangerous behind the wheel, more dangerous than being drunk. A psychologist, Dan Simons, showed a video of kids throwing basketballs and you’re supposed to count how many times they pass the balls, but while you’re watching that video a gorilla walks in front and pounds his chest. Half the people don’t even see it because they’re so focused on the basketballs. So I’d say you’re probably so focused on what you’re looking for in a partner that you’re not even seeing most of what’s around you.
It’s hard to question free will because it’s such a lovely illusion, but certainly most of the science suggests we get our feelings first and then we make up a story to justify them. So that’s kind of relaxing, too, because you don’t have to take bad moods, bad things, too seriously.
Memory is a huge one, too. I used to argue with people about what happened: who did what, who said what. The fact is our memories are extremely bad; everybody records their unique version of what they heard or saw, then it percolates and gets screwed up with other stuff, and then when you recall it [the memory] gets distorted yet again. So I don’t ever have those arguments anymore.
You recently wrote that game theory could help people work out problems. How?
A major problem we’re having, in our economy too, is people think there are winners and losers, and if you’re not a winner you’re a loser. There’s such a thing as the least-worst option, where both parties are relatively happy, that you can get to from game theory.
In terms of evolution, we’ve been given this not-entire truth of survival of the fittest — that the most aggressive, cutthroat, competitive things survive. Well that’s part of the story, but a big part is also that things cooperate and make the best of what’s there.
If rich people get absolutely everything and no one else is left with anything there won’t be anybody left to buy their products, fight their wars or teach their kids. The idea of compromise is essential, but we’ve been sold on winner-take-all.
K.C. Cole speaks on “The Consoling Universe” at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Santa Monica Public Library, 601 Santa Monica Blvd. Call (310) 458-8600.