David J Helfand is the chairman of the American Institute of Physics, past President of the American Astronomical Society, and has been a faculty member at Columbia University for 45 years. He’s authored nearly 200 scientific publications and mentored 22 Ph.D. students. But most of his teaching has involved teaching science to non-science majors. David instituted the first change in Columbia’s core curriculum in 50 years by introducing science to all first-year students. David’s book is A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind.
In this interview on the School for Good Living podcast, David joins Brilliant to discuss how living a bit more skeptically with scientific habits of mind can help you improve the quality of your thinking, your life, and even the world. With all the information that we’re producing every single day, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to, what to make it mean, and what to do as a result. Our challenge today is not the scarcity of information, but the overabundance of it. But David helps navigate a course that hopefully will result in our survival and our thriving for not only us as humans but all of life.
174 David Helfand Transcript
Speaker 1: [00:00:10] “Throughout human history, information has been limited, difficult to access, and expensive.” So writes my guest today, David J. Helfand. David is the chair of the American Institute of Physics. Past President of the American Astronomical Society, and he’s been a faculty member at Columbia University for 45 years. He’s authored nearly 200 scientific publications and mentored 22 Ph.D. students. But most of his teaching has involved teaching science to non-science majors. David’s work can show you how living a bit more skeptically with scientific habits of mind can help you improve the quality of your thinking, your life, and, dare I say it, even the world. David instituted the first change in Columbia’s core curriculum in 50 years by introducing science to all first-year students. David’s book is A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind. All that information that we’re producing every single day. It’s hard to know what to pay attention to, what to make it mean, what to do as a result. So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that our challenge today, or one of them, is not just not information, the scarcity of information, but the overabundance of it. But David is here to help us navigate a course that hopefully will result in our survival and our thriving for not only us as humans, but all of life. So in this conversation, we discuss a lot of interesting things. I hope in this conversation where I follow my curiosity very Speaker 1: [00:01:43] much you take away something that improves the quality of your life. If you pick up this book, I hope that you enjoyed as much as I did and that it too gives you insights that improve the quality of your life. So with that, you can find David online at DavidJHelfand.info. I hope you enjoy this conversation with my friend David Helfand. [00:02:23][40.6]
Brilliant Miller [00:00:11] David, welcome to The School for Good Living.
David Helfand [00:00:14] Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:17] Will you tell me, please, what is life about?
David Helfand [00:00:18] Well, I guess I’m a hedonist in the original Greek sense of the word, which is living it well for pleasure, but not for excessive pleasure. For pleasure in the life of the mind, for pleasure in the company one keeps, for pleasure in the appreciation of nature.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:48] Well, thank you for that. And I’d like to talk about nature a little bit. It’s something you’ve written extensively about from the perspective of a scientist. But I want to start with a couple of aspects, perhaps specifics of vision and hearing. Right. You’ve written a book called A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind. And in this book, you talk about a couple of things related to vision and to hearing that I thought were particularly profound. You talk about how our senses are limited.
David Helfand [00:01:37] Right?
Brilliant Miller [00:01:37] And what we can observe and discern is limited not only by our senses, but by our instruments. And you you share something that I thought was really interesting about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony related to our hearing. You were you talk about that for a moment.
David Helfand [00:01:52] Sure. You can find this on my website. It’s entertaining to listen to. So our eyes are particularly limited. We view them as our most important sense. They give us so much information about the world, but they only capture one octave of what we call light or what a scientists call the electromagnetic spectrum. There are 60 other octaves that we don’t see at all. And we’re completely blind to those. Some other creatures see them. Rattlesnakes can see in the infrared. Bees can see in the ultraviolet. And then, of course, we’ve spent the last 75 years in astronomy, building telescopes and cameras and instruments that allow us to see these other 60 octaves is how we know they’re there. But our sense of sight has been honed by several hundred million years of evolution and tuned very precisely to the single octave of light that the sun puts out most of its energy. Now our ears are sensitive to ten octaves. I went to the New York Philharmonic last night and heard them do Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. It’s quite exciting. And you hear the piccolo’s and the flutes and you hear the double bases and the timpani and when you’re listening to a chorus, as in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, The Sopranos and the bases, and you hear ten octaves of music. So to illustrate how limited our vision is, what I’ve done is taken my favorite piece of music, which is the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, and put filters on it so you can only hear one octave at a time. And of course, it sounds either like a bunch of rumbling stones or a bunch of angry crickets, but it doesn’t sound like the spectacular piece of music that it is because you’re so limited. And that’s how I try to convey by analogy how limited our vision is of the world around us that we only see one artist.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:49] Yeah. And I think this is so remarkable because, you know, there’s not only and here’s a sentence from your book, by the way, that is where I found this. I love this. When you say we are always limited by our senses and our or by our instruments, by the influence of extraneous factors, by our prejudices and expectations, and by the noise inherent in all physical processes. So we have all these limitations and then we have the noise as well. And not to mention all the meaning making and all the cognitive filtering and the biases and things like that. But I thought a really interesting maybe an interesting example of this is is another story that you tell in the book about your dad who was a farmer. Right. And he was certain that nights with the full moon were colder, nights where there was no full moon. But I wonder if you’d be willing to share that, that little bit of a story and how it represents maybe a pattern of thinking that many of us engage in from time to time and how we’re actually misleading ourselves or maybe others when we do that.
David Helfand [00:04:49] Well, so as a farmer, you know, he was an acute observer of the natural world because it really makes a difference and you learn to read the weather. But on winter nights when it was very, very cold, the full moon was out. And he had mistakenly, I think, derived this pattern that when the full moon was out, it was very, very cold. And so therefore there was some connection between those two. Correlation is not causation. That’s one of the first things we teach our students, but nonetheless, that’s how we make patterns and make sense of the world around us. And, you know, I knew when I was told this when I was in high school that this couldn’t be true because I knew the moon couldn’t affect the weather. But I never sort of thought about it until it suddenly dawned on me one day when I wasn’t even thinking about this issue was that, of course, it’s an unclear night that it’s coldest in the wintertime because of what’s called radiation or cooling. The earth can radiate its infrared radiation into space without it being trapped by the clouds. And so when it was clear, it was very cold. And of course, some nights when it’s clear the full moon is out. And so you make that correlation. One has nothing to do with the other, except they are united by this fact that clear nights are cold and clear nights are nights on which you can see the full moon.
Brilliant Miller [00:06:13] So was your dad. Did you ever explain did you ever have the chance to explain this to him or.
David Helfand [00:06:17] You know, I don’t think I realized this after he passed away at the age of 93. So he probably went to his grave believing that the nights were colder when the full moon was out.
Brilliant Miller [00:06:27] Well, in my limited experience, in my 44 years, what I’ve learned of human history and the scientific progress and so forth, it seems that the history of humanity is simply the history of being a little less wrong. So, you know, this is work that you’re deeply engaged and I thought it was interesting, too, in your book where you talk about information and you make this point that I had never really stopped to think about, that was pretty remarkable when I paused on this for a moment where you write, Throughout human history, information has been limited, difficult to access and expensive. But how remarkable that those things are no longer true. And while there’s many benefits or blessings that come from that no longer being true, there’s maybe just as many challenges or complications. Well, you talk about how remarkable it is. That information is so abundant if you believe it’s remarkable and what the costs and maybe the effects of that being so are for us today.
David Helfand [00:07:26] Yeah, this is, I think, a very important point. So when I say information has always been limited, difficult to access and expensive, I have in mind, you know, the how we spent 98% of our time as Homo sapiens and hunter-gatherer groups and information such as it was could only be contained in one head. There was no writing. You couldn’t pass it on. And so when the shaman got old, which probably meant 35 in those days, he had to pass on his knowledge to the new acolyte. And so one of the young hunters would have to be taken out of the crucial task of hunting and spend an entire year, you know, following the shaman around, understanding when the wildebeest migrated and what the stars told you about the time of year and the seasons, medicinal roots and poisonous berries and things like that. So it was limited information in that it just fit in one person’s head. It was difficult to access and then it took a year or more to get it out of that head into another one. And it’s very expensive because you removed a hunter from the tribe. But the information, I think, was largely accurate because it was tested every day against reality in that, you know, the person who collected the basket full of poisonous berries was soon eliminated from the gene pool. And the young hunter who led you to the hungry lions instead of the grazing gazelles was likewise soon ignored. So the information that we had was limited, but it was highly accurate because it comported with reality. Otherwise you died. Basically, what’s happened just in the last fraction of 1% of human’s time on this earth is that of course, we develop language and writing, and then we developed, you know, technology that allowed us to proliferate that writing, such that information has exploded. A few years ago, IBM did a study that we produced 2.5 quintillion bytes or quite a quintillion bytes of data every day, which is, if you put it in, printed out in books, would fill a bookcase that went around the earth at the equator and was half a kilometer tall. That’s every day we produce that many bytes of information. So obviously, no one can vet all this information. And as a consequence, much of it’s nonsense. And the difficulty we have is that this nonsense is now universally available, basically for free, as long as you pay your Internet bill. And as a consequence, we’re not equipped to pass this information and get the valid information from the morass of the tsunami, as I call it, of misinformation. And then, of course, deliberate disinformation as well. So there are enormous advantages to this. Just yesterday, I was teaching my students about how the spike protein fits onto the ACE2 receptor and the coronavirus as it infects the lung cell. And looking at the molecules which have tens of thousands of atoms, each of which location is precisely known, you can have a computer program that can rotate them around and see how they fit together and design a little small molecule drug that can block that interaction of the virus can infect you. I mean, this information is absolutely fantastic compared to what we knew even 50 years ago. But the vast swamp of misinformation is, I think, an existential crisis in our society because we don’t have good ways to filter it and we don’t have an education system that equips people to recognize the problem.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:08] Yeah, I think that’s true. And you know, your writing gave me a new perspective on this, where I’ve thought of myself as a secretive truth for a long time. And after reading your book, I think maybe I’ve been misguided. And I thought what you wrote about truth with a capital T is not a matter of great interest. Truth is a human invention. Nature is the primary object of my concern. I thought that was a really interesting insight. And the way you talk about truth and meaning versus understanding, will you kind of break that down a little bit? And can you help me better understand that? Are people listening and why that might improve the quality of their lives?
David Helfand [00:11:46] Sure. Let’s stop here for a second. I see something that’s going to interrupt us with silly symbols. There we go. That’s dead. Okay, so I was talking about their science, which is one way of approaching the world. It’s the way I approach the world. It’s not the only way of approaching the world. It’s not even the only way I approach the world. But it is a very disciplined way of approaching the world. And what I said there is, in my view, and this is not universally held among scientists, that science is not a search for truth with a capital T, because truth is something we can find in mathematics, which is a purely human invention. And I’m told in philosophy, although I don’t understand enough philosophy to see how that works. But anyway, those are human systems where you can prove things that are true. Science doesn’t advance by proving things true. It usually advances by proving things false, that is, are false models for the way nature works. And so that’s why I give nature the ultimate authority to test our ideas against the. Now I feel about the second, but what is the other thing you wanted to know about.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:03] Truth and then meaning versus meaning.
David Helfand [00:13:05] As meaning understanding. Right. So, so most of us, I think most humans that I know anyway. One there to be some larger purpose to their lives. I’ve sort of accepted that there is no larger purpose to my life. There’s a purpose in that I interact with lots of other people and lots of other creatures and things and I gain benefit from that. And one hopes they gain benefit from that at least. My students pay money to do that. But the fact is that I view science as a route to attempt to understand how some phenomenon works, not to impute meaning to that phenomenon. I study the universe, which is about the biggest thing you can study, and I find it exhilarating to be able to uncover some little mechanism in the universe that allows me to understand how some observation I’ve made actually works with the physical principles that we’ve learned here on Earth. But I don’t impute any meaning to that. It’s just the way the universe works. So I seek understanding, not meaning. And I understand that’s not a common human pursuit.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:27] Yeah, I think that’s the case. And at the same time, I do think there’s a surprise no one’s asserting otherwise. But I think there’s a way in which this comports very well with some spiritual teachers who endeavor at least to be conscious of the meaning we’re imparting to events or circumstances, you know, and to be with what is rather than, you know, thinking it should be or shouldn’t be a certain way and just do it. There’s a way, I think that is very Zen maybe. And I’m not a Zen scholar by any stretch, but.
David Helfand [00:15:02] Neither am I.
Brilliant Miller [00:15:04] I appreciate that. Well, and something else that you talk about it was a fact, right? I had a friend of mine who once suggested to me the difference between truth and fact, and he used the example of the story of the tortoise and the hare. And it was his opinion that you know, there’s the fact in that, you know, there probably really wasn’t in a substantial a tortoise that race the hare people have of course stage that sense but so the fact that that doesn’t necessarily exist but the truth of you know persistence often wins the day is kind of this philosophical assertion is maybe there but I thought what you say about facts was pretty interesting. How do you talk about facts? How do you think about them? What are they?
David Helfand [00:15:48] Right. So I have a very narrow definition of facts. And I started this when I started giving a lot of talks on global warming, on climate change, which I think is sort of a critical issue for our time. And I wanted to be sure that I was separating what I call facts from the implications, the models, the predictions, the politics, the economics, the philosophy, the psychology. I wanted some things that I could call facts that I could hope to build a beginning of understanding. Like if we could agree on these things. And so my very narrow definition of fact is a measurement of the material world. So that first is a measurement. And secondly, it’s just of the material world, not the mental world or anything else, which has an associated uncertainty assigned to it. Because none of our measurements are perfect that has been vetted by skeptical review and preferably independently be produced by another competent person able to make the same measurement of the physical world. So when we talk about things like climate change, you know, we have measurements of the temperature, we have measurements of the oceans acidity, we have measurements of the composition of the atmosphere and the number of CO2 molecules and methane molecules, etc.. And I classify those things as facts. The models that we make about how the climate works, the predictions we make for what’s going to happen in the future, those are not facts. Those those are different things. They’re valid things to pursue, but they’re not facts. So I have this very narrow focus on what a fact is with the hope that reasonable people can agree that there are such things as these facts which are direct measurements of the material world, and then we can build from there as to whether we can effectively model these, whether we can make reasonable predictions, and whether we can draw policy implications from those.
Brilliant Miller [00:17:47] Yeah, you know, What comes to mind is I’ve heard once a Chinese saying that the beginning of wisdom is naming things. And how interesting here you’re naming a fact and, you know, looking for something that, you know, multiple parties could agree on and go forward. But what’s interesting to me then is even if we do look at the same facts, that we can then interpret it very differently or want to make very different decisions. So I can see the utility in having a common ground. But even from there, I mean, is this now the domain of a different discipline or how do you how do you think of it once, even once we are on the same page, assuming we ever get there as it relates to facts?
David Helfand [00:18:27] Yeah, certainly one can put facts together in different ways. We made my step after facts is that we have models. Now, what is a model? Well, a model is fairly constrained in my definition, too. It has to conform to everything that we know to be true from our previous measurements. And it has to be consistent with all these measurements, of these facts of nature. But it also has to do something useful. And in this case, the useful thing to do is to try to predict what’s happened, what’s going to happen in the future, or even to post what happened in the past. That’s a way to test the model. You know, can we run it backwards in time and see if it tells us what the earth was like 100 years ago, given the changes that we’ve been doing out in the atmosphere, etc.? So the next thing we have to do is go to models. And but I always make clear that models are models. They’re not the real world. They’re models of the world. And we do them as carefully and as thoroughly and check them as much as we can. But they still are just models, and the future will be the future independent of what we think about it. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:19:37] You know, what’s coming to my now is I’m thinking of the story you tell in the book about a student of yours who knew the moon didn’t come out in the morning. She didn’t need to look. So even though you have a model that tells you when the moon will appear, there are some people who just they know already and they won’t look. What occurred to you. Do you have a name for those kinds of people? And how do you how do you think of that? Or how do you how do you deal with those people?
David Helfand [00:20:05] I deal with them by choice, as little as possible. When they’re my students, I feel an obligation. So, yeah, this was a student who actually after an hour of me with a basketball and a tennis ball going around and she was the sun and, you know, we got the phases of the moon, right? And when the moon was going to be up, when it was half full and waning and she said it was 9:00 in the morning and it’s a waning crescent. And I said, That’s right. And she said, That can’t be true because the moon’s not up in the daytime. And I said, Yes, it is. I said, It really is. Sometimes there’s no no, the moon’s only up at night. And so I said, Well, come tomorrow to my office, because we’ll be able to see it out my window at 9:00. And she said, I don’t have to because I know the moon’s not up in the daytime. Now, my hope is that maybe sometime later in her life she happened to look up at the sky and saw the moon in the daytime and changed her view because there was a fact, there was an observation of a material aspect of the real world that that entered her consciousness for the first time. But of course, you know, while our ancestors followed the moon with great alacrity and everyone knew about the moon, it’s not part of our necessities for living these days. And so it’s not truly surprising that people don’t notice that the moon is up in the daytime.
Brilliant Miller [00:21:23] And for me, I think about when we change as human beings, because what I’m fascinated by in particular coaching, you know, helping people to correct inaccurate or incomplete models of the world that they have, you know, assumptions about themselves or their partners or whatever about life. And I remember learning years ago there were a few therapists who were regarded as very successful in helping people achieve lasting behavioral change. But when these researchers ask them why, they said, I don’t know, you just come into my office and I talk to them and we do it week after week and they leave. And then some. Then they say something happens. But what the researchers found as they videotaped these interactions, apparently, was that there was a moment there were moments, rather, when someone had that aha. That insight of something they had previously believed to be true was no longer true. And that in some way that was liberating for them. They were now free. They were unconstrained from something they had believed that in a way limited them. And when I think about someone like the student who was so sure that the moon wouldn’t, you know, wasn’t out in the day, I just wonder, first of all, I wonder about myself, like, what is it that I’m believing that isn’t true? And how do we even know that? And that’s where I personally am fascinated by mindfulness and trying to access the unknown unknown. But I love your approach of a very scientific approach is very collaborative, where I hadn’t thought of science as something that was I mean, I’ve heard of peer reviewed papers and so forth. And of course a lot of scientists are in the academic world and that by nature is collaborative. But I hadn’t ever really seen it this way. How do you see how do you see scientist role in that in society today?
David Helfand [00:23:12] Well, I think most scientists don’t do a very good job of fulfilling their role in society, do they? It’s very easy to stick with one’s community where everyone you know has the same set of values and uses the world in the same way. I heard this interesting talk about the problem of communicating science to the general public, that there’s two aspects of science. One is it’s like a fact discovery machine. I mean, we discover stuff and a lot of that stuff turns out to be useful. You know, we have laptops and airplanes and Edison and things like that. And people are fine with that. They’re fine with us discovering stuff that help makes their life better. But science is also a set of values. That evidence is absolutely required, that nature is the ultimate arbiter, not authority of an individual, etc., etc.. And people don’t like you telling them what their values should be.
Brilliant Miller [00:24:10] Right.
David Helfand [00:24:10] Unfortunately, when scientists communicate with the public, they often conflate those two and say, well, this is how we discover things and this is the way you have to think about the world. And that immediately turns people off. So I think we need a much more nuanced approach to to communicating what we do and why we do it, and most importantly, its limitations, because we can’t answer all questions, at least today through science, and we shouldn’t pretend that we can. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:24:41] Well, and what you’re saying now, I wonder if this is the same as or similar to something you talk about in the book I thought was really interesting where you say that there are two contradictory social narratives that exist related to science. Right that the first one, the pervasive impact of our accumulated scientific knowledge is that the science is enormously powerful and to have a similar stature in both academic and real world settings, a discipline procedure activity must acquire the trappings of science. Science has produced enormous negative consequences in many spheres of life, and only the rejection of science and returned to our Aboriginal and or personal ways of knowing can save us. So these two simultaneously, you know, these like parallel narratives that exist in our society, but they’re contradictory. That’s that’s very interesting to me.
David Helfand [00:25:29] Yeah, I think they are. Obviously there have been enormous positive contributions that scientists have made. There wouldn’t be a billion people on the earth today that would be completely unsustainable were it not for science. The implications of 8 billion people on the earth today are pretty dire in some cases. And so this is not obviously a good thing. But the notion that we should abandon all knowledge we’ve accumulated over the last few thousand years and return to a hunter gatherer society. It’s an approach. It’s not an approach I think most people would embrace once they tried it. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:26:10] Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Well, tell me a little bit about so this book, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age. Why did you write it?
David Helfand [00:26:21] Well, you’ve got an hour. So we’ve got I. When I got to Columbia in the 1970s, I was delighted to see that Columbia was the only major university that still had a true core curriculum, which meant that every student was reading the same book the same night of the week and discussing it the next day in a 20 student seminar. So, you know, on the fourth Thursday of September, everybody was reading through Saturday’s Peloponnesian War. And they would discuss it the next day in the seminar with 20 of their classmates. I thought this was terrific because it certainly takes learning outside the classroom with every student’s reading it than your roommate’s reading and your best friends reading it. And secondly, it provides a foundation for everything that comes beyond that and produces a common experience, which is a bonding experience that people like. That’s why we have ceremonies and things like that. So I thought this was terrific, but I was simultaneously appalled that what was described in the catalog as the intellectual coat of arms of the university consisted of seven humanities courses, zero math courses and zero science courses. And it seemed to be not like a complete intellectual coat of arms for the upcoming 21st century. As of being young and naive, I thought, Well, we have a system here to do this. I’ll just invent science courses and then we can do that, too. And so 27 years later, I succeeded in adding one course to the core curriculum. So now there are eight courses, the seven humanities courses from 100 years ago and the frontiers of science course. And to effect that what I did. So this is back in 2003 2004 is we wanted not just to communicate science at the frontier to make the important point that there’s stuff we know and there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know. And the exciting point in science is what we don’t know. Rather than a set of facts, you have to memorize the way most high school science works, but also to inculcate them with what we call scientific habits of mind, which are skills that no matter what profession you go into, can be useful to you in talking to your doctor and talking to your financial analyst and measuring a politician’s veracity. And these are basic probability and statistics. Being able to read a graph, being able to do an estimate at what we call a back of the envelope calculation to see if some number of someone quotes is reasonable or clearly crazy. And so there are a whole bunch of these skills. And we didn’t want to, of course, based on those skills, because that would be pretty boring. We wanted the course about gravitational waves and neuroscience and things like that, which is what we did, but we wove those through. And to reinforce that, I wrote a little short 30 page, 40 page electronic book that was just internal to Columbia’s systems that the students could refer to when we talked about basic statistics and probability and things like that. And that’s where it sat for quite a while. And one of the editors of Columbia University Press every three or four years would bug me about making it into a book. And I’m going, Yeah, too busy. You know, I’m doing my science. I’m teaching these students, I’ve got too much to do. And then I guess one time he caught me in a moment of weakness and I said, All right, I’ll do it. And that’s how the book came to be about.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:40] Well, tell me about how your journey went from. I understand that you were a theater major. Is that true? And you’re like, I don’t know that aside from maybe the the beard, I could see maybe an English professor or something in the humanities. But how did you go from being in this in theater studies to where you are now in science and academia?
David Helfand [00:30:00] Well, so the reason I was a theater major when I went to college was because I went to a pretty strikingly mediocre public high school. And the only interesting person there to me was the theater director. And so that’s what I spent my time doing because that was fun. He was a really great guy. And so I went off to college knowing I was going to be a theater major. And in my first year, I took mostly theater courses. But this was I went to Amherst College. So it’s a liberal arts curriculum to take everything. So I took a physics course because I’d had a terrible physics course in high school, wanted to see if it was. Different. And I also played squash. Now, the reason I played squash was I played tennis in high school, but I’d played at that sort of funky level, right? And I went to Amherst with all these prep school kids and they really knew how to play tennis. So there’s no way I could make the tennis team. But very few people had played squash, and so it was a racket. It was a ball. I figured I could do it. So that wasn’t very good at that either. But I was on the freshman squash team and it turned out that if you had a physics lab that conflicted with the rehearsal for the theater, the physics professor say, well, let’s sort of do the lab the next day, you know, get better done by ourselves anyway, that I don’t care. That’s fine. Or if I had a squash match and the physics lab, I could do the physics lab and do double practice the next day. But the theater people, the theater people, you weren’t supposed to do anything other than theater and sports and physics, just. And so after a year, I thought, this is not good. You know, I like this being able to do different things. That’s why I went to a liberal arts college, you know, several different things. And so I took an astronomy course. I really seriously cannot remember why, because I had no interest in the subject as a high school student or as a kid. I mean, I just didn’t I. So I guess I took it because it was available time slot, you know, in fulfilling my science requirement or something. And the guy was terrible teacher that he was so bad he was fired, which doesn’t happen anymore in universities. But he was she was really terrible. But I became fascinated by one thing he told us about, which was binary stars. So it turns out our sun is a very typical star in all respects, except for one. It doesn’t have a companion. Most stars have companions. Some have two or three or four, and they go around each other because they’re trapped by their mutual gravity. And when they do, if they’re lined up like this, when this one goes in front of this one, it blocks its light. And then when this one goes behind this one, the front one blocks its light. Now, these stars are way too close together, even with the biggest telescopes today, but alone then to see them as two spots of light. So you just see a single spot of light, but it gets dimmer and then it gets brighter again. And then it gets dimmer and then it gets brighter again as these eclipses occur. And from that, just looking at the brightness as a function of time, one can determine with high precision the masses of the stars, the radii of the stars, the structure of their atmospheres, their departure from spherical shape, the chemical composition of each star, the stage of evolution each is in how long it’s going to live. You could just determine this whole story about these stars just from looking at this light. And I just thought this was really cool. So we were supposed to write a paper at the end of the class, and it was supposed to be eight pages or something. And I wrote a 54 page paper, but we got obsessed with these binary thoughts. And I read everything I could about these stars. So the next semester, the Amherst is there with Mount Holyoke and Smith and the University of Massachusetts in Hampshire. So there are five colleges, and the astronomy department is the only one that actually achieved a five college department where there was one department. So you took the introductory course at your school, but then the more advanced courses were only offered once and you had to go to the school. And the next one was at Smith, which was a women’s college, which sounded good to me. So I went to this class at Smith and this was taught by a brilliant person who was the first woman to obtain a professorship in the physical sciences in Germany. So she’s about four foot ten, but she was tough and she made us actually do astronomy. We were these stars in the freezing cold and then do all these measurements. This is before CDs, so it was all on film and we developed the film and it was great. And there are just eight people in the class and we had a great time. And the last day of class she came into class and she said she was German and she said, So I think it is time we take you. The astronomy is actually done. And she pulled eight plane tickets out of her purse and handed them out for us to spend January in Arizona visiting all the observatories and astronomers and telescopes. And that’s what we did. And it was real warming Amazonian instead of cold in western Massachusetts. And it was it was a great experience. And the last night we were being driven out to the Stewart Observatory, the University of Arizona’s Observatory, by its director. I was in the back seat and he said, So is anyone here actually thinking of becoming an astronomer? And I said, Well, yeah, I’m thinking about it. And he said, okay, so suppose you’re asked to testify before Congress, which is ironic because as president of the American Astronomical Society, I did get to testify before Congress 40 years later. But he said, how can you justify spending taxpayer money on this completely useless pursuit? Well, this was during the Apollo program. And I said, well, you know, it’s not uses. There’s always spinoffs. I mean, you know, miniatures, computers are going to be important. And Tang, you know, there’s Tang. And he said, no. He said there may or may not be spinoffs, but that’s not the justification that you should use. You should use the justification that we support astronomical observations for the same reason we support symphony orchestras and opera companies and poets because it distinguishes us as human. And I thought, Oh, I like that justification for a career. It distinguishes us as human. And so that night in the backseat of that car, I became a professional astronomer.
Brilliant Miller [00:35:53] Wow. That is amazing. There’s so much in that that I love about the power of a teacher. The teacher at Smith. You say that class. Was it Smith or.
David Helfand [00:36:05] Outside her was her name. She passed away recently. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:09] That’s amazing. And that’s the kind of thing I think it just wouldn’t happen today. Right? Or that same way. Hey, we’re going to Arizona, everybody.
David Helfand [00:36:17] Oh, no, we do that. We do that. We have an observing class. Now, this is for astronomy majors. But we were sort of some of us were about to be major. We take them to our observatory in Arizona during spring break week every year. And it’s a it’s a it’s an important experience for them. Yeah, it’s.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:36] Yeah. That’s cool. Tell me about this thing where you did testify before Congress 40 years later. That’s a that’s pretty remarkable events there.
David Helfand [00:36:44] Yeah. I mean, it was it was before the the it was the head of the science committee, but it was mostly the staffers. But of course, the staffers are the important people because they actually tell the senators what to do. And it was about it, interestingly, was sort of about spinoffs. I accumulated several people who had gotten PhDs in astrophysics, astronomy and astrophysics, but who were now working in the aerospace industry, in the high tech industry to tell their stories about how crucially important their Ph.D. training had been to their these other contributions they were now making to society. So it was about how, yes, you’re not just training people to look at. Stars. You’re training people with skills that are widely available in a technological society. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:37:34] That’s cool.
David Helfand [00:37:36] Well, what?
Brilliant Miller [00:37:37] We’ve covered a lot already, but what haven’t we talked about that is related either to this book or your career or science or anything else at this point?
David Helfand [00:37:50] Well, we haven’t talked about the science that I do science.
Brilliant Miller [00:37:55] Let’s talk about that. What do you do? What’s and how do you divide your time between teaching and I would imagine researching maybe that’s part of the science. Like, what does it what does a typical day look like for you?
David Helfand [00:38:06] Well, now I must confess, the typical day looks like, you know, chairing committee meetings and board meetings and doing lots of those things. But over the course of my career, you know, there are teaching undergraduates. So I mostly spend my time teaching non-science majors because I think that’s an important contribution I can make. I’m probably successful at it because of my theater training, not because of my astronomy training, but that’s all right. And I just think it’s an important thing for universities to do to graduate people, most of whom are not going to become scientists, obviously, but are going to go on to be in politics or law or finance or in the private sector, industry or in nonprofit organizations to have a scientific view of the world. So most of my teaching is spent on that. I have also had 22 Ph.D. students that I’ve mentored, and that’s a very different and also very rewarding kind of process that you take someone right out of undergraduate school and have them typically with you for five or six years and turn them into scientists. And as I always tell the incoming graduate students, getting a Ph.D. is not about passing courses and it’s not about how much you know, it’s about demonstrating your ability to do independent and original research. And so you take most people who haven’t done much of that up to through their undergraduate years and turn them into independent research scientists. So that’s been a very rewarding part of my career. And then the research is, of course, a lot of fun. I was trained as a radio astronomer, and I spent much of my career doing that. But when I graduated from graduate school, I had three options, but four options. One was to stay where I was, and I knew I didn’t want to do that because I’d been there long enough. One was to go to Caltech, one was to go to the national radio studios, very. And both of those were to continue doing what I’ve been doing, which I knew how to do. You know, I’ve been well trained. I knew how to do that stuff. But the fourth option was to go to Columbia and work on the first imaging x-ray telescope. The first time we took that octave of the spectrum that we were talking about before and managed to make a mirror that could focus it onto a camera, that we could actually make a picture of what the sky looked like if we had X-ray eyes like Superman. And I thought, Gee, you know, I may never get a chance to change what I do again. So I really should do this complete thing I knew nothing about. And that’s how I got to Columbia. So I’d spent the rest a lot of my time also doing what we call high energy astrophysics, which is studying supernova remnants, exploding stars, neutron stars, black holes, and things like that. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:49] That’s really cool. What’s this thing about? We don’t know what most of the universe is actually made of. Like dark energy and dark matter.
David Helfand [00:40:57] Yup. It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s job security for astronomers, right? You know, 4% if we got 96% to go. So it was first recognized by a Caltech astronomer named Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s that if you look at the way so galaxies which are massive islands of 100 billion stars are so held together by their own gravity, often collect together in large clusters of galaxies. Now, we’re not in such a cluster where our galaxy, the Milky Way, is quite isolated in space, actually. But there are regions of space where there are hundreds of galaxies that are all swarming around each other because of their mutual gravity. And but Zwicky noticed this. They were going much too fast. You can measure their velocities and they were moving much too fast if you just calculated Newton’s laws, how much gravitational attraction do these two feel? They were going like five times too fast. And he said, there’s all this missing mass out there somewhere. You know, they called it missing mass at that time. And so he was sort of a character and no one paid much attention to him. And so it wasn’t until another 40 years later when people started doing careful measurements of the rotations of individual galaxies, that they realized that the stars in the outer regions of regular galaxies, we’re also going too fast. We just added up all the stars that were inside, attracting them gravitationally. They should have been going much slower. And so this over the last. Now, 50 years have allowed us to measure with some precision the fact that there is seven times more matter out there than we see in any of the 60 octaves of the spectrum. It’s completely dark. And so we now call it dark matter, and it makes up about 27% of the universe, whereas the stuff that’s made of protons, neutrons, and electrons like you and me and the sun and the moon and every other galaxy and every other star we can see is only 4%.
Brilliant Miller [00:43:01] That’s amazing.
David Helfand [00:43:01] So that was bad enough. But then in 1998, people were trying to measure with some precision because we’ve been trying to do this for a long time and people get different answers. The expansion rate of the universe and what they expected since the universe began with a big explosion. But it’s full of all this mass to see that it was slowing down. And the issue was when it goes to a stop at some time in the future or when it gets to some maximum size and collapses again, or where to just keep expanding forever. Those are the three questions we had. And the answer was none of the above because it turned out the universe was accelerating, its expansion was going away faster than it was before. And this is still 25 years on this year, a complete mystery. And because of things that are mysterious, we call dark, we call that dark energy. And that makes up 67% of the universe. And so, yeah, we’re pretty clueless about dark energy, dark matter. We’ve made some progress on that. We’ve eliminated a lot of things that it could be. So there are lots of possibilities and we’ve eliminated a bunch of them, but we still don’t know what it is. We don’t know if it’s some tiny, tiny subatomic particle or if it’s five solar mass black holes left over from the big bang. So we’re still pretty clueless, but we’re making progress on that. I would say that this progress their dark energy we’re not making any progress on and we have no clue why this is going on. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:23] Well, speaking of things that are mysteries and there’s a lot that’s a mystery to me. But one of them is why the United States hasn’t migrated to the metric system yet. And I’d really like to know from your view, do you think it will ever happen? What would have to happen for it to happen and what would the benefits be and maybe the costs? That’s a lot of questions. But take that anywhere you want.
David Helfand [00:44:46] Well, the benefits have to some extent been realized because manufacturing, you know, cars, they’re all metric now. They don’t use our screws. They use metric screws. Right. So a lot of the stuff that we buy is done in metric. We just don’t know about it. It’s just transparent to us. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. It did happen in the UK. It took a long time. But the road signs, signs are all in kilometers now and the gas comes in liters and the milk comes in. Leaders and people measure themselves or they still measure themselves in stones, which I think is £14 or something. But some particularly British unit and Canada, which of course is adjacent to us, also is largely switched. Their cars come with kilometer per hour speedometers and they measure temperature in Celsius. I don’t know. I mean, it’s us in Bermuda, right? Are the only countries left that have the English system and whether it’ll ever happen. I’m unclear. I thought there was progress the other day when the Senate voted to make permanent Daylight Savings Time. Now, whether you make daylight saving time permanent or standard time permanent doesn’t really matter to me. But switching back and forth is just plain dumb. And we’ve been doing it forever. So we keep doing it, but maybe we can change things like that. I don’t know. The costs would be, you know, changing all the road signs and changing the speedometers and cars and things like that. No significant costs. I think the benefits would just be easier communication with the rest of the world. It’s all of which use the metric system. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:59] There are just so many things. The more I learned, the more I love like I didn’t know speaking the metric system that with water these quantities are all meant to help impart some understanding of other matter of other measures like mass. I don’t even know that I have this totally right. But you would talk about a cubic unit of water versus the mass of water versus the weight of water.
David Helfand [00:47:03] Right.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:04] Do I have that right?
David Helfand [00:47:05] A cubic centimeter of water. So a centimeter or 4/10 of an inch by 4/10, billions by potentially cubic centimeter water is one gram of water and that’s one milliliter, 1,000th of a liter of water. So that’s a thousand cubic centimeters. So they’re all stacked together. They’re completely arbitrary, like water at room temperature on the surface of the earth is a certain density in a certain mass, in a certain size. And it’s different, you know, in Denver than it is at sea level. And it’s different if it’s one degree versus 40 degrees. So the units are just as arbitrary as the foot in the inch and the mile and the furlong and all the other stupid units we have. So there’s nothing, nothing special about that. But the units are all simply related to each other by factors of ten, which is enormously an enormous simplification over you have to remember there are 12 inches in a foot in three feet in a yard, and six yards in the first six and a half yards or whatever it is in a furlong and 5280 feet in a mile. And, you know. Yeah. So these relationships are simple. What’s interesting is, of course, that we maintain the Babylonian sexagesimal system in time. There are 60 seconds in a minute 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. And in the at the time of the French Revolution, when the metric system was brought into the case, they did try for two years, two metro sized times as well. I have read it once.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:33] About that in ten or.
David Helfand [00:48:35] Yeah, 10 seconds in a minute. 10 minutes in an hour, 10 hours in a day. And that doesn’t make the second very different in length, actually, when you figure it out and they even build there are a few clock towers left in France and there are some watches that are based on 10 hours in a day. And, you know, people don’t like you messing with their time, their mass and their volume, and their length, but they don’t like you messing with your time. So in less than two years, this failed completely and they went back to the old system. Well.
Brilliant Miller [00:49:03] Yeah, that’s I did interview another professor, David, David Henkin, who wrote a book called The Week. And it was about the persistence of the seven-day week. And it was remarkable to me. You know, it’s one of those things that was just like totally standing outside the world. I live it every day and then just saying, yeah, that we totally made that up Tuesday. Or maybe that today is because we agree it’s Tuesday. And the only reason seven days ago was Tuesday is because we said that. And that’s just one of those that was like, oh.
David Helfand [00:49:33] Yeah, yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:49:34] That’s what’s fascinating. And then another thing, a little kind of fact from your book that I thought was fascinating was this thing about the mirrors on the moon that we measure with a laser every day. That’s. That’s true. What is this?
David Helfand [00:49:47] Yeah, it’s true. Yeah. So, you know, what’s the distance to the moon? Well, we had a pretty good idea of what the distance was to within a few kilometers. But if you want to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, and if you want to measure the interesting effect that the tides that the moon rises on the earth are slowing the spinning of the Earth. So the earth is spinning more slowly every day because of this. And as a consequence, to conserve angular momentum, as the physicists would say, the moon is moving away from the earth and the moon’s been moving away from the earth for billions of years. So to measure those things, you need measurement, accuracy, two centimeters, you know, not two kilometers. And so the astronauts put these little reflectors only about this big on the surface of the moon, and they’re still there. That was in 1969. They’re still there. And there are a couple of different facilities in the world that bounce lasers off them every day. And of course, we know the speed of light very accurately. So you just say, how long does it take to get there and get back? It’s about 2.6 seconds, but it’s 2.59734264 to, you know, out to many decimal places. And you can measure the exact distance to the moon and see that it’s moving away from us in a couple of centimeters a year.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:00] And so fascinating. And, you know, so, too. Two more things that I’d love to explore with you before we move on and anything else that you might want to share. Of course, we can talk about it. But one is about what I would call the miracle. Like, I think I read the thing, and if you don’t mind, I’d actually like to read a thing about sunlight that you write about how it struggled for like 100,000 years, that little photon to come out of the center of the sun and then travel that distance. I actually shared this. I do have a mindfulness group that I host once a month, and I pulled that out and shared with them what I realized. I might be kind of using your words in a way that differs from how you intended them. But I just look at these things that we might not even notice, or that might be small or simple, relatively speaking. But they seem like miracles. Like if we’re just present to them, you know, if we appreciate what had to happen for that photon of light, even to touch my skin and be registered as warmth. Would you mind if I said that?
David Helfand [00:52:18] Oh, yes, yes. I’ve started doing that since I wrote the book and people have noted this. I’ve started doing it again. I didn’t do it for a while. So, yeah, we take outside and I say, you have a choice. You know you can listen to my boring lecture or we can go for a walk in the park. But if we go for a walk in the park, you have to see the park. The way I see the park as a scientist, and I’ll tell you all about this. And so we went out on this beautiful spring day and it was warm and sunshine. And I said, how does the sun, you know, how does it feel on your face? And it feels great. And I said, Well, why is that? I don’t know. And so there are two things. One is most of your sense of temperature comes from the air molecules which are bombarding your skin. And if the temperature outside is about 68 degrees, 20 degrees centigrade, then the air molecules are actually moving half a kilometer a second. So they’re moving 12 city blocks or six city blocks in a second and they’re pounding into your skin and that registers as a comfortable temperature. But in addition, if you’re out in the sunshine, the sunlight is coming to you. And these little photons are moving along at 300,000 kilometers per second, eight times around the earth and the equator in a second. And they’re banging into your skin and they’re destroyed. They’re eaten by the skin molecules, and they absorb that energy. And you feel that is warmth as well as amazing.
Brilliant Miller [00:53:41] So here’s this paragraph, the sunlight warms your cheek because having been created through the fusion of protons in the sun’s core and having struggled a hundred thousand years to reach its surface, this light finally broke free. And after traveling in a perfectly straight line for 8 minutes and 19 seconds, was observed by the molecules of your skin, which upped the tempo of their jiggling, a jiggling that was recorded in your brain as warmth, and that there was a physical process happening, which isn’t necessarily evident. You know, it’s really remarkable to me. I thought that was really cool.
David Helfand [00:54:17] Well, that’s why this walk in the park is revelatory to some of the students.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:22] I can imagine that for some at least, it would be it could be life-changing. So that was one thing. Thank you for letting me touch on that. And the other that I love to explore with you just at least a little bit is this thing about maybe we call it pseudoscience or the persistence of beliefs in, I don’t know, astrology, spirits, the supernatural things that may be superstition, like there’s a term for it, people who fear the number 13, you know, this kind of thing.
David Helfand [00:54:49] Is the DECA phobia. Yes.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:51] Twisted acrophobia. That’s a great trivia question.
David Helfand [00:54:54] I’m very proud of the fact that the physics building in Columbia, the astronomy department, is on the 13th floor because, of course, most of the buildings in New York don’t have a 13th floor. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:03] So what? I mean. Well, do you think we’ll ever I mean, I was reminded in your book that I think Nancy Reagan because a president just a few presidents ago, his wife, and apparently, if you listen to her, I suppose that even Reagan was, you know, consulted her for some readings and things like this. But my point in saying that is that we have people who are very powerful, are very educated, and, you know, they’re not necessarily relying on the most scientific methods to make, you know, understand the world or make decisions. And I would imagine that’s not always a bad thing, but I imagine it could be a very bad thing. You know, sometimes withhold medical care from children because of certain beliefs or why we choose to go to war or not. You know what that’s based on. But do you like how you see pseudoscience? And is it always going to be with us and this superstitious belief and supernatural and so forth? So just part of human nature or what’s our future like, you think?
David Helfand [00:56:01] I think it’s part of human nature in the sense that for most of our history, again, you have to remember our brains have been in the Homo sapiens skull, and that is the modern version of humans, not Neanderthals, but in the home with safety for 300,000 years. And it’s 300,000 years of evolutionary pressure, that is, events in the outside world acting on this brain that has optimized it in some sense for functioning in the world. But that world was not a technology-saturated world. That world was the plains of the Serengeti or that or Morocco, where the most recent oldest evidence for Homo sapiens has been found. And so when you don’t understand. In my sense of understand, that is have a tested model for that’s consistent with all the data a phenomenon you make a story about it which is perfectly reasonable, right? So when you don’t know why the wind blows, you make up the God Aeolus. And you say when Zeus gets picked up, pissed off, he tells Aeolus to blow trees down or something like that. And that’s what way. That’s not a crazy model, right? I mean it’s a model. There’s, there’s a chain of events, you know, Zuse gets mad as all still does what he says and the trees fall down. So until you know about air molecules and air pressure and temperature gradients and things like that, you’re not going to have a predictive model because you can’t know when Zuse is pissed off, right? So it’s not that useful a model, but it’s still a picture of what’s going on. So our brains are designed to listen to and make up stories and we make up stories to try to make sense of the world around us. And for most people in our current world, it’s they’re saturated with technology, but they don’t need to know how any of that works. You know, they don’t know how a plane works, why it stays up in the sky and doesn’t fall down. They don’t need to know how their laptop works. They don’t even know how any of these things work, how their cell phone works or the camera works or anything else. They just have to push buttons, right? And so that’s the same as, you know, you just go out and pick the right berries and it’s no different. So you don’t need to understand the scientific basis of all of this technology. You can get along just fine without that. And so we continue to make up stories about the way the world works. And astrology has, of course, a particularly long history. It’s the source of our original information and data about the universe. You know, we have records, Chinese records of stars exploding 2000 years ago, which are incredibly valuable to us today. So observing the universe around us is a reasonable thing to do. Making a model where the motions and the positions of the planets completely determine your life. It’s a model. It turns out. It’s not a very predictive model. When you run scientific tests on this, it doesn’t work. But it’s it’s a model and it’s a story. And some people buy into the story and are comfortable with that story. Oh.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:13] Yeah. Human beings are nothing if not storytelling creatures.
David Helfand [00:59:17] And that’s good. I mean, that’s the essence of good teaching. As I just met with someone today from a different university who was struggling with his chemistry for poets class. And I said you’d have to tell them stories. I said You tell him about your research. He said, Well, no, not really. I said, But there must be great stories about your research. He does this really interesting research on nanoparticles and stuff, and I said, Tell them stories. That’s what we’re designed for, listening to stories. No doubt. No doubt.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:48] Or cool. Okay. Well, with that, if you’re good, let’s transition to the enlightening lightning round.
David Helfand [00:59:55] Yeah. Okay. I don’t know what that is, but that’s okay.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:59] And I’ll just check in with you here to how we’ve been going for costs this about an hour. How are you doing? I’m fine. Cat Okay, cool. Yeah. So this again, it’s just it’s a series of questions on a variety of topics. So not necessarily related to anything we’ve been talking about to this point is in total is ten questions. My aim is for the most part, to ask the question and stand aside. You’re welcome to answer this answer as long as you want or shortage you want. And my aim is just to keep us going through it.
David Helfand [01:00:28] Okay?
Brilliant Miller [01:00:29] Okay. Question number.
David Helfand [01:00:30] One.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:32] And I realized, by the way, as I’m saying this, the second question is kind of poorly worded, I think, but I’m going to go with it. So okay. So question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a.
David Helfand [01:00:51] Endless spelunking expedition.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:55] Okay, question number two. This is the technologist and investor Peter Thiel’s. Question What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
David Helfand [01:01:11] That there is no such thing as truth.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:15] Okay. I love it. All right. Question number three. If you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or a phrase or saying or quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
David Helfand [01:01:28] Oh, I have one. What does it say? It’s something like science doesn’t care what you think or something like that.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:39] Right. On another OC question number four, what book other than your own have you gifted or recommended most often?
David Helfand [01:01:49] Oh, well, my I guess I have to give two answers to this. My favorite book is The Pickwick Papers because I’m a huge Dickens fan and I identify heavily with Mr. Pickwick. But the books I’ve recommended probably are Richard Dawkins’s books on Evolution, which I find beautifully written right on.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:13] I do want to ask for just a moment about the Pickwick thing. Why? Why do you? I haven’t read that as an English major. I somehow managed to escape reading a lot of Dickens. But why? Tell me about the story. And why do you identify with Pickwick?
David Helfand [01:02:26] You should read all of Dickens. It’s so wonderful. It will take you a long time back with papers. About 850 pages. Mr. Pickwick is this eccentric gentleman who wears a vest and is sort of portly, like me. And he goes around the English countryside and he tries to right wrongs. And so when he sees something that’s not right, he fixes it. And he has these two sidekicks, and he has to report back to his club in London every once in a while. So these messages go back and he gets himself into all kinds of ridiculous, hysterically funny situations going around, just standing up for principle.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:00] Right. That’s great. Well, thank you for that. Okay. Question number six. I’m sorry, five because number five. So this has to do with travel. I imagine in your life you’ve traveled quite a bit. Wondering what’s something you do or something you take with you when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable.
David Helfand [01:03:23] I find travel endlessly enjoyable, so I’m not sure. I mean, I take a toothbrush, I guess.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:30] But you’re traveling companions probably appreciate that, too.
David Helfand [01:03:34] They probably do. Well, I do. I do take the right clothing. So I’ve been on a few National Geographic expeditions, one to South Georgia and Antarctica. And taking the right clothing can make the difference between being very comfortable and being very uncomfortable. So I’m very careful about the clothing I pack when I travel.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:58] I don’t any other things you do related to booking, like picking certain seats or floors in a hotel or anything, scouting out an area.
David Helfand [01:04:08] Restaurants. Restaurants are my main actual main interest in life is food and cooking. So I plan many vacations, not in a hotel, but renting a place where I can cook because I find that endlessly enjoyable. But planes, yes, I may just about it. 4 million miles on American Airlines and status matters when you fly these days.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:37] For sure. Amazing. Do you rate or do you rest or do something different on a plane? How do you spend the majority of the time in those seats?
David Helfand [01:04:45] I read I read almost exclusively. I mean, if I’m desperate, I work, but usually, I just read. So either books or The Economist or, you know, a newspaper or something like that.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:59] That’s a lot of reading. Okay, cool.
David Helfand [01:05:02] So much read. There’s so much to read.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:05] No doubt. Well, okay, question number six. What’s one thing you started or stopped doing in order to live or age? Well.
David Helfand [01:05:15] It’s something I’ve stopped doing to age badly. Let’s see what I stop doing to age. Well. Gee, that’s a tough one. I drive as little as possible since I find driving increasingly terrifying because of the other people on the road. So yeah, taking public transportation as much as possible I think improves my life considerably. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:52] And better for the environment too, I think.
David Helfand [01:05:55] Well, except when you’re on an airplane, which I’m on too much, but.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:58] Okay, question number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
David Helfand [01:06:06] That there is. An enormous. Expansion of one’s horizons with a scientific perspective on the world that it’s not. There’s this notion that scientists are sort of cold and heartless and depressing individuals with a mechanistic view of the world, whereas, in fact, as my walks in the park with my students. So it’s enormously enriching to understand how the world works. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:47] Agreed. Okay. Question number eight. What’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about making relationships work?
David Helfand [01:06:57] Listening, I guess and listening not through your own filter, but trying to listen to the other person’s filter, which I must confess I’m still not very good at, and my wife would probably agree with that. But I think that is by far the most important thing to do. And in thinking about some of our current social issues of social justice in various dimensions, it’s very hard to listen to someone from their perspective rather than from your perspective. And so I’m still working on it, but I think that’s the thing that I think is most important.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:37] Yeah, I, I share that view and I think there’s something to be said just for the awareness and the effort of the intention as well. So that’s great. Okay. Question number nine. This one’s related to money. Aside from compound interest, the power of compound interest, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money?
David Helfand [01:08:05] I’m not very. I guess the most important thing is that I can use it too. To engage in new adventures and new experiences that enriched my personal life. Right on.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:28] All right. Speaking of money, something I’ve done as a gesture of gratitude to you for spending time talking with me today and sharing your knowledge and your experience and your wisdom with me and everyone listening as I’ve done to the micro-lending site Kiva dot org. And I’ve made a $100 microloan to an entrepreneur in Indonesia. It’s a woman named Nur Hayati. She’s 37 years old. She’s married, and she and her husband run a business selling food and snacks. And she will use this money to buy a smartphone so her child can do online school. So I just wanted to thank you for giving me a reason to do that. And then, by the way, I won’t make any interest on that loan. The interest, if it’s repaid, will go to the field partner to be able to facilitate more loans in Indonesia and hopefully just this government issue.
David Helfand [01:09:15] I know very little about economics, but I think microlending is a fascinating topic, so I’m delighted to hear that. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:23] Well, thank you. Okay. So the last part of the congratulations, you survived the enlightening lightning round. You did admirably. The last part here is just a few questions about writing in the creative process. So let me start by asking who has been influential in your development as a writer and what have you learned from them?
David Helfand [01:09:48] Well, I think I don’t know any individual, but I often say that I attribute 70% of my success in life to my theater training, not to my partial differential equations, of course, in which I didn’t do very well, actually, because learning how to speak effectively in public, which you obviously there are lots of techniques you can learn. This is a skill you can learn. I went to a workshop for our graduate students and they don’t see it. Think of it as a skill that you can learn to be a better public speaker, but also having to write persuasive and compelling and coherent essays in English classes or literature classes and theater classes was incredibly valuable because one makes success in life as a scientist by writing effective and persuasive proposals for funding and writing clear and compelling papers in the scientific literature. And not all scientists get those training. And so I do rather well at it. I absolutely love writing. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and it’s what I intend to spend a lot more time doing as a phase out of my academic career. I like writing papers for my colleagues, but I more like writing papers, articles or whatever for the public. I also love writing scathing memos to irritating bureaucrats. I’m really good at that. My wife wants me to publish a collection of my scathing essay.
Brilliant Miller [01:11:18] Is there a recent example of such a scathing memo that you’d be willing to to share with us? Just, you know, who is the audience and what was the topic?
David Helfand [01:11:26] So I will reveal something about myself here. I do not have and have never had a cell phone. I live in a bubble of tranquility in which I decide when I’m going to contact other people. They don’t decide for me. And so I recently started getting Social Security, and I got a letter from the Social Security Administration that they were going to require multi-factor authorization, which is fine, and that you had to have a cell phone. And so I wrote a scathing letter to the Social Security Administration saying that it was completely outrageous that they would require people to have cell phones. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of affording a cell phone, but I don’t intend to have one. But there are many people getting Social Security who are not capable of affording a cell phone and this is completely unnecessary. And I gave them other technical approaches to multi-factor authorization, and I actually got a response, but not a direct personal response. But about six weeks later, this letter went out to all Social Security means. They changed their mind. You didn’t have to have a cell phone, you had to do this and stuff like that. So I don’t know if it was my letter, but at least they backed off on that issue.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:34] Oh, my goodness. That’s amazing. What when you say you love to write, is there a certain like topic or kind of writing that you prefer?
David Helfand [01:12:45] Well, it’s didactic. It’s not creative. I’m not a I. I have never tried to write a short story or something, but I’m not sure I’d be very good at it. So expository writing. I’ve obviously written that book. I’ve just finished a book that uses the nuclei of atoms to reconstruct history. So I explore art, forgeries, and how we can use physics techniques to determine whether a painting is forged or not. Archeological dating. Of course, the history of human diet and agriculture, which we can measure with exquisite precision by the isotope ratios that we find in bones. The history of the Earth’s climate, which of course, is an important issue of trying to predict the future of Earth’s climate and the history of life on Earth, and then the history of the solar system in the history of the universe. So it’s sort of like the history of everything as told through the witnesses of nuclei of atoms. And I just when I rarely have enough time to do this, but two summers ago, I guess it was, I managed to block off six weeks and I wrote, you know, 200 pages of this and just had more fun than I’ve had in a long time. So I just really enjoy the process. I also am an addictive copy editor and, you know, various I’m on a number of boards and chair of a number of boards. And so the CEO sent me a memo and I always send them back with copy edits. They could probably hear it takes them, but I’m pretty good at it. So, you know, they sometimes accept them. So I don’t know. I just like language and I’m not sure. I didn’t have like a particular teacher who was critical in my development. I don’t think I did have a wonderful ninth grade English teacher who, among other things, taught us to diagram sentences. I know that’s something that’s not done anymore, but it turned out to really provide insight into what how the language works. And so grammar and syntax and usage are things that I find fascinating. They are not taught at all and my education in them, I think has been invaluable in my writing career. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:14:59] This is fascinating to me as well. I’m just I’m really in awe of the fact that we can have a thought or an idea, a feeling, and then through some process, put it into words, whether we speak them or write them and someone else can read it and decoded in some way, and we can do that in many different languages and so forth. I just find that so fascinating. And although I’ve never studied linguistics or, you know, any kind of analysis of of language in this way, I know that it matters. Right. And as you talk about in your book, Words Matter, the order we put them in matters, you know, the particular word we choose is matter, choose matters. But I’m curious, all these years after you learned to diagram sentences, what have you learned about the qualities of a great sense? Like how can what are the qualities of great sentences and how can we write more of them?
David Helfand [01:15:50] I have to read it out loud, because it has to be it has to have the right rhythm. I mean, I don’t know what I know if there’s a a lexicographers term for this, but it’s or a linguists and linguists term for this. But it it has to have a rhythm that that accents the right parts of the sentence and downplays the other parts of the sentence and sounds euphonious to the to the ear. So I read very slowly and the reason I read very slowly is I’m basically reading out loud. I mean, I’m almost reading out loud and and when I write, I buy, I write reasonably quickly. But my most of my time is spent going back and saying, does this sentence work? And then does the sentence work in this paragraph? And, you know, so it’s it’s got to sound right. And I don’t that’s a very poor recipe for someone to follow. It has to sound right, but it does. And I have an ear for it.
Brilliant Miller [01:16:50] I think that that’s great. When you before you undertake any particular piece of writing, how clear do you feel you get for yourself on what you want that writing to do? Like, do you want the reader to do something as a result of it? Do you want them to believe something just to know something like how clear do you see? I’m not wording this very well, I think, but how clear do you have to get for yourself? About what the purpose of any point of a writing, a piece of writing is versus I just want to write. I just want to write something. Does that make sense?
David Helfand [01:17:26] Yeah. Well, as I say, what I mostly do is expository writing or persuasive writing. So if I’m writing a memo, then I know what I want the outcome to be. I want the person to do what.
Brilliant Miller [01:17:37] I want to do.
David Helfand [01:17:39] So I construct the arguments to do that. I’m not good at outlining. I did a course for the teaching company. The company does the great courses that they want DVDs, and now they stream and they make you do this unbelievably detailed outline of every one of the 30 minute talks that you’re going to give. And I found it excruciating. Absolutely excruciating, because that’s not what I do, what I write. I start with the first sentence, and I just right now, it involves a lot of editing after the fact. But that’s that’s how I write. But I know where I’m going. So if I want to explain to you how without damaging in any way or taking even the minutest piece of paint off a painting that I can tell which pigments are in the paint and whether they were available in the 15th century or they were only available in the 19th century. I know. I want to explain to you how that’s done. And so I start writing and I realize what I don’t know. And so I have to go do a little research and I realize what I’m not explaining clearly. And so I just go back a couple steps and say, No, I have to do this. But I just start writing and and then find the problems along the way. I guess I don’t outline.
Brilliant Miller [01:18:51] What tools do you find valuable or invaluable as a writer?
David Helfand [01:18:59] Well, the thing I make my graduate students in the summer when I do this workshop and speaking and writing is Williams is there is book on writing. Well, there’s been several editions of it, but I find there’s there’s two page I can picture these pages because I just love them so much. He’s got this two-page essay in the book and then you turn the next page and you read it and it sounds good. Know, you turn the next page and you see his edits by hand and he’s got like 400 changes in two pages and you go, Oh yeah, that’s a lot better after he’s done that. So that’s a striking example to me. I think he’s I think he writes extremely well, again, mostly on expository writing, not creative writing. And I just find it I find really valuable. I do not I type with two fingers and a thumb.
Brilliant Miller [01:19:53] Really.
David Helfand [01:19:54] I type pretty fast with two fingers and a thumb. But I have to look at the keyboard. I don’t know where the letters are. Holy cow. But you know, I can do 40 words a minute or something like that and I can’t think much faster than that. So that’s okay.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:06] Wow, that’s remarkable. And you said when you went away and worked on this book, you did 200 pages. And did you say six weeks?
David Helfand [01:20:12] Yeah. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:13] I’ve been like this. That’s. That’s remarkable. Wow, that’s cool. How connected do you feel to your reader in the moment of drafting? Do you have that sense of, I don’t know what you call it, like a mind meld of in any way? Like, how are they going? How’s it going to land with them? Is it going to be clearer? Are they going to like it? Like how connected do you feel in those kinds of ways?
David Helfand [01:20:33] Well, so since most of my writing is well made, so there’s this persuasive memo and boy, I’ve got that person fixed in my mind. I know exactly who they are, I know how they react to things, and I’m trying to manipulate them and do what I want them to do, right? So that’s one kind of issue. But otherwise, my expository writing and my writing for the public, I’m always thinking about my most or my, my not my most, my sort of fourth, most engaged student. Can I can I capture this person with this paragraph or not? And it’s not a specific student, but I mean, it’s like not the most eager students because those are easy and it’s not the totally disengaged students because those are impossible. So I’d take a student that’s sort of in the middle and is this going to excite the student or at least engage the student enough? So they’re interested to read the next paragraph. So it’s my, you know, after 90 semesters of teaching students that that’s sort of most of what I communicate with. So that’s what I that’s my model in my mind.
Brilliant Miller [01:21:31] Right on. What’s the response been like to a survival guide to the misinformation age?
David Helfand [01:21:37] Well, it’s been pretty good. I mean, it’s sold a bunch of copies. It’s I’m very pleased to say that next week the Italian version comes out, I guess it’s already in Korean and Mandarin. But this high school physics teacher in Italy got a copy of it and got so excited he wanted to translate it and wrote to me and said, Can I do that? And I said, Well, you can do that, but you know, I’m not the publisher. You have to deal with the publisher. And there’s all this rigamarole in paperwork, you know, and so he went off and he found a publisher in Italy and convinced them to do it. And they did all the paperwork and it’s coming out next week.
Brilliant Miller [01:22:13] So that’s great. Congratulations on that. And to him as well, that’s how cool to have a reader who is so passionate about what you have to say that they will take this effort on and then share it with an even broader audience. That’s pretty.
David Helfand [01:22:26] Good. And he went through and found all the broken links in the end notes and either fix them or remove them. I mean, he was really dedicated to this. I don’t think he’s getting paid for it either. Maybe he is. I don’t know. But yeah, that was that was that was a lot of fun and great. And, you know, I’ve been asked to do something. I just did a thing for the American Physical Society without a panel on misinformation. And I was I was on that panel. And then that led to me, the guy who used to be the chief scientist at the Department of Justice botched that and called me up. And he said, you know, I had the hardest job. I was the chief scientist, the Department of Justice. And all these really bright, highly educated young lawyers would come in and they just clueless about science. I’d have to try to teach them how to ask questions. And so and now he’s working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and he’s got some policy group on nuclear weapons or something, but they’re all political scientists. And so we’re doing a little exercise in a couple of weeks for getting them to read a scientific paper, read a news article about a scientific paper, and then read the scientific paper and then critique the news article, which is one of the things we do in the course that I teach. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:40] That’s cool. Tell me, what what is the editorial process like for you? Once you get a draft to a certain point, then you share it with someone. And how does that go? How do you maybe you don’t, but how do you choose an editor? Maybe the publisher gives you one. And then how do you know how to trust the editor’s suggestions? Or edits versus your own kind of your own belief or desire.
David Helfand [01:24:03] So the first thing I do is I share it and sometimes just pieces of it. Now I’ve got a whole manuscript with four or five people that I know well or reasonably well and who or whose writing I respect that that’s important. But that’s not for copyediting. That’s that’s for like does order make sense? Does it am I putting things in the right order or is this need to go all together? You know, sort of like take this, get rid of this, these two chapters, you know, I want that kind of advice from them. And I do that. I start that as soon as I’ve got something going. I don’t wait till I get to the end. The editor myself, I’ve got one book. I’ve got another book now. You don’t usually choose your editor, you get one. They usually send it out for two or three reviews to people, you know, I don’t know who they are. Sometimes they’re anonymous, sometimes they sign them, but they give you suggestions. And that’s useful because that’s someone you don’t know at all. And they’re just reading it cold and like that. The copyediting, I must say, by the time we get the copyediting stage, I mean, there were. You know, maybe 50 or 100 in 250 pages of that book. They were very few, and they’re usually right. And so I just accept them. And if you’re arguing over a word or something like that, you know, sometimes I don’t. But. But Oxford commas. I will not give up on the Oxford commas. I’m taking a principled stand on Oxford comma.
Brilliant Miller [01:25:45] You like them?
David Helfand [01:25:47] Yes. I think they’re essential. And my favorite story is the drivers who deliver milk from farms in Maine won a $21 million lawsuit based on an Oxford comma being missing.
Brilliant Miller [01:26:01] Really? I never heard that story.
David Helfand [01:26:03] I’ll send you the. The newspaper articles. They’re very funny, but it’s true. They were all.
Brilliant Miller [01:26:09] In the links of the show notes. I think people who’ve listened this far would also be interested in that. But I myself, I don’t like them. I’m not so strongly opinionated, but I tend to take the less is more approach. I try to, you know, never use two words when one will do kind of thinking. And then it’s like, well, if I can omit a comma, then it’s a little cleaner. But I get if it compromises the accuracy or the integrity of a sentence, of course I put it there. I like to think, but hey, I’d love to see this article. That’s cool. Interesting. Well, with that, I think my. So three last questions. One is. Do you ever encounter? So you love to write, which is not. Not every writer does. Not many writers do. I’m coming to believe. But nevertheless, I would imagine you still encounter what some would call resistance. There’s. If that’s true. Like, do you encounter in Steven Press Guild who wrote a book called The War of Art? It’s all about this term, and maybe it’s more creative writing I’m not totally sure about. But do you ever encounter resistance as a writer? And if so, like internal resistance to the act of writing? And if so, how do you deal with it?
David Helfand [01:27:24] Generally not again. I think creative writing is very different and I think I might be just terrible at that. I think I might sit there and stare at the computer screen for a very long time and nothing would happen. So it’s very different to be writing about something you know about or are in the process of researching. And I certainly have times when I write a paragraph and then I say, it’s terrible. And I read it again and it’s terrible. And I write it again and I then go cook something because I just sort of fed up and come back to it much later. But I don’t generally get writer’s block or whatever it’s called because I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do, and I’m pretty clear idea of how to get there. Yeah, obviously some days you feel better than others, but I think it’s when you’re trying to make stuff up, which I’m not doing, I never try to make stuff up. You try to make stuff up. That would be that would be hard. I I’ve often been tempted to to try to write a short story. But not tempted enough to actually do it.
Brilliant Miller [01:28:42] Okay. Well, thank you for that question. The second of my three last questions is what advice or encouragement would you offer anyone who is either in the middle of.
David Helfand [01:28:53] A.
Brilliant Miller [01:28:53] Book project of their own and maybe they’re dealing with doubt or, you know, they don’t know what to do next. They just forever, for whatever reason, they haven’t gotten across the finish line or it’s a dream they’ve harbored for a long time, but it’s not something they’ve actually started. What do you say? What advice or encouragement you give to someone to help them finish their own book project?
David Helfand [01:29:12] I share it, I think. I mean, with someone who cares about you. Not. Not some random person. Because of that. Means, Oh, it’s not just me. There’s someone else that finds this interesting. And, you know, presumably they will and they might not, and they then that might be tough. But but I think sharing it with another person who hasn’t seen any of it before. I mean, when you’re working on something, as I say, sometimes I have a paragraph. I’ve seen it for like a week because I can’t get it right. And I’m really sick of this paragraph, but you show it to someone else and they go, Oh, they might have a clear solution to you. Oh, this is the problem. The topic sentence is terrible. Or if you have a chapter of a book or something like that, and again, they don’t know the context back that they go, Oh, this is really good or This is really interesting, or what happens before this and, and that that that would motivate you if you’re just trying to start. I would say start. I just sit down and write something. Anything doesn’t have to be the beginning. It can be something that, you know, you want to get across in the project that you’re doing and just do it and then and then leave it and go to bed and, you know, come back the next day and read it and see if you like it. You’re right.
Brilliant Miller [01:30:30] On. Very practical. Okay. The last question is just what’s your final thought? Do you want to leave people listening with either on the topic of writing, creativity or just midlife? General, what’s kind of a concluding thought for people listening?
David Helfand [01:30:50] I’ll try not to be dark here. I would hope that people can learn. The skepticism is not negativism or nihilism. But as an essential. Skill to cultivate, particularly today in our social media saturated world. And I try really hard to get this across to my students. And it’s a difficult concept because I, as I say, say I give them a newspaper story about a research article, and they then read the research article and they tear the newspaper story to shreds because just by definition or they tear the paper to shreds, say, well, this is this doesn’t prove anything, you know, and and because they’re basically have gone from skepticism, denialism, and rather than recognizing skepticism as a valuable check on the information you’re taking in, and you can be a happy skeptic, you can be a positive skeptic, I view myself as a happy, positive skeptic. And that’s I think. What we’re going to need. To spread throughout the population. If we’re going to survive some of the existential problems that we face as a species and as a planet.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:19] A little more skepticism, maybe a lot more skepticism.
David Helfand [01:32:23] Not too much, but not too.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:24] Much, but too much. All right. Well, David, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this. I’ve learned a lot. I really enjoyed your book. Sharing with as many people as I can. So again, my guest today, David Helfand, the survival guide to the Misinformation, Age, scientific habits of mind. I hope you pick it up, enjoy it as much as I did, and make the world a little better because you read it. So thank you, David.