The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Our Fathers, Who Art in Science

Posted by | June 21, 2015

Fodder for pundits

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 6/21/2015.

As I stood in the kitchen of my New York apartment coming to grips with the news of my father’s sudden death, something spooky happened. One of my father’s favorite tunes, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, began playing. My father had been found dead only hours before, and now a clear reminder of him was spontaneously emanating from some luggage in the corner.

I assumed it was a cell phone ringtone, but standing there, in that most alone moment of my life, I had no explanation for why someone would be phoning a suitcase, or why “my father’s song” was suddenly playing.

At the funeral, I told the story of “the phone call from no one” in my eulogy for my father. The Russian Orthodox priest we had at the service came up to me afterwards and patted my hand. “It was Him calling you. That was the spirit of your father, and of God, calling you,” the priest said to me. Numb with grief, I merely nodded my head and thanked the cassocked cleric for coming.

I realized later how angry my father would have been about that moment with the priest. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the music, nothing supernatural but only coincidental. It just so happened that my worried roommate had been calling his friend, who was staying with us and had left her cell phone in her suitcase by mistake. The friend happened to be a big Monty Python fan, as many twentysomethings are. I happened to walk into my kitchen during one of the attempted calls. For all I know, that little ditty could have been blaring from the suitcase for hours.

In the moment, it seemed miraculous and spooky. I was grasping for one last experience of my father, and I got it. He and I had made a pact that whoever died first in the family would send incontrovertible evidence of an afterlife if they could. I wanted it to be him on the phone. Who wouldn’t?

When I later learned the underlying cause behind the call, I saw how I’d fit the facts to my reality at the time. I was disappointed, but I was also relieved that the world still played by the same old rules.

We call the discovery of those rules “science.” Science is what I got from my father. He was an engineer and a computer scientist all his life. He fanned the flame of my childhood curiosity with explanations of physics and the Universe and the laws of nature, all over the dinner table. A lifelong skeptic, he put his faith in math and chemistry, cause and effect. It wasn’t him on the phone.

At the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, the coastal science and education center where I work, the purpose behind everything we do is science. It was satisfying, though not surprising, to learn that our Reserve Director’s father is a renowned soil ecologist at the University of Connecticut, that the father of our Coastal Training Program coordinator was a rocket scientist with NASA for nearly 50 years, that our Research Director's mother was involved with a local natural history museum, and that our Education Director, who instills a sense of wonder in thousands of visiting children per year, was taken on “tons on nature walks” by her parents as a child. Science is in our DNA here.

But then again, I could be fitting the facts to the reality I want. I know other colleagues have non-Ph.D. parents and that scientists come from countless different lineages. We are pattern-seeking animals, we humans, and we prefer it when the world conforms to the ideas we’ve already formed.

Which may explain why I took such comfort in the words of a different priest this week. The “climate change encyclical” issued by Pope Francis on Thursday confirmed to me that faith and science can examine some issues, at least, through the same lens of reason. The Pope echoed what a huge majority of scientists has been crying for years, and yet, coming from the rock star Bishop of Rome and the titular head of one billion Catholics, it seemed like a renewed message of urgency, morality, and hope.

Or maybe that’s just what I wanted to think, and others to think as well. It’s the faith we place in our fathers that is our earliest faith. Let them always use that power responsibly.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, fathers, and padres out there.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, life and death. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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