Perhaps the biggest touchstone in my life--though I didn't know it at the time--was when President John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University's football stadium in Houston, Texas, in the late summer of 1962, the day before my tenth birthday. He said, "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
His speech pushed science. He said America had more scientists than it ever had, doubling its denizens every twelve years, and, "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." In short, science would propel us beyond many seemingly impossible things. Science was a way to help us all.
I didn't hear the speech at the time, or even hear it discussed, but the space race and the corresponding Age of Science shaped my life. Only recently, in talking about science with my students in my college English class, have I realized how things have vastly changed from when I grew up.
The speech had come on a Wednesday. I had just started fifth grade, and we'd been handed new mathematics books and was told it was "New Math." New math came about for the same reasons Kennedy gave his speech: the Soviet Union's Sputnik. The USSR had launched the first man-made satellite on October 4, 1957, beating America, which was trying to do the same thing with its Vanguard project. The Soviet Union launched a second, heavier satellite on November 3, which had a live dog in it, Laika. America launched its first satellite on January 31, 1958. The space race was born. The moon became the goal.
After Sputnik, Americans felt our schools were too old-fashioned and not keeping up. We needed a "new" way of doing things, and thus came about New Math, which, instead of learning things by rote, students would understand concepts better. With my fifth-grade math book, we learned the idea of "sets" as well as base numbers. Instead of just thinking in "base ten," we learned other ways of numbering.
"What if people had grown up with only six fingers?" my teacher said. "Our numbering system might then look like this." She drew on the blackboard the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10. "What we think of as the number ten would only be six," she said. "This is the base six system."
My parents, of course, couldn't help me with math anymore, which was fine by me. I rather liked this new math. The bigger point was that I grew up loving science. I'd even started an astronomy club after I'd received a telescope for my tenth birthday, the day after Kennedy's speech.
That club was special. I remember one Minnesota evening as we met, the moon rose after sunset but before it was dark. My cousin Peter and I and three of our friends stood in amazement because the moon was so ginormous on the horizon, and it was reddish. "That's not the moon," I said. "It's Mars. It's too big for the moon. Mars must have gone off its normal path."
We jumped on our bikes and raced around the neighborhood to get a better view. We shouted in joy, being clearly the first to see Mars on its new path.
In my English class a few months ago, I'd assigned Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design. I'd recently read the book and was excited not only by how clearly and enthusiastically it explained the physics of our universe, but it also asked important questions. Why is there a universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are?
When I first brought the book up, though, I saw some students look absolutely ashen. A few worriedly raised their hands, and one blurted, "Why do we have to read about science? This is an English class."
"The book is written in English," I said. "And to me, English classes are all subjects rolled into one. My classes are about thinking, and all subjects are fair game. Science is fair game."
"Except," said another young woman. "I haven't taken science since tenth grade. I hate science. I don't get it."
"You'll soon get it," I assured her. I took a poll. Half said they were intimidated by science. About a third said they liked it.
"I'm surprised," I said. "Science used to be everything."
One young man, whom I'll call Brian, the best writer in the class, said, "Our generation wasn't raised on science. We were taught to draw as we listened to music. Everything we made was praised. I call us the huggy-feely generation." He ended up writing his research paper on this very topic--quite good.
Despite everything working out as I had told them it would--it was a great class--it was in that first day that I realized my upcoming novel, Love At Absolute Zero, had a lot of science in it, and it might intimidate this very group, people of the age range I hoped would love it. The story is about Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old physicist at the University of Wisconsin studying with a team what happens to matter near absolute zero, a point so cold (-459.67 °F) that the movement of atoms nearly stops. When Gunnar is given tenure, though, he can only think of one thing: finding a wife.
To meet his soul mate within three days--that's what he wants and all time he can carve out--he and his team are using the scientific method, to riotous results. Can Gunnar survive in the normal world? What happens if and when he goes to Denmark?
Love At Absolute Zero is a fun book--I put Gunnar through hell--but if the word "science" alone intimidates people, what to do? Clearly, I need help in spreading the word.
In fact, this is why I'm writing this. I need your help. First, before the book is published on September 17th, I've made it available as an eBook for just $4.99 on Kindle and Nook. It'll be $14.95 when the book comes out. While my book isn't the 99-cent genre fiction Kindle offers, both prices are designed to compete with big publishers. (White Whisker Books has just a small staff.)
If you don't have a reader, you can get free apps for your computer, phone, and other devices.
Early reviews started last week:
"It is impossible not to like Gunnar Gunderson," says critic Sam Sattler of Book Chase. "As Gunnar progresses from one disaster or near miss to the next, one views him with a mixture of compassion and laughter, but he is such a good-hearted young man that it is impossible not to root for him."
"The magical thing," says reviewer Grady Harp (Top Ten on Amazon) "is that Meeks makes us really care about this strange bright naïve nerd."
"As engaging as it is amusing, Love at Absolute Zero is, ultimately, a heartfelt study of the tension between the head and heart, science and emotion, calculation and chance," says Marc Schuster, Small Press Reviews.
"The author hit a home run. It's a very good story, very well told," says Jim Chambers, Red Adept Reviews.
Harp also adds, "It is a given, now, that Christopher Meeks is a master craftsman as a writer. What surprises us in this novel is just how much research he's done to get the scientific part of it right. Where does all of this passionate knowledge of physics lie, knowledge that allows him to write so comfortably, opening every chapter with a scientific quote, that we novices stay on board with him? It is a gift-and one of the many that continue to emerge from the pen and mind and brilliant trait for finding the humor in life that makes him so genuinely fine a writer."
I'm not a raise-the-flag-high kind of guy, yet I can't help think how science has made our nation strong, and we have to push it any way we can. Maybe we should go to Mars (which is firmly back in its path). And maybe, through an engaging novel about love where science is part of the mix, people won't be so intimidated by science. Try a download and see.
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