The Sciences

Giving thanks

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitNov 27, 2008 2:00 PM


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Today in the United States is the holiday of Thanksgiving, one of our more deeply tradition-laden days. I suspect most people in other countries know this as the time we eat turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie (though not me, I prefer chocolate pie). And then there's the shopping the next day, of course. But there is also the tradition after which the holiday itself is named: giving thanks. People do it in different ways, of course. At a family dinner many years ago, my then-young niece suggested that we go around the dinner table and everyone could say what they were thankful for. It was a sweet idea, and we've done it many times since, when we're all gathered. But there's something about it that bugs me, and again it's the word itself. To give thanks, there has to be something to receive it. For some it's God, which is their personal choice. For others it may just be fate, or happenstance. That bugs me. I have an appreciation for math and some basic statistics; I know that, ironically, rare things happen all the time because there are so many seconds in a day, and so many of us humans walking the Earth. Tell me that I am a one-in-a-million guy, for example, and I know reflexively there are 5999 more of me out there somewhere. Egads. So sometimes things just happen. But I also know that the world is what we make of it. We make decision, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day, day in and day out, for all our lives. The big decisions stick with us, and maybe smaller ones that went the wrong way. But they're our decisions. So I'm not the kind of guy, you might not be surprised to learn, to give thanks to some entity or entities named or otherwise. To me, it's not a matter of giving thanks. It's a matter of assessing what you have, what you want, and being glad or sad about the way things did or didn't go. Should I thank the random nature of the Universe that a young woman in 1992 decided to take astronomy in summer school, setting up the circumstance that I would see her every day in the Astronomy Department at UVa? And should I thank Fate that she was someone I had already met through being in the band together, but we never hit it off... only to stop and talk with her before class that hot, humid summer? And whom do I thank for me finally getting the guts to invite her to the Fourth of July picnic at my friend's house, a date that had been ongoing for 16 years now? Or should I just be glad things worked out that way, and I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that arose? Should I be thankful that the one particular sperm swam some small percentage faster than the others, producing a zygote that would eventually be the daughter I see today, possessed of a lovely singing voice, an aptitude for music, drawing, writing, and science? I'm just glad it worked out that way, and that my wife and I did the best we could -- and still do -- to raise our daughter. Knowing all this is started out somewhat randomly doesn't lessen the fierce feelings I have for my daughter now, and the pride I feel every day when I see her. I decided in the late 90s to write a book. I wrote magazine articles first, then started giving talks, then got an agent, then the book contract. We needed blurbs for the cover, so I sent a copy to my hero, James Randi, whom I had never met. He wrote an enthusiastic endorsement, and then invited me to speak at the first of an annual conference he was planning. Now I'm the president of his educational foundation. I am paradoxically humbled and proud to be in this position. Whom do I thank for that? Oh, wait! I have an answer for that: Randi. And my agent, and my friend who introduced me to my agent, and and and. I'm glad they were able to help me, and I'm glad I took the initiative to jump on those opportunities when they arose. And so in this case, the thanks really do have someone to receive them. I bet that's true in a lot of cases. I thank my family for their support, and my friends over the course of my life for shaping that life. I'm glad for the opportunities, but I'm thankful to the people. The world is what we make it. It's the people who make the difference. I am who I am today -- we're all who we are today -- because of people, both good and bad, influencing us, both in good ways and bad. And it's what we've done with that experience. Events happen, but it's up to us to do with them what we can. Be glad for that, be thankful. The world is what we make of it. Make it a good one.

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