Svante Paabo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, with colleagues after he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 3, 2022, in Leipzig, Germany. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)
Step away from Twitter. Stop doom-scrolling.
Yes, I know, American democracy is under assault. Russian President Vladimir Putin is muttering dark warnings about nuclear weapons in the face of heroic and historic resistance by Ukraine. Dozens of people are dead and large swaths of Florida have been devastated by Hurricane Ian. And Kanye West did something so uniformly awful in Paris that I was forced to Google the tone-deaf thing that Kanye West did in Paris.
These are bleak times, indeed. And the urge to simply throw your hands up in the air and declare yourself quit of the whole business is overwhelming. I’m right there with you.
But before you hit Amazon for the best deal on yurts and start Googling “How to become a digital nomad,” at least three things have happened in the last week that, if they do not fully restore your faith in humanity, will at least keep the flame alive.
On Tuesday, a trio of researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their experiments in quantum information science, which, according to the Washington Post, could revolutionize computing, cryptography, and information-transfer by a method called “quantum teleportation.”
The honors for John F. Clauser, 79, of Walnut Creek, Calif., Alain Aspect, 75, of Université Paris-Saclay and École Polytechnique in France, and Anton Zeilinger, 77, of the University of Vienna in Austria, came just a day after the Nobel committee honored another extraordinary accomplishment.
On Monday, Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo took home the Nobel for medicine for sequencing the Neanderthal genome, helping to launch a new field of ancient DNA study, and, as an added bonus, helping scientists track genetic differences in modern humans and their role in disease – including COVID-19, the New York Times reported.
And last week, NASA successfully crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid, all in an effort to prove whether it was possible to defend our very fragile planet from interstellar threats, the Washington Post also reported.
By themselves, any one of these achievements represent a massive expansion of human knowledge and scientific achievement.
Taken together, however, they’re not only a trifecta of weapons-grade wonkishness, but also a welcome reminder of the liberating power of education in a year in which too many parents were working overtime to get Toni Morrison’s books (also a Nobel winner) yanked from their kids’ school library.
It’s been widely reported that the United States is in the midst of a historic teacher shortage, with educators fleeing the profession because of high demands and low pay, PTSD from the pandemic, and culture wars run amuck.
If we’re pressed, every one of us can point to a teacher who made a critical difference at a crucial moment, whether through a kind word, or extra help on a particularly challenging assignment. Other educators go even further, advocating for their students when there’s no one else there to speak for them. Some, tragically, have even given their lives to keep our children safe.
So I can’t help but wonder if we’re depriving ourselves of the next Svante Pääbo or John F. Clauser when a gifted educator decides to leave the classroom in favor of a job that not only pays a livable wage, but also is 100-percent free of school board meetings that turn into political foodfights.
If we want to solve all those problems that have us doom-scrolling in the first place, we need to train and educate a generation of young people (hopefully unencumbered by crippling student debt) who can do that. We have to ground them in fact, not conspiracy; wrap them in hope, not despair; and bequeath them welcoming unity, not endless division.
So take a moment, if you would, to celebrate and pay tribute to the transformative work of not only the Nobel-honored scientists, but all those, whose names we might never know, who are working every day to expand our knowledge and save lives.
And there, in the quiet, as you do that, I’m betting that whatever despair you’re feeling will give way to hope; to the spark that gives way to a flame, lighting the fire of knowledge that carries all of us forward.
And then, if you must, go back to doom-scrolling.
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