Monday, December 14, 2015

Gifts From My Father

My father spent his career as an engineer working for IBM and NASA.  Growing up with an engineer is an education in itself.  As a boy, I felt like whenever I was with my father, I was learning new things.  We'd go out for pizza and he'd write chemical equations on napkins.  We'd go to the Ashokan Reservoir and he'd tell me the history of the valley that was flooded so that New York could get water, and then he'd tell me how they engineered the pipeline that carried the water to the city.  

Often he was at his desk or his workbench, and I didn't want to interrupt him when he was working on problem-solving, but I'd try to spend time in his office or workroom until I made too much noise and was asked to move on to other exploits.  I'd stare at his shelves, heavy with books and tools, and full of things he had picked up in his travels.  He had a small, round stone that he had found somewhere, that had been shaped as a toy by our Algonquin ancestors. He had musical instruments and geometric shapes made of plastic and wire, and books on how to learn Russian or how to understand religion.  On his workbench there was an oscilloscope that he'd sometimes use, and I loved that machine's interpretation of the data it received. My father's mind is a small liberal arts college unto itself, and his curiosity about the world seems to know no limits.  

Recently I was going through some boxes of things that have moved across the country with me many times.  I am an anti-hoarder, someone who prefers to give things away rather than store them forever.  But some things are hard to part with, especially when the memories associated with them are so strong.

Here's a snapshot of a few of the things I hang onto precisely because they remind me of Dad.  The gyroscope and wooden puzzle were gifts he brought me when I was a small boy.  I think he got them on business trips.  I've kept them both because they bring me wonder and delight, and because I like to use them to teach children.  The weather radio is probably silly, and I don't use it any more, but it reminds me both of Dad's constant interest in solving problems before they are crises, and of his lifelong interest in electrical engineering.  He built a computer in his fraternity house back before most people knew what computers were.  He would take apart radios so he could put them back together and understand how they worked.  

I never picked up his gift for electrical engineering, but I've got his curiosity about how things work, which I tend to apply more towards ecology than technology.  For me, technology and ecology come together in some important ways, nonetheless.  This pocket microscope he gave me has been with me for thirty years or more, and I like to think of it as a seed.  I've often been tempted to give it away, but instead I have held onto it, and every time I think of giving it away I buy more of them and give them to teachers.  Each year I teach for a month in Guatemala, and while I am there I look for teachers in local schools and give them boxes of microscopes and other hand lenses.  

I am reminded that much of the history of science (Dad's field ) and of philosophy (my field) have grown with advances in optics.  When scientists get better lenses and lasers and satellites, knowledge tends to grow rapidly.

The same is true for children: give them a hand lens, or an insect viewer, or a microscope with some prepared slides, and the world will suddenly become new to them.  Dad planted that seed in me long ago.  Now I carry a hand lens with me almost everywhere I go. I suppose the whole of my career is a reflection of the things that delight Dad and provoke his curiosity; most of them delight me and make me curious, too.  And just as Dad passed on his curiosity to me, now it is my turn to pass it on to others.