silly scientist

Long ago, a friend asked that I arrange “a romantic night under the stars” for her Las Vegas-based supervisor and his betrothed. When I reported the plans I was making for a dark desert site, including a large telescope operated by an experienced astronomer, my friend asked, “What about a bonfire and champagne?”

I explained that, when attempting to resolve the subtlest celestial details, optimum perception of the faint light gathered by a telescope requires scotopic (dark-adapted) vision, and that a bright fire would prevent their eyes from becoming maximally acclimated. I cautioned further that alcohol temporarily degrades visual acuity, that even mild intoxication would thus also have a negative impact on their observations, compounding the damage done by a bonfire.

I paraphrase, but my reply was actually that awkward and wordy.

To which my friend countered simply, “Silly scientist, what part of romantic night under the stars did you not understand?”

Silly scientist, indeed. Arcane knowledge – my stock in trade – is a poor substitute for wisdom.

During a recent medical exam, I was asked what medications I was taking. The physician’s expectation seemed to be that anyone my age would be on at least one long-term prescription. But I’m not, and I credited bike travel as the source of my relative health and fitness, resorting, as usual, to statistics to prove that claim: miles per day, calories per mile, resting versus maximum heart rate, blood oxygen saturation percentage, and other such mind-numbing tedium.

I’ve no excuse. I knew, even as I formed the words, that was not what I wanted most to share. Bottom line: Although bicycling is indeed a healthy activity, I don’t travel by bike for my health. Nor are such mundane statistics what I write of in my journal each night, where I record instead, lest I forget, stories of the remarkable people to whom this journey introduced me that day, of the lessons they taught, of their grace, compassion and generosity, which amaze me still, despite that I experience it all, anew, every day.

A more recent conversation with a new friend reminded me that knowledge does not equal wisdom, and that neither requires an advanced degree. Several times during our conversations, my friend qualified his thoughts with, “But I only have a high-school education,” yet his observations were more astute than those of many I’ve encountered who hold PhDs, and his ability to communicate his ideas was second to none.

I’ve long enjoyed the anonymous quote: “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.” Whether he’s read it, or not, my new friend lives this distinction. Why do I find it so difficult?

Yes, the health benefits of pedaling far are real, and, God forgive me, I will continue to brag of them. But, discussion of those are best reserved for when others ask for such details. Until they do, it’s better that I lead with what is truly important to me. I travel far by bicycle, because I’ve found no better way for silly-scientist introverts to connect with so many extraordinary people like that wise new friend, and when explaining my journey, I need share no more than that simple, compelling, human truth.

(Photo: People, and other amazing beings, I would not have met but for the delightful vagaries of bike travel.)

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