For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.
So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by him. Having read his short biography on Albert Einstein last summer, Einstein’s Cosmos (2004), along with some work by Hawking, Feynman, Sagan and so on, I was obsessed with the guy. Naturally, this all led to long hours on YouTube watching interviews and clips of old Nova programs.  So the moment I learned that Kaku would be making a stop in Minnesota for his Physics of the Future (2011) book tour, every calendar I owned was marked marked marked and any scheduling conflict would have to be skipped skipped skipped.
(My apologies, Seungho, for missing International Law)
Arriving at the UMN book store at 6:20pm, I had more than enough to pick up his book I reserved online along with the two tickets for the reserved seating that came with it. Worried that I may not be able to get a good spot – a sizeable crowd was already forming – I was actually quite surprised to see that most of the reserved seating (the first three rows of about twenty) was essentially empty. For those unfamiliar with Minnesotan culture: even when we have reserved seating to see someone that we admire, we want to be close but not that close. Sitting near the very front, I’ve included a picture to show how uncomfortably close I was to the signing table, the point at where I could probably reach out and touch him as he spoke at the podium.
After forcing small talk for a while with one of the physics kids next to me, one of the booksellers addresses the crowd: “The event is not starting yet, but I just have to inform everyone that while Professor Kaku was in Switzerland last week he caught a cold and has laryngitis …”
My heart jumps a beat – That motherfuckin’ bitch stood me up.
“… And because he wants to be able to answer everyone’s questions …”
I’m sorry, baby. You know I was just a little upset.
“… He has asked us to find someone willing to give his PowerPoint presentation. We do have a script so it wouldn’t be too hard.”
Impulsively, my hand goes up and she thanks me and hands me the script. It’s only when I realize that I’m now holding the script that I understand the full implications of what I have just done. My hands begin to shake. I’m becoming nauseous. Dear God, what the hell have I done?
But I take a deep breath.
I’ve given speeches to large crowds before and I have more than enough time to go over the script and the notes for the 51 slide PowerPoint. On the plus side, I can technically put “Lecturer of Theoretical Physics and Futurism” on my resume. Also, at least he can’t turn me down for a giraffe without being a total jerk.
Some time passes and I’m becoming more and more confident in my abilities by the time Kaku takes to the podium shortly after 7:00pm. He introduces himself, talks briefly about the 300 interviews he conducted with some of the best scientists and thinkers around for his book and then apologizes for not being able to give his presentation himself: “When Einstein went to Sweden he left with an equation; when I went I left with a cold.” At this point one of booksellers asks me to stand. I’m given no further direction and now I look like a complete asshole.
I approach the nearest microphone, which is a little distant from the podium but not enough to really cause me any problems. When I ask one of the tech people if the microphone works I’m reminded that the entire event is being recorded and that I should just go to the podium.
I take a deep breath.
Kaku thanks me for the help and when I look out to the crowd I feel a little claustrophobic (later one of the booksellers will tell me that she estimated a turnout of over 500). I forget to introduce myself even though I consider the shamelessly plugging this website (I don’t) and begin moving into the presentation. For anyone that has ever done public speaking, the first few paragraphs are often the hardest to spit out, but the moment they are done confidence balloons and one even becomes a little cocky as you incorporate inflection, intonation and ad lib and unnecessary facial gestures all while mentally revising Cicero’s epitaph to read: “Yeah, he was OK, if you’re into that.”
Or something like that.
Before I know it the presentation is over, I shake his hand and then take my seat high as hell. There’s a brief video followed by questions and answers, which goes by smoothly, and now he’s finally ready to begin signing books. Already at the front of the line I decide to try to cash in the chips I earned through the evening and make the pitch …
“I can’t draw a giraffe,” says Kaku, which is perfect since I implied that fact during the pitch. Also, I’m already well aware that he’s a little sketchy when it comes to biology.
A point made all that much clearer by the fact that this uni-giraffe is apparently evolving bipedalism.
 I purposely use his latest books (of the 8+ in his repertoire) as demonstrative of the “coolness” in science specifically because I imagine his textbooks and 170+ journal articles have the exact opposite effect.
 I was going through a serious physics/astronomy phase that, thank God, I have now fallen out of and substituted with heavy drinking.
 If anyone is curious about his handshake: it’s disappointingly weak.
A close friend of mine participates in the Big Friend-Little Friend program here at the University and thought it would be an interesting idea to have her little friend “Mikey” draw a giraffe. Given, I do believe children this age probably should be drawing giraffes because of the contribution imagination has on one’s cognitive development, but I am including this here for two reasons:
- It’s absolutely adorable, and
- It illustrates what we have known for a while: even an eight year old can draw a better giraffe than most of the other people on this website. (I’m talking to you, Bobby B. – you have no excuse).
(Aren’t the teeth just precious?)
Normally we like to try our best to post a new giraffe every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but unfortunately we dropped the ball yesterday. Instead of scheduling a new giraffe I found myself bumming around the Twin Cities visiting friends, writing, walking DinkyTown and giving Michio Kaku‘s powerpoint presentation to a crowd of 500+ at the University of Minnesota Bookstore as he calmly stood beside me with laryngitis (podcast and giraffe to come).
Needless to say: I was busy.
Also, I made my way over to see the always funny Sam Lipsyte at Magers and Quinn booksellers. Lipsyte is a satirist/black humorist/terrible artist whose latest book The Ask (2010) is a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (Slate did a nice review here).
Though your Friday was likely an empty one filled simply with decisions of whether or not you should kick it in the front seat or sit in the back seat, I will make it up to you by making this Monday (4/11/11) extra awful with a double post – I just have to decide which giraffes to use.
In other news:
- Many thanks to Dillon McBrady for not only obtaining a giraffe from U.S. Senator Al Franken, which will make its way online in the near future. Also, thank you Dillon for bringing to light U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson‘s refusal to help his constituents in their entrepreneurial undertakings.
- PrettyAwfulGiraffes.com would like to publicly apologize to U.S. Congressman Tim Walz for causing a recent controversy that has the potential to overshadow Nixon’s Watergate. Our bad, dude.
- A friend of a friend was able to get a giraffe drawn by Philip Glass, who according to Wikipedia is “considered to be one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century and is widely acknowledged as a composer who has brought art music to the public.” Pretty sweet, huh?
- It’s very likely that we’ll have buttons and stickers ready in the next two weeks. Be sure to join the Street Team and tell all of your friends to do the same.
- I’m not sure what to do with the giraffes that have been finding their way to my inbox lately. Should I just throw them up online and let the people decide? Help!
R.T. Rybak is the current mayor of Minneapolis, MN, (serving since 2002) and a former writer for the Minneapolis Tribune who has also contributed to MPR. More importantly, he’s been known to crowd surf at First Avenue concerts. Yeah, that’s Minnesota for you.
So I will start by saying that I have nothing less than the utmost respect for Mayor R.T. Rybak. The guy is kind, smart, passionate and is often the best speaker in the room regardless of the venue. With that said, it is with a heavy heart that I must report the following: when I invited the mayor to participate in GDBWSNBDG at a recent local foods banquet in Montevideo, MN, the first reply I got was “What does a giraffe look like?”
Needless to say I was speechless. Though I do not know the mayor on a personal level, I have spoken to him at enough political functions to know that this question must have been in jest. Or, at the very least, a question of metaphysics. After all, I as an armchair philosopher I can sympathize: what does anything truly look like?
At least for both his sake and mine this is the story I’m sticking to.
“Well, they have long necks,” I said.
He then took the notebook from my hand and began to draw, clarifying that he would need to draw a rough draft. (One could say that he was drawing a rough gir-aft, but one should probably not say that because it would make them look like an asshole).
… If said bird was filled with helium, therefore making it a fowl-ish Hindenberg.
Normally the story would end here, but the moment he finished (taking the time to “touch up” the work with neck-arms and a pigtail) he then took the sketch and ran off. Not knowing what was going on (and hoping to get my notebook back), I followed only to see that he had sought out his wife with cries of “Honey, honey, look what I drew!”
The reply? “That’s very nice, Raymond.”
Yes, very nice indeed.
As you will find on his Wikipedia page, Bruininks has been working with the University of Minnesota since 1968 and was named the 15th president of the system in 2002. In May 2010 he made his intentions clear that he would be stepping down as president, which led the creation of a search committee that eventually selected president-designate Eric Kaler of New York. So with that said, it must be made clear that of everyone I have approached asking for a drawing, my confrontation with President Bruininks had to of been not only the least fruitful (he drew an amoeba and labeled it “Bob’s Horse”) but also the most awkward.
I found myself in the Twin Cities campus in the McNamara center on February 10, 2011, for a luncheon with the Board of Regents to discuss the state of the university financially, the direction it would be moving down the road, how students could work with the administration, etc., and happened to run into the president. While I have seen him at several functions, my personal interaction with him has been light to say the least; even so, my few interactions with him have been nice to say the least. So I did not think this would be that big of a deal (it certainly had not been so with other folks), but after making the pitch all the president could do was stare at me.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” He asked.
I repeated myself, trying to maintain my confidence; this is after all a serious business.
“I guess I can do that,” Bruininks says, taking the pen and paper from my hand and using a nearby table for a flat writing surface. Compared to those who use a single, solid line to create an outline, I see that he uses the pen to scratch a half-inch long head followed by a peanut body, which is then given legs and a tail (?). Out of the desire to be polite I try to bite my tongue – this is the worst thing I have ever seen; absolutely no effort – and can feel my tongue shed blood when declares, “It’s not much, but I’ll call it ‘Bob’s Horse.'”
He then signs it and hands it to me.
I die a little bit inside.
This is not a giraffe.
Jennifer McCreight is an atheist and feminist blogger who writes over at BlagHag.com and someone I had the pleasure of meeting when she visited the University of Minnesota-Morris on March 23, 2011. As part of a small lecture tour she was doing across the state during her spring spring she came to the campus to speak about “God’s Lady Problem: Breaking Up with Supernatural Beings,” which was both edgy and controversial. And how it could it not be – she equated one’s relationship to God with that of an abusive relationship according to the established and accepted signs of such a relationship? Though the turnout was about 30-40, I counted only about one walkout.
She is perhaps most known as the main organizer behind Boobquake (4/26/10), a “humorous exercise in scientific and skeptical thinking” seeking to disprove the claims of Iranian Islamic scholar Kazem Seddiqi‘s who believes that “women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.” Needless to say the results were pretty straightforward: boobs do not cause earthquakes. Who would have thought?
Also, for someone with both activist/scientific success and a popular blog under her belt she is surprisingly apt at drawing giraffes.
The University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM) had the pleasure of hosting Roger Nygard, director, writer and producer (perhaps best known for his 1997 documentary Trekkies) who screened his most recent film The Nature of Existence (2010) to an overflow crowd of students and faculty alike. In Nygard’s own words, Existence is a film where he “wrote the toughest 85 questions I could think of, about our purpose and the nature of existence, and then asked hundreds of people all over the globe, such as: Indian holy man Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Living), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), 24th generation Chinese Taoist Master Zhang Chengda, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind (co-discoverer of string theory), wrestler Rob Adonis (founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling), confrontational evangelist Brother Jed Smock, novelist Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), director Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), Stonehenge Druids Rollo Maughfling & King Arthur Pendragon and many more…”
Overall the film was not too bad even if he refused to challenge or interrogate the logic of those he interviewed, a point he made clear in the Q-and-A following the film by pointing out that his film is meant only to make the viewer think and come to their own conclusion. PZ Myers, UMM professor and author of the science blog Pharyngula, was in attendance, voiced his opinion and did not seem impressed by Nygard’s hands off style. In fact, the only reflection of his own beliefs the director made clear was the fact that he is moral relativist, the notion that “because there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others – even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards”, which at face value is not an entirely harmful idea. After all, what is wrong with there being more tolerance in the world? Although such a notion can be agreeable to certain degrees it grants no excuse for reticence and does not justify inaction when there is a clear, unethical wrong being committed.
Take for example a brief exchange that happened during the Q-and-A.
When asked whether or not it would be acceptable for a culture to torture babies, Nygard responded socratically: “From what frame of reference?” stressing in his answer (and the small debate that followed between he and students) the fact that given the subjectivity of morality no culture has a right to dictate what is moral for another. In fact, when asked by a student whether or not his experience working on the film proved to him that “the world would have been a better place if there was no such thing as religion since all of the awful things that have been justified by it would not have happened” such as the Inquisition, the crusades, and so on. To this Nygard replied by again asking the student to define “what frame of reference” he was using. Clarifying his philosophy, Nygard said that while those things that have been committed in the name of religion were bad, to know good is to know what is bad.
I can’t say I agree – I happen to believe we can know what is good without killing the Jews – but that’s just my own opinion.
I wish I could say here that as the tension in the room began to build a member of the GDBWSNBDG editorial board turned the subject to giraffes, but the truth is Nygard’s moral relativism was an issue in most of the venues in which he spoke. Earlier in the day he participated in a roundtable discussion and apparently slipped into a debate with one of the university’s philosophy professors who wrote his thesis, which will soon be published as a book, on ethics. It was actually during this debate when Lucas Felts interjected during a pause … and asked for a giraffe …
… Or fucking dinosaur or something.