Only IWhat happens when the projector doesn’t work?  The Haybarn Theater on the Plainfield campus has a beautiful new sound system, concert-worthy; state of the art lighting; a rich red velvet curtain; a podium that adjusts for height at the press of a button…but when the faculty are about to read and there is some kind of glitch with the projector, what to do?  Richard Panek went to the archives of The Last Word on Nothing, a blog that promises “Science: clear, crafty, and delivered to your door.”  According to the blog writers: “Science is first of all about discovery (the first word on everything). But the more science knows, the more it realizes what it doesn’t know (the last word on nothing). Curiosity and humility: the human condition.”

In the spirit of embracing what one doesn’t know—or at least doesn’t expect when a projector isn’t working—Richard abandoned his thoughts on black holes and instead read “Only I,” which appeared on the blog in August.  Here’s how it starts:

Why me? Why am I the only one who can prevent wildfires?

Forest fires were burden enough. I’ve never even lived near a forest. Yet all my life, there he’s been: “Only you….Only you….Only you.” When I watched those public service commercials as a child, I remember thinking, What’s wrong with my parents, raising someone with my powers in a big city like Chicago? I was Superboy in Smallville, only in reverse. Superboy was killing time until he was old enough to move to Metropolis; I was waiting to relocate to Yosemite. I had to ask myself: What if Superboy had “forgotten” he could stop a speeding locomotive before it reached the crossing where Ma and Pa Kent’s car had stalled? Couldn’t I forget to prevent myself from leaving the stove on and tossing a match through the kitchen window?

Yet even then, did I move to a forest? I’m almost ashamed to say I eventually used the insurance settlement to buy a co-op in Manhattan. Besides, there’s only so much one person can do, as my therapist has helped me understand, citing our own sessions. Yet every so often comes news like the recent widespread conflagrations in Washington and Oregon, and then I can’t help thinking, “It’s all my fault. If only I had—”

To read it all, and to read more of Richard’s thoughts, some of which will continue to find there way here to this blog, check out The Last Word on Nothing.

At the Residency… The Last Word on Nothing
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Richard Panek

A Guggenheim Fellow in science writing, Richard Panek is most recently the author of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which won the 2012 Science Communication award from the American Institute of Physics, and the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. He also wrote the National Geographic giant-format movie Robots 3D, now playing in museum theaters across the country. His educational and professional background is in both journalism and fiction, disciplines he combines in trying to illuminate the history and philosophy of science even for readers who, like himself before he begins his research, would know little or nothing about the topic at hand.

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