Essay On Science And Its Blessings By Laura

There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.

These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”

The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.

What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.

Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.

But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.

For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame. Bennett pegged her Slate piece to an essay that Carmichael and I edited at Jezebel, written by a woman who had met her father for the first time as a teen-ager and engaged, under emotional coercion, in a brief sexual relationship with him. Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”

By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way. Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue. Aggregation and op-eds—the infamous, abundant takes—continue to thrive, although the takes have perhaps cooled a bit. Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble. Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet. “First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me. “And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”

There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing. There’s Hazlitt, launched by Random House Canada, and Lenny Letter, which now has a publishing imprint, and Catapult, which describes itself as a book publisher with a daily online magazine. (The managing editor of Catapult is Nicole Chung, who previously worked for the Toast.) But the genre’s biggest migration has been to TinyLetter, an e-mail newsletter platform. Gould, who writes a newsletter called Can’t Complain, suggested that TinyLetters are doing what personal blogs did fifteen years ago: allowing writers to work on their own terms and reach “small readerships in an intimate, private-feeling, still public enough way.” Carrie Frye, formerly the managing editor of the Awl, also has a TinyLetter. She told me that it seemed like “writers—particularly female writers—had said, ‘O.K., I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’ ”

It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.”

There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. (Even Tizon’s piece, which was published posthumously and uses his damning closeness to his subject as a way to elucidate the otherwise invisible captivities of the Filipino katulong servant class, prompted an immediate backlash—which then prompted a backlash to the backlash, mainly among those who think Western readers have misunderstood Tizon’s understanding of his own position.) Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”

No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.

  God & Nature Magazine

A Comprehensible Universe:
The Blessing from God that Makes Science Possible

Modern science has been extraordinary in its ability to explain much of what we observe around us. The inventions it has inspired would have been considered miraculous just a short time ago. At the same time, many who are the beneficiaries of science fail to realize that its success depends on a belief that our universe is comprehensible. Science must assume the existence of immutable laws of nature, but it cannot tell us whence they came. To the believer, a comprehensible universe is a blessing from God that comes from the covenant promises in the earliest chapters of Genesis. This essay explains how this truth has served modern science well from its beginnings to the present day.
 
It is privilege and pleasure to dedicate these words to Walt and Ginny Hearn. In the years I’ve known him, I’ve appreciated Walt’s unique and wonderful service as a scientist, writer, and most of all, a dedicated servant of Christ.
 
I am a physicist at the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University, where we do nuclear fusion energy research. Fusion is a way of getting energy by making atoms stick together. They are in a gas that has to be at many millions of degrees. Regular materials can’t be used at such high temperatures. Instead we use very big magnets to create magnetic “bottles.”
 
The magnetic bottle is called a “tokamak.” This is a Russian acronym for a toroidal magnetic chamber. To give you an idea of how big such a machine is, picture a giant doughnut-shaped chamber that is big enough for me to stand in. The goal is fusion is to make what happens inside the sun inside the machine. It’s hard, but if we’re successful, we’ll have a new clean source of energy.
 
What makes any of this possible is the topic of this essay. I have entitled it, “A Comprehensible Universe: The Blessing from God that Makes Science Possible.” Perhaps another, more provocative way of expressing this how the “boring” Biblical account of how the universe was created ultimately makes it understandable. What to do I mean by this? Let’s begin at the beginning, as it were, with two creation accounts. We’re all familiar with the beginning of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” No drama here. God just did it. Contrast this with the creation story from my Japanese ancestors. Two divine beings churned the sea with a jewel-bedecked spear. Japan was created from the drops of salty water that fell from the spear.
 
The Japanese story is certainly more colorful. Scholars might still study the story for the insight it provides into the Japanese psyche. It would be hard to find someone, however, who would try to figure out how much seawater would contain enough salt to create the islands in the Japanese archipelago, and then calculate how large the spear had to be!
 
Consider now the Genesis account. Reading on in the first chapter, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. … God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness God called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.” It is a sober, “boring” account, and yet one that has motivated centuries of study.
 
Ironically, the very “boring” nature of the Genesis account begs for it to be taken seriously. Creation accounts that are motivated by the human desire to explain our existence are necessary more colorful. This is because they are exercises in our imagination. Genesis is different. It doesn’t provide a colorful explanation of how everything came about. Rather, it simply tells us that God was responsible. This is all we need to know, and that’s what God inspired the writer of Genesis to record.
 
What does this have to do with science? The word itself derives from the Latin word for “know.” What God tells us we need to know at the beginning of His Word sets the stage for what else we can know about the universe He created. Let’s look at today’s text. In Genesis 8:22, we read, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”
 
There are two ways to look at the last two words in the passage, “never cease.” One is to consider their usage in an expression of boredom like, “Will this talk never cease?” The other is to consider the boring a blessing, and this is where science comes in. What we have in Genesis 8:22 is a poetic expression of the nature of the laws of nature, as it were. When we put seeds, we expect plants to grow. When we drop something, we expect it to fall.
 
Of course, this depends on the conditions to be the same each time we do a particular “experiment.” We can’t have the same expectations if we forget to water the plants or ignore wind and solar conditions in our planting. If we account for such variables, we can expect the same results, or can we? Without the faith that we’ll get the same results under the same conditions, we can't do science. Science itself can’t provide this faith. It must come from outside of science. For those of us who believe in God, it comes from the promise He gave us in passages like the one we just read.
 
The “boring” inherent in the promise that season will follow season thus makes the pursuit of science a rational thing to do. The problem is that not many people, scientists and nonscientists alike, think about this. Let’s take a simple example. We see a lamp and the bulb doesn’t light. There are a couple of possibilities for why this failure occurred. First, the bulb might be burned out. Alternatively, there might be a tripped circuit breaker or a power failure.
 
I’m a physicist, so I like equations. Let me use one that’s called “Ohm’s Law,” which is familiar to many of you. It says that the voltage or V equals the current or I times the resistance or R. In other words, V = I x R. For the bulb to light up, you need current to flow through it. From Ohm’s Law, I = V/R.  A power failure means no “V” and there’s no current. A burnt out bulb means “R” is infinite and there’s no current.
 
Physicists, like everybody else, will check the their circuit breakers and their bulbs. No physicist I know of, though, would question the validity of V = I x R. “Faith” is needed to believe that the “laws of nature” – or the math beloved by physicists used to formulate them – will not change from one day to the next. We can freely admit to where our faith comes from, as we praise God for our “boring” universe!
 
I am neither the first nor anywhere near the most prominent of physicists to believe this. Isaac Newton needs no introduction. Many people have heard the story of how he figured out his theory of gravity by watching an apple fall. This may not be true, but his “Law of Universal Gravitation” is still valid today. What many people don’t know is what Newton thought about the idea of gravity itself. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
 
Moving forward a couple of centuries, we come to James Maxwell. All physicists know his four famous equations that describe electricity and magnetism. He also believed in God. He said, “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that this view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of."
 
It’s hard to imagine modern life without lasers. One of its inventors, Charles Townes said the following about his belief in God. “Faith is necessary for the scientist even to get started, and deep faith is necessary for him to carry out his tougher tasks. Why? Because he must have confidence that there is order in the universe and that the human mind - in fact his own mind - has a good chance of understanding this order.”
 
The order that Townes mentions enables the predictability that is the hallmark of science. The boring is hardly a blessing if it’s the result of predictability in a story from our imagination. The boring, in contrast, is in fact a blessing if it arises from the predictability promised by God in the created universe. Indeed, it’s a necessity for us if we’re to be creative beings made in God’s image. Painters are confident that the same mixture of paints gives rise to the same color palette. Musicians are confident that the same keys give rise to the same notes. The fact that all of this is boring is as it should be, a covenant promise by God who is creator and sustainer. The blessing that comes from this promise is that it frees us from worrying about our paints, instruments, or anything else we need to be creative.
 
The covenant promise in Genesis of regularity in God’s universe is needed to set the stage for the ultimate covenant promise. It is salvation through Jesus Christ. A universe with immutable laws of nature allows us to appreciate the most significant event in human history. It is Christ’s resurrection, which is extraordinary precisely because it’s impossible according to the science that God makes possible. It is why the story of the crucifixion can and must be taken seriously. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” The laws of God’s universe that make it comprehensible are immutable. So it is with God’s love for us, shown through God's only son, who gave himself so that we might have life eternal.
 
Let me conclude that by saying that I’m clearly not the only scientist who feels this way. Within my specialty, there’s even a group called the “Plasma Science Christian Fellowship.” We gather for prayer and fellowship at annual meetings of the American Physical Society, the largest organization of physicists in the US. More broadly, the American Scientific Affiliation as a national organization of Christians in science has been a personal encouragement to me. Thank you, Walt and Ginny for your dedication to the ASA and the service of Christ.​

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