Giving Thanks, and Giving Back

“Time and money spent in helping men to do more for themselves is far better than mere giving.” -Henry Ford

Here in the United States, it’s American Thanksgiving, our annual harvest festival. Traditionally, it’s the one day out of the year where we spend it with the people most important to us, and give genuine appreciation for the good things we have in our lives. And there is so much to be thankful for.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA).

Last year, I gave thanks to the entire Universe, from the smallest subatomic particles and the laws that govern them up to the largest and most complex structures that they assemble over time. This year, the Angry Astronomer has beaten me to the punch. And that’s a good thing; I’ve got something much more important to do today.

Image credit: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, of Weather and Sky Photography.

Every so often, I get sincere requests from people asking for help either starting or expanding their own blogs. For many new bloggers, starting out seems daunting, especially given how many quality blogs there are on a variety of subjects. So this Thanksgiving, I’m happy to thank you — everyone who’s chosen to come and share a little bit of their time by coming by and reading — by telling you a little bit of my personal journey here.

This, and all subsequent images, courtesy of NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA / Hubble Space Telescope.

Four years ago, I was at a point in my life that most young theoretical cosmologists would have been incredibly envious of: I’d finished my Ph.D. a year ago, I was working as a postdoc at a prestigious University, and — in my personal life — I was celebrating one full year of being in love with my partner, Jamie. We’d just rescued and adopted a puppy, and… everything should have been great. But on the work-front, something wasn’t right.

This was supposed to be everything I wanted, and yet I was dissatisfied — even unhappy — with the work I was doing. After all, I had spent the better part of a decade studying astronomy and physics, learning about the laws that governed the Universe and the phenomena that arose from them, and feeling like a cave explorer figuring out just how vast, intricate, and beautiful this cave was. At the time, it was everything I wanted in my work, and I would happily throw all of the passion and energy I had for working into learning, studying, and trying to figure all the details of it out.

But by this point, I knew this cave intimately. Yes, there were puzzles and mysteries, and somewhere — as everyone in my field knew (and still knows) — there is more to the cave than what we presently have access to. The cave, to the best of our current understanding, is vast, rich, and fulfilling, but it is also incomplete; it isn’t the full story. So we break out our tiny rock hammers and chip away at the cave walls, trying to find the weak point that will lead us into the next giant room, pushing our knowledge and understanding of the Universe to new frontiers.

And what I learned is, if you’re going to do that, it isn’t enough to want to see the next part of the cave.

And I wanted to know what’s next, what lies beyond our understanding, what dark matter and dark energy really are, what caused inflation, what determines the laws of physics and the fundamental constants. I still do.

But no matter how much I wanted it, I had to accept the hard realization that I didn’t love every step of the journey. And if you don’t love what you’re doing — in my case, tapping gently away at the cave walls with our feeble tools — you’ve got to try to find something that you do love, and that you will find satisfying.

Because I didn’t stop loving the Universe: how it works, the laws that govern it, how it came to be the way it is today, from the strongest gravitational sources to the weakest magnetic fields, from the shortest-lived unstable particles to the nearly-eternal cosmic vacuum, that was what I was most passionate about.

And it’s a story that I didn’t want to tell, over and over with only slight variations in detail, to the same couple of hundred people in the world tapping away at the same part of the cave I was. From my point of view, it’s everyone’s story, and I wanted to bring it to everyone.

So I got myself a website, learned how to set it up for blogging, and in January of 2008, I started writing about it. And when I started out, my traffic was something like a cool 17 visits a day, most of whom were my non-astrophysicist friends, science enthusiasts that I played games/sports with, and my dad’s brother. But I was writing, and the more I wrote, the more comfortable I felt doing so. And I found that I enjoyed it, both for the experience of getting to talk about the things I was really excited about and having an audience of intelligent, genuinely curious people engaging with me, even if it was only a couple of dozen people. Then, after writing about a month’s worth of posts, something happened. One of Jamie’s friends told her to ask me, “How do you make a Black Hole?

And while every theoretical astrophysicist knows the answer to that, not everyone with that question winds up becoming a theoretical astrophysicist! So I told the world.

And the next day, when I checked my traffic, I saw that — out of nowhere — I had over a thousand visits. I had written something that I was passionate about, that other people were curious about, and through the power of the internet (stumbleupon, in that case), we found each other.

And if you are writing something of quality with passion, clarity, quality, and your own unique voice, and if you can do it in a way that holds your target audience’s attention, you will find each other. You can make it easier for yourself by getting involved with blog communities, carnivals, or by contacting better-known bloggers in your field. (We remember starting out as nobodies, too; if we like what you’ve got we’ll be happy to link to it!) But if you’re passionate about it, and you work at it, and you’ve got something that’s high quality to say, you can make it happen for yourself simply by saying it.

And that’s the “secret” of how you get better at it: you think about what you’re doing, you do it more and more, you look back at what you’re proud of and do more of it, and what you wished you would’ve done differently and do it differently next time. (And you have a short memory for the things you wish you hadn’t said. Every new article is a new chance to get it right.) After about 300 articles (and 15 months) on my original site, I was approached by one of the big blogging networks with an offer to join. And another two-and-a-half years later, I feel like it’s more important than ever to tell you that same story.

And it’s quite possible that I’ll never run out of stories to tell.

It’s taken the Universe nearly 14 billion years to get us here, and I can’t imagine telling you the full story of all we know (and how we know it) in just one lifetime! Combine that with the ongoing news of the things we’re still learning, and with the excitement of getting to be one of the few individuals who gets to bring it to you, and you know what it tells me, when I think about it?

I’m the lucky one, here.

Fast forward to today, and I’m celebrating five years together with the same partner (now my wife; happy anniversary and happy Thanksgiving, Jamie), four years with the same dog, and — thanks to you — the entire rewarding experience of creating one of the best blogs on the internet from nothing. So my thanks to all of you, and I consider myself both lucky and thankful to get to share a little bit of the personal side of my journey to this point with you. Stick with me; there’s still a whole Universe left to explore!

Comments

  1. #1 Hans Deuze
    November 24, 2011

    Dear Mr. Siegel, Happy Thanksgiving Day. It is always a wonderful experience to read your postings which I already do for many years. Wherever I am in the world for my projects(currently living in The Netherlands, I check every day if there is more exciting news you are sharing with your readers. I wish I had the same talents as you and that I would be able to write the way you do. Please keep on going and going and thank you for doing that. Best regards, Hans Deuze.

  2. #2 Becky
    November 24, 2011

    I am proud of you and proud to be your cousin, love you lots!

  3. #3 Alan
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you

  4. #4 OKThen
    November 24, 2011

    Right! Just because you love dinosaurs; doesn’t mean you only want to live in a tent with a sledgehammer, a dental pic and a whisk broom. You just might want to spend some time sharing what you’ve learned.

    Ditto cosmology, astronomy and physics.

    And we thank you Ethan.

    Now before anyone else wakes up, I will fix the coffee and make the pancakes and begin the apple pie. Yes I did build a snow fort last night with my son. The snow wasn’t right for a snowman, maybe today. When you get right down to the nitty gritty; what’s most important is impermanent.

    All we are is web-pages in the wind…
    Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky…
    And all your money won’t another minute buy…

  5. #5 Basees
    November 24, 2011

    I can’t remember how I found your blog. I think I may’ve stumbled upon it while searching for information. Anyway, I’m mighty pleased that I discovered it, as it has now become a must read for me which I check on a daily basis for new posts.

    The up-to-date information, the depth and clarity of the topics are simply brilliant. And for Physics/astronomy enthusiast like me, but with no formal training in either, your blog is such a powerful source of learning.

    Happy Thanksgiving Day Ethan, and keep up the good work.

    Basees
    from Kuwait

  6. #6 Dani
    November 24, 2011

    Hi Ethan, happy thanksgiving day. I have to say I discover your blog from Pharyngula at first but soon this was my first preference when checking scienceblogs. Everyday I come to your blog imagining what kind of wonderful story you might share with us and not a single time I’ve been disappointed. Not even with the “weekend diversion” posts. I truly enjoy your musical recommendations :). I had never commented in your blog until now and I know I speak for many when I say that this incredible effort you put in your is greatly appreciated. I have an engineering background and I love physics in general and astronomy in particular and I never found this perfect mixture of rigorous, accurate, serious, trustable writing and at the same time enjoyable, funny, aw inspiring….
    THANK YOU Ethan.

  7. #7 david
    November 24, 2011

    When young I wanted to be an astronomer, but career paths took me elsewhere in science. Very elsewhere. But I still love reading about astronomy and cosmology, and I love reading your blog. Thanks Ethan.

  8. #8 Doug
    November 24, 2011

    In my opinion, this is the best blog on the internet (physical sciences division) and a strong candidate for best overall. I work in a very different field (terrestrial remote sensing of plant canopy biophysics) and yet I’ve gotten some great ideas for my own work by reading this. Thanks!

  9. #9 NewEnglandBob
    November 24, 2011

    I subscribe here, so I read every entry. This is one of the best science blogs on the net. I forward links to my son in graduate school and to my amateur astronomer friends.

  10. #10 Siener2
    November 24, 2011

    Ethan, I cannot tell you how much I love reading your blog – please keep it up and rest assured that your passion is rubbing off on countless other peole who read this. Congratulations on the anniversary and may there be many more! From a lawyer cum (very!) amateur astronomer in South Africa.

  11. #11 killinchy
    November 24, 2011

    What a wonderful post. I wish you and your close ones a very Happy Thanksgiving

  12. #12 fletch
    November 24, 2011

    Cordelia? Is this dog named after a Buffy The Vampire Slayer character? :-)

    Anyway, happy Thanksgiving to you, Ethan. I love your blog, you go into the best details and are very thorough. Keep up the great work!

  13. #13 Tihomir
    November 24, 2011

    Hey Ethan,

    Another great blog entry of yours, probably the most personal one I know of. The best sentence in it and the best news for many of your readers was, I am sure, this one:

    “And it’s quite possible that I’ll never run out of stories to tell. ”

    I definitely hope you’re right!
    Keep up the good work and enjoy the holidays!
    Thanks for your great blog!

  14. #14 Luisa
    November 24, 2011

    I’ll be reading [and sharing your posts with others] as long as you have stories to tell. Thanks so much for this blog — and Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. #15 cay
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you so much for running this blog. You help me explain the universe to my high school students, and I have your blog on my Schoology page for reference. One criticism: please don’t call Jamie your “partner”. One of my colleagues came up with a better name: “co-fornicator”. :)

  16. #16 GullyFoyle
    November 24, 2011

    It is so inspiring to see these well-deserved encomia from across the globe in your honor, and I just want to join them from San Antonio, TX. I always wished I had become a cosmology-focused astronomer myself, and your blog helps me live that vicariously – we exist in an amazing time that allows us access to the information and insights you impart. Thank you, Prof. Ethan!

  17. #17 felixneko
    November 25, 2011

    Here in Australia we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving – but this post is one of the few examples I’ve ever seen of why perhaps giving one day a year over to giving thanks is a good idea!…and one of the best uses of blogging!! Thanks for sharing your wonder & joy!

  18. #18 stephen s
    November 25, 2011

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family Ethan. I’m very thankful, I found your blog. I’ve read all your blog entries and they have all been informative and interesting. Thank you.

  19. #19 Loren Amacher
    November 25, 2011

    The best, Ethan, the best. Thank you. Since there are far more stories in the universe than stars in our galaxy, you’ve no end in sight! We await them all.

  20. #20 Duncan Ivry
    November 25, 2011

    Dear Ethan, happy Thanksgiving from Europe. I enjoy it so much learning things about astronomy and astro physics from you. You are a great writer.

  21. #21 CB
    November 25, 2011

    Here in the UK we don’t do Thanksgiving, but happy to take this opportunity to wish Ethan and all his near and dear a terrific Thanksgiving and offer Thanks to him for his fab blog posts.

  22. #22 Steve
    November 25, 2011

    Greetings from Shanghai, Ethan. I’m a Physics teacher and I share your blog with my IB Physics Higher Level students; I’m also a big fan of the blog myself. I enjoy your Physics pieces and admire the way you have a plausible take on the latest results as well as your ability to describe what I already know, to a degree, in new ways. I like your writing style and enjoy the off-topic posts too, such as today’s. Thanks and keep up the great work.

  23. #23 Mickey Carroll
    November 26, 2011

    Wonderful photo’s nice page . I write songs about prevalent issues in the world and produce concerts that give back to world community .

    This song is dedicated to Corporate America .

    You Got To Give Back – Producer Howard Albert Audio Vision Studios Miami
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    Onward
    Mickey
    http://www.MickeyCarroll

  24. #24 simon
    November 27, 2011

    And my thanks to you Ethan, I only discovered your blog this year but it quickly became my favourite science blog (of which I follow many).

  25. #25 Phil_D
    December 3, 2011

    Really moved by your honesty here, and the courage you exhibited to pursue the ‘love’ and not the ‘ought’. I have often found myself divided between the the two, and I don’t always choose the path that leads to happiness and satisfaction, but frequently try to fit my efforts to the image of what I feel I ‘should’ care about.

    “But no matter how much I wanted it, I had to accept the hard realization that I didn’t love every step of the journey.”

    It took me years to understand the dichotomy that you so eloquently put in a single sentence, and years of feeling that I was lazy or incompetent, when I really just hated what I was doing. Thank you for being an example of listening to your heart.

  26. #26 Gary
    December 11, 2011

    I couldn’t have been more captivated by the quality and style of your writing. You’ve found your road, followed it and perfected your ability.

    It’s good to see you doing what you passionately love and I feel I stand to benefit as you speak of various mysteries of the universe. I’ll be following this blog from this day forward. I’ve got all your previous articles to consider and the as yet unwritten articles will be anxiously awaited.

  27. #27 John
    January 19, 2012

    AWESOME
    Every year I give thanks to microbes too.
    So stupid are those who actually give thanks to God for giving us everything we have—when we can be as wise to thank bacteria.

    Next year its mold and after that Math– which I used to determine the odds that 1 in every atom in the universe is really not that improbable even if it is essentially zero.

    So thank you Nothing—for doing the impossible–becoming something without even existing.

  28. #28 Wow
    January 20, 2012

    “So stupid are those who actually give thanks to God for giving us everything we have”

    No, my mum gave me the DVD I watched last night.

    Tesco gave me the food I ate last night.

    My empoloyer gave me the money I paid Tesco with.

    I don’t know a single thing this “God” person has given me. Not even on my 18th birthday, the tightwad!

  29. #29 David Glackin
    sydney NSW Australia
    July 6, 2012

    there is no begining we were given a brain that is unable to accept that fact. That being the case there is no end.
    General genetic hypothesis Reputed(+)=G.
    Static Infinity(oo)=O.We now have the deduced Hypothesis
    Reputed=(-)..G-D/O = Universe. The GOD is an accident

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