Grounded

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A vintage 1940s J-3 Piper Cub sits on the tarmac at Sterling.

One hour west of Boston, past the Wachusett reservoir and the farms draped on rolling hills, down a tree-lined road with a stone arch bridge over a quiet, shaded creek, lies a little strip of tarmac in a big grass field, surrounded by the central Massachusetts forest. A dozen small airplanes sit on the cracked asphalt next to rusted-out hangars with oil-stained floors. This is Sterling Airport, and as you walk to the door, a big green sign greets you: LEARN TO FLY HERE.

The weather on this Saturday afternoon: clear skies, 50 ºF, over 10 miles visibility—more than enough to see Mt. Wachusett on the northwest horizon. It’s a spring day in February, and a beautiful one for flying. But the only thing up there now is a hawk, making lazy circles over the sun-beat tarmac, soaring on the rising air.

Inside the airport operator’s building, it smells like old couches, and three greying white men are sitting on them. Hangar talk. I pour myself a cup of coffee from the communal pot and leave a mental note to put a buck in the adjacent jar before I go. I sit down next to a tall, balding man with big glasses named Dan. He points to Richard, the man across the room who’s currently holding court. Dan lives 50 miles west of Sterling. Is he here to fly? “No,” he says. “Just came to talk.” He sits silently in his chair as Richard carries on about autopilots and air shows, and whether he’ll make it this year to Sun N’ Fun in Florida, and how you wouldn’t believe how much Oshkosh has changed.

Hanging on the wall in a row wrapping around the room and into the hallway is a flight school tradition: the T-shirts worn by student pilots on their first solo, signed with the date and the plane’s tail number. They begin in the early 90s and stop at 2007. One of them bears the slogan: “Sterling Airport: Grass roots aviation at its finest!”

If you take that slogan at its cheery word, then the grass has stopped growing. General aviation—that is, personal, non-airline flying—in the United States is in a nosedive. Rising fuel costs have rendered it an expensive hobby; as a mode of personal transportation, it hasn’t gotten any more practical, either. In 1980, according to FAA numbers, there were over 200,000 student pilots in the process of earning their private pilot’s license. In 2009, there were 73,000. The number of active pilots has fallen from 827,000 to less than 600,000.

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Even on a warm spring day, there can be more sitting around than flying.

I got my pilot’s license in high school, training at a small airfield much like this one, off the state highway in the south end of my northern Wisconsin hometown. When I was a kid, Popular Mechanics still published cover stories about flying cars. But today, the personal airplane seems like a thing of the past, not the future.

After me, the next youngest person in the room at Sterling is Renee, a woman in her mid-40s with brown hair and a lilting Midwestern accent. I ask how many kids are training here these days. “It’s…a reasonable number,” she says.”A lot less than a few years ago.” She glances at the rates written on the wall: $88/hr to rent the Cessna 150 two-seater, plus $45 for the instructor. It’s double what I paid growing up in Wisconsin. “Not many can afford it anymore.” She sighs.

When I was a kid, I heard the small airplanes pass over my yard every day. I always looked up. It wasn’t the freedom that I craved, the “tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds in footless halls of air” that John Gillespie Magee, Jr. immortalized in his sonnet “High Flight.” No, more than anything else, I wanted to fly because so that I could look down. I wanted perspective. I wanted to know what my house looked like from above—to find out where I was, to place myself amongst my surroundings. The year after I got my license, an internet company in the Bay Area launched a website called Google Maps. And eventually, I stopped looking up.

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Final approach to the grass strip at Sterling in a glider. Mt. Wachusett is just left of center on the horizon.

I remember to look up now as I walk back to my car. The skies are still clear; even the hawk is gone. From the south end of the strip, Mt. Wachusett rises from the treeline, seven miles distant as the hawk flies. On a good summer day, when the ground is warm, you can hop in a glider, get a two up to 3,000 foot, and soar all the way there to dance across its slopes and ridges on the uplift and glide back to Sterling—or so I’m told. Since I arrived, I haven’t see a single plane take off or land, nor heard a single engine fired.

But I’ll be back. I forgot to pay for my coffee.

On League of Denial

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When I was in elementary school, the only part of the school day I looked forward to was playing football at recess. I grew up in Wisconsin, and the mid–90s was a good time to be a Packers fan—the Mike Holmgren glory years. My friends and I would draw up our plays and pretend we were Brett Favre, tossing TDs to Shannon Sharpe and Robert Brooks, handing off to Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens. My best friend was a perpetual team captain, and even though I was clearly the worst football player out there, I could always count on him to not pick me last. That’s what friends do.

There was just one problem for us: The school administrators would never let us play tackle. On the gridiron of Cooper Elementary, four-hand touch ruled, until our principal banned even that, and we had to resort to two-hand touch. If they weren’t watching, we tackled anyway. Usually, nobody got hurt. But every now and then, two kids would run into each other, you’d hear the clang of skulls clashing, one of them wouldn’t get up, and we’d stand around and hope they would before a grownup noticed something was wrong.

I’ve never put on a football uniform, but those days on the playground came back to me yesterday when I finally got around to watching League of Denial, PBS Frontline’s excruciating two-hour special on how the NFL spent over a decade covering up and attempting to destroy a growing body of scientific evidence linking football to long-term brain damage and CTE. There’s not much new to report, but to see the full body of evidence against the NFL so compellingly told is nothing short of damning. It highlights the NFL’s hypocrisy, selling its violence while hiding its consequences. And although it doesn’t say so explicitly, it inevitably questions our own complicity in consuming a sport so cruel to those we pay to play it.

League of Denial is in part a straightforward whistleblower narrative, and it finds its heroes and villains quickly. One hero is Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh medical examiner who discovered and published the first known case of CTE in an NFL player, Steelers center Mike Webster. Another is Ann McKee, the Boston University brain researcher and lifelong football fan who would go on to find it 45 of her 46 cases. That inner juxtaposition was perfectly captured in one shot that brought a smile to my face: a NY Giants helmet on her bookshelf next to a boxed copy of Endnote, a software tool academics use to manage references and bibliographies. (Personally, I prefer BibTeX.)
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With similar economy, the film needs only two lines of taut narration to establish one bad guy of the mid–90s: “NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue orchestrated the league’s response. Tagliabue had begun his career as a lawyer.”

It was he who dismissed the concussion crisis as the manufactured product of “pack journalism” and personally appointed a rheumatologist to a sham medical committee to “investigate” the issue. The committee cranked out shoddy papers with sweeping denials based on small sample sizes that the editor-in-chief of the journal Neurosurgery, himself a consultant for the New York Giants, accepted over the objections of his own sports section editor.

As the film chronicles the researchers’ struggle to raise awareness, clashing with the NFL’s panel of experts, there are plenty of chilling moments:

  • Bennet Omalu, reflecting on the entire episode: “I wish I had never met Mike Webster. CTE has drawn me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life. Seriously.”
  • Mike Nowinski co-director of BU’s CTE research center, who went from a Harvard football player to pro wrestler, taking countless blows to the head along the way: “What motivated me every day was that my head was killing me.”
  • And the haunting voiceover of Junior Seau in an NFL Films production, years before he would succumb to CTE at only 43 years old and put a bullet through his heart, preserving his brain for research: “You have to sacrifice your body. You have to sacrifice years down the line. When we’re 40, 50 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice that you take to play this game.”

The other central figures of the documentary are the journalists themselves. The film is based mostly on reporting by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who both work for ESPN. And as it goes on, it acquires a muckraking metanarrative, as the Fainarus and New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz (who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage) work to cover the story. This is only enhanced by the fact that ESPN, who had collaborated with Frontline for most of the production, suddenly pulled out just weeks before it was to air. Although the network claimed they quit because they didn’t exercise “full editorial control,” the New York Times reported it was due to NFL pressure applied personally by Roger Godell. (Both the NFL and ESPN denied this, and ESPN has since aired excerpts of the documentary and promoted the Fainaru’s book of the same name.)

Although the film is built upon a David vs. Goliath structure, at its core is a health and science issue: can playing football cause CTE? It plays out not on the field or in dramatic Congressional hearings but in stuffy medical journals. League of Denial is at its most innovative when its reporters make this academic prose leap off the page. A key moment is a letter to the editor in which the NFL’s in-house concussion committee calls on Omalu to retract his paper. In ESPN’s Peter Keating’s retelling, this is the league going after him “with a vengeance…like a nuclear missile strike on his reputation!”

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But the propulsive narrative struggles to capture fine detail. As in many a science story, the “more work must be done” caveats from independent sources are shoehorned in at the end. The way the film treats McKee’s accusation of sexism on the part of the NFL’s researchers is awkward and unsure, and a less than illuminating glance at the insidious ways in which sexism can infect academia. And there’s a big story left uninvestigated: How did the NFL committee’s papers, with their bad science and obvious conflicts of interest, get published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal in the first place?

But those aren’t things that the filmmakers chose to focus on, which is fine. Although there’s nothing new here, League of Denial stands as a definitive document of the subject—for now. The issue of concussions will not go away, and continue to resonate as more research is done into the troubling preliminary results of CTE found in teenagers who played football.

But maybe the biggest repercussions will be with the viewers. Like most football fans, I’ve been following this sad, depressing story for a while now, and it’s changed the way I see the sport. For the sake of argument, forget the outrageous deceit on the part of the NFL. Simply knowing the full consequences of the sport’s violent nature makes me question whether my own enjoyment of it is ethical. Does the fact that the players (now) knowingly accept the risk let me off the hook? I’ll say this: the visceral thrill of watching a big hit is gone. Or rather, it’s immediately replaced by nagging doubt: How many future memories does that one hit erase?

I’ve had versions of this conversation with several of my friends—usually over beer at bar while watching football. We just can’t pull ourselves away. Even as my childhood hero Brett Favre says he can’t recall what sports his own daughter plays, and that “God only knows the toll” that football takes.

I’m glad my mom never saw us play tackle.

A Strange Lonely Planet

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An artist’s impression of the planet-sized L dwarf PSO J318.5-22. (MPIA/V. Ch. Quetz)

Earlier this week, a press release hit my inbox that made me say, “Ooooooh!” out loud. Its headline was: “A Strange Lonely Planet Found without a Star” and it came with an image.

“Oooooh!” I said again. An image of a planet without a star? Free-floating through the lifeless void? My imagination rumbled to life and started to jump to conclusions.

You see, I’ve wanted for a while now to write a very sad science fiction novel about such a starless scenario. This dream of mine has been motivated by a real science problem: planetary migration.

In the early days of exoplanet studies (way back in the mid-1990s!), the very first planets to be discovered were known as hot Jupiters—giant gaseous planets closer to their host stars than Mercury is to our Sun with temperatures in the thousands of degrees (Centigrade, Fahrenheit, or Kelvin—take your pick). Their existence continues to be a puzzle, because they could not have formed where they are. Both a star and its surrounding planets form when gravity pulls a cloud of gas together into clumps. But in these cases, the energy radiating from the young star should have blown the gas away before it could coalesce into a planet. Only small, rocky planets should be able to form there. The logical theory is that these hot Jupiters had to form much further out where it was colder—like where our own Jupiter is in our solar system—but then somehow migrate in.

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The “planet” imaged by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope. It was discovered by a US-German team, with follow-up observations from Mauna Kea. (N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium)

Multiple theories have been proposed in which the laws of physics conspire to do just that. In one, the newly formed planet slowly spirals in, losing momentum as it plows through the disk of gas surrounding the young star; in another, the gravitational presence of a nearby companion star perturbs the planet, triggering a wild, eccentric orbit that ends next to the star.

But here’s the rub: Either way, if a Jupiter comes barreling in through its solar system, its gravity will likely throw the planets out! Its enormous mass would scatter the planets like a bowling ball, slingshotting them into the dark, vast coldness of space faster than a tumbling Sandra Bullock. In fact, based on the number of these planets astronomers have already detected through gravitational microlensing, we expect upwards of billions of planets to be lost in space, away from their stars.

What a great end-of-the-world sci-fi story that would be! A helpless population, doomed by the inexorable dance of physics! The Earth becomes both our interstellar starship and our coffin! And people look for strength and hope in a world where every day is just a little bit darker and colder than the one before, without end. An art-house apocalypse—not with a bang, but the saddest, coldest whimper.

At first, I thought this discovery was a direct image of a planet so ejected! But then I read the paper, and the word “planet” isn’t how the authors described it in their title: “A Free-Floating Planetary-Mass Analog to Directly Imaged Young Gas-Giant Planets.”

In other words, it very well might not a planet—at least, not based on how we use the word planet in everyday life—but it’s like a planet. The team seem to think it probably formed like a star based on the fact that it’s moving in the same direction as other nearby stars, as opposed to an ejected planet that could be going any which way. It just happened to be so small it could be mistaken for a planet! What a bummer.

Actually, outside of my imagination, it’s not really a bummer—it’s a neat opportunity. Actual exoplanets are very difficult to study directly; they’re so close to their stars they get lost in the glare. To the extent that these planet-sized objects actually resemble planets, they give us a chance to nail down their physics unimpeded by their pesky host star. Judging by attributes like its mass, color, and brightness, this “planet” does a fair impersonation, but we still don’t know if objects like these form in exactly the same way as planets.

Regardless, I’ll keep dreaming about writing my novel…

Binland Lee, ocean reporter

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On this beautiful past Sunday morning at 6:30 am in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, a Boston University senior named Binland Lee, who was about to graduate next month with a degree in marine sciences and had a passion for science communication, died as her house burned around her.

The 18 other residents of the house either escaped along with three visitors present or were not in the home at the time of the fire. Of those in the home at the time, nine suffered injuries, as did six firefighters.

I never knew Binland Lee. It’s always sad to hear that a fellow student here at BU has died no matter who it is, no matter what they study. But when I read an article early this morning in BU Today, the university’s daily newspaper, I will admit my heart sank more than usual:

A self-described devotee of “all things science,” Lee was also drawn to photography and writing and was minoring in journalism.

For a 2012 College of Communication class, Lee completed a multimedia project, referring to herself as an “ocean reporter,” accompanied by a shot of her in snorkel gear, mask pushed to her forehead, winking playfully at the camera. In addition to entries about her research at Stellwagen, the BU Marine Lab, and Wee Wee Caye Marine Lab in Belize, Lee included in the online portfolio profiles, photos, and interactive multimedia components that she shot and wrote.

At the time, Lee told her teacher, Michelle Johnson, a COM associate professor of journalism, that she took her class to better present marine science through multimedia. “I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t a journalism student, because she seemed so engaged,” says Johnson, describing her student as soft-spoken and smart. “She always participated in class discussions, and she was very interested in photography and photojournalism.”

Her website boldly proclaims: “We are the voices of the ocean.” Her portfolio has tabs for writing, photography, video, and research. On her CV, under “Skills,” she lists: “ArcGIS, PAM Fluorometer, stable isotope analysis, micro-CT imaging, water quality analyses, CTD, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro X, Audacity, SoundSlides, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, ThingLink.”

Scientific analysis and media production. Technical ability and social media savvy. That is exactly the kind of scientist this world particularly needs—one with the passion and skill to share the joy of science with others. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the world needs good scientists of any kind. But for the world to lose the passion for science of someone who loved so dearly to share it, who had the commitment to minor in journalism and take classes to hone her communication skills—that, somehow, seems particularly cruel.

Binland Lee died two streets over from me, while I slept in my bed on Sunday morning. That morning, when I woke up, I found messages from worried friends wondering if I was ok. I’ve lived in Allston multiple times in my time as a BU graduate student. The neighborhood is notorious for its student population living in buildings they can afford that are often nowhere near code. This winter, an old Allston roommate of mine who moved to another house in the same neighborhood leapt out of its second floor in the middle of the night in order to escape a fire that eventually burned it to the ground.

We don’t know what caused this fire. We do know that the landlord “dropped the ball,” as authorities put it. The building has apparently never undergone a rental re-inspection as required by law. But we don’t know if it was a cause, if anything that an inspection could have caught would have changed this tragic outcome.

It hasn’t been a particularly joyful couple of weeks here on campus at BU. Flowers still line the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on Marsh Plaza, in memory of Lu Lingzi, the BU grad student killed in the marathon bombing. The desire to seek answers has been, at times, overwhelming.

All I know is this: Lee has lost her life. Her friends and family have lost someone who was “always positive,” who was “loved by everyone.” And the world has lost a promising young scientist who was also a passionate science communicator, photographer, and journalist.

I never knew Binland Lee, and now I’m sad that I never will.

My friends, the helpers

I’d had two shots of fruity vodka and was working on a beer for breakfast on the afternoon of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off.

At that particular moment, I was at a friends’ house party on Beacon Street. Outside, the tens of thousands of runners were streaming past a cheering crowd filled with friends, family members, and hordes of drunk Boston University students. This, after all, is the traditional way Boston celebrates the holiday marked on calendars as Patriot’s Day, but which everyone refers to in real life as Marathon Monday.

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My friend and I were putting some overheated chicken wings into the freezer to cool when her phone rang. A minute later, I overheard her on the phone to her sister at the finish line. “Just calm down,” she kept saying. “Take it easy. You said there were explosions?”

We corralled her when she got off the phone. What had her sister seen? “Explosions, two of them.” We were confused. My head was throbbing. Was this real life? We ran outside into the sunlight. Nothing had changed. Runners were running, the cheerers were cheering, the drunken college students were drinking. “Let’s check Twitter,” I said. We whipped out our phones, punched in #bostonmarathon, and stared in disbelief as our feeds refreshed.

“Large explosion, on the Boston Marathon route,” read one tweet, sent 1 minute earlier. “Possibly 60 people injured.”

As we watched, another came in reporting lost limbs:

I retweeted.


Near the finish line, two miles away, a phone buzzed, belonging to one of my best friends. She was volunteering for the marathon, working the communications tent linked to other ham radio stations along the race course. She doesn’t have a smartphone and still gets her friends’ tweets sent to her via text message—something that I often tease her about.

The explosions had gone off minutes earlier, sounding like cannon shots. But inside the tent, nobody knew yet what had happened. For her, too, the tweets were the first information she had about the explosion. She switched her radio to the medical channel.

Chaos.

Calls for ambulances and wheelchairs to help the injured—the casualties.

I was alone amongst her close friends in having no idea she was there. Without her smartphone to post to Facebook, she texted her parents.

Minutes later, her phone died.


An hour earlier, I’d been sitting in a chair on the grassy lawn of my friend’s apartment building, sharing a blanket with her, sipping a beer, watching the race go by. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The cheers of the crowd around us never wavered. With our chairs at the edge of the sidewalk, we supposed we were technically not drinking on public land—but only just. At one point, a cop walking down the sidewalk had approached me with a stern look, reached out to grab my beer, then smiled, winked, and kept on walking.

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Marathon Monday is like that. After my first one upon moving to Boston three years ago, I explained to my friends back home, “It seems to exist because by mid-April, Boston has gone an entire month since St. Patrick’s Day and decides it’s about time for another drinking holiday.”

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But that’s being glib. What I couldn’t quite describe was the crowd—at least half a dozen people deep for every inch of Beacon Street and for miles into the western countryside, cheering the runners on not with polite clapping and occasional shouts, but with a constant roar, the kind you hear from blocks away. The support for the runners is genuine. The marathon is an annual celebration, a small town gathering of half a million people.

And outside, nobody seemed to have told them that today was turning out to be otherwise. But inside, we were in a state of disbelief. We huddled around the TV, waiting for news. A daytime soap opera was on. Marathon coverage was off the air; the winners had long since crossed the finish line. We were impatient, at a loss for information, not quite yet willing to believe the horrific tweets. But one linked to a local CBS affiliate’s online stream of the finish line. There, we saw the first images—ambulances, empty grandstands, a crowd around what looked like a fell field of debris.

We started texting our families.

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I walked outside to the sidewalk, through the cheering crowd, where a policeman stood calmly on the side of the road, watching the runners. “What do you know?” I asked him.

“I know a lotta things,” he drawled in his thick Boston accent. “I can cook, I can clean, I can read…”

“What do you know about Copley Square?”

“In Copley Square? There were two explosions. I don’t know anything else. Watch the news—they know more than me.”

And he turned back. Behind him, the runners kept running, with just over two miles to go to reach the finish line where people and parts of them lay on the blood-streaked sidewalk.

Inside, we stood around the laptop and filled the heavy vacuum of information with our own speculation. Was this deliberate? Was it—a bombing? It had to be. It didn’t look like a gas explosion from underground. Besides, the timing and location of it—at the finish line of the marathon? Two in a row? What else could it be? And yet, I still didn’t want to believe it.

After what seemed like an eternity, the local news cut in. We watched in a daze as the first replays of the explosions were shown. My heart sank. Jesus, I said.

Holy shit.

For a long time, we wondered why. Not why would someone attack innocent people—sadly, we took that as a given. Rather, why Boston? After all, we’re not a big city—we just pretend to be one! And why hit the party that is Marathon Monday? What’s the symbolism in that?

We sat down. We refreshed Twitter. We started getting phone calls from friends and family. Within minutes the mobile networks were buckling. “Texts are better,” someone said. When those failed, too, we resorted to a laptop and Facebook.

And we waited.


After about half an hour, group of people, including my friend’s sister, returned from the finish line. They sat in a dark stairwell, decompressing. We didn’t dare ask them what they saw. Instead: “How close were you?”

“We saw it happen.”

“There was blood everywhere. Everywhere.”

“We walked over a guy’s feet lying on the ground.”

There were no tears—just shock.

Crowding around the TV and watching the replays for their first time, they started pointing to people on screen that they had just seen, wondering if they had made it. My friend started to put more chicken wings in the microwave and pizzas in the oven. “I’m just gonna try to make everyone feel relaxed,” she said. “We could all use some food.”


When the food was done, I decided to head downtown. My friend came with me for a little ways. As we walked out down the stairs and turned up the sidewalk towards Kenmore, we were instantly stopped by a policeman. Even two miles away from the finish, the race course was on lockdown. We turned down a side street instead.

We walked in silence for a couple minutes. When she turned back, she said, “I better make sure everyone’s ok. Make sure my sister’s ok. Keep everyone fed and comfortable.”

I nodded and gave her a hug. “Good luck,” she said.


I took the long way around Fenway Park and cut through the Back Bay Fens. There, people walked past the geese in the water, not glancing at the trees sprouting spring’s first buds, lost in conversation with their friends or within their own thoughts. One man walked across the park alone, on his phone. There, away from the carnage, it could have passed for a beautiful day.

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When I emerged by Symphony Hall and crossed the Christian Science Plaza by the reflecting pool, I came upon the police perimeter, a long queue of ambulances, and a somber crowd. Evacuated hotel workers stood around in their uniforms. A musician with a violin on his back tried to get by. Everywhere, people were texting, calling their family. Beyond that, nobody seemed to know what to do.

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Further down at St. Botolph Street, a small crowd gathered as police unrolled yellow tape to block the route to Copley Square. Runners sat with their families against buildings, wrapped in their thermal blankets, unable to get to their hotels. Some snacked on energy bars; a group of Japanese runners talked quietly amongst themselves; some just gazed into space. Families evacuating their hotels emerged at ground level at Ground Zero, disoriented, the parents wheeling their luggage past silent runners. Where they were going, if they had a place to go, I don’t know.

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One man was texting as he tried to walk past a policeman. “My family has no idea where I am,” he pleaded as the cop motioned for him to move away so he could put up yellow tape.

“My family has no idea where I am, either,” replied the cop, gently moving the man aside.

“What time will this area be open again?” the man asked, as I raised my camera to take his picture.

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“What time?” the policeman cried. “It could be weeks! Look around you! This is an emergency!” A crowd of photographers gathered and began clicking away. But it was not a nasty confrontation. The emotion in the cop’s voice wasn’t anger—only frustration, and sadness. The man slowly nodded and walked away.

Approaching Copley Square, the site of the blasts, the city became ever more deserted. An unnatural silence hung over downtown, bathed in afternoon light, pierced only by emergency sirens. The beating heart of Boston was deathly still. On an unpatrolled side street leading directly to Copley, a man walked his dog alone.

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Copley itself was practically abandoned, with only a dozen or so police and firemen standing around Boylston Street.

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What looked like NBC Sports camera equipment sat covered in plastic tarps, abandoned. The injured seemed to have been long since evacuated from the medical tent, where I couldn’t see any activity at all. On the steps of Trinity Church, a woman sat and texted, out of sight of everyone.

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Here, in Copley Square, you could feel truly alone.


On the other side of the square, thousands of yellow bags of clothes sat in the middle of the street, waiting to be claimed by runners who never reached the finish line. A few who had wandered downtown around the police perimeter were wading through them, looking for their belongings. As they walked back through the gates onto Newbury, they hugged the volunteers who were still at their posts.

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When my phone died, I decided to head back to my friend’s apartment, joining a small stream of people heading outbound on Commonwealth Avenue. At one point, we passed a BU fraternity. A beer pong table, red Solo cups, and hot dogs were outside—they were offering what had been their party supplies to people returning from the explosion. “Do you want anything to eat or drink?” they asked as we walked by. I shook my head. I certainly wasn’t in need. “Can we give you anything?” one asked, almost desperate to help.

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Two summers ago, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wandered down to the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square to meet people and take pictures. One of them was this:

#OccupyBoston 2011 Oct 16 Alex Arredondo's Helmet

I took the picture purely as a response to the emotion of the scene, not knowing who it belonged to or who had placed it there. When I saw this photo again on Tuesday, I realized: it was the helmet of Alex Arredondo, a marine killed in action in Iraq. His father is Carlos Arredondo. He was, I had read, a Boston-area native, and a familiar figure around the camp as a passionate anti-war activist.

And on Monday, when the bombs detonated and the smoke rose and the blood coated the streets of Boston, he became known to the world as the man in the hat wheeling a man with no legs to safety.

I’d had no idea I’d ever come into contact with his story before. But by pure chance, here in Boston, I had.


When we say that the spirit of Boston is strong, that Boston is a tough city and will bounce back, what are we really saying? Do we mean to claim that there is there something special, something empirically distinguishable about Bostonians (besides, of course, their wonderful accents)? Is there something about Boston that breeds a certain kind of people? Perhaps, but that’s not really what we mean. We would say the same about Oklahoma City, or Minneapolis, or Tel Aviv, or Baghdad, and we have. Maybe by saying it, we mean to point to Boston as an example that affirms our belief that humanity is capable of wonderful, compassionate things.

But if the response to help others and to display resilience in the face of adversity is human nature, then what is the role of the city?

What is a city? Is it a geographic location? A collection of buildings? A group of people agreeing to be bound by a common society? To borrow a metaphor from Ray Kurzweil, I think it is more like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past rocks in its path. A city’s citizens come and go, entering and then departing either the region or life itself. A city is completely turned over within the span of a human life. It consists of a completely different set of people than it did a generation ago. What remains is the pattern, the organization of that stuff.

A city is a pulsing, powerful, beast of a thing, and the last three days have changed how I look at this one. I feel more woven into its tapestry than ever before, more connected to the people who live here—even if we are all only rushing by the rocks in our path.


When I got back to my friend’s apartment on Monday, the sun had set and the living room was cast in darkness. Everyone was lying on the floor or on the couch watching the news—except my friend. She was fast asleep on the couch, having hosted everyone in her apartment all day, feeding them, keeping them relaxed. She was exhausted.

Inside the medical tent, my friend at the finish line was still there, her dead phone in her pocket. She’d spent the entire afternoon directing emergency vehicles as they sped into Copley Square, loaded victims, and flighted them to area hospitals. I only found this out at 10 pm that night, when I checked Facebook, saw the frantic wall posts from her friends, and chatted with her myself to reassure myself that she was fine. She was exhausted, too.

As Mr. Rogers said, and as has been retold countless times since, on the darkest days and cheerless nights when we most need a reminder of our common humanity, we look for the helpers. And when I look for the helpers, I know I only need to look for my friends.

man and candle

Revisiting Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park cover

I was six years old when Jurassic Park, the movie, was released, and I had dinosaurs on my brain.

I begged my parents to let me go to it. They refused, on the grounds that they had read in USA Today that many children older than me had been scared—even some 12 year olds! Nightmares, they said. I was indignant. Me? Nightmares?

But my parents held firm, and every time we drove past the mall on 28th St throughout the summer of ’93, the marquee sign tortured me, the block letters spelling out JURASSIC PARK, and then that dreaded code: PG-13.

JURASSIC PARK   PG-13

And so while my friends’ parents took them to see it, my parents, in a fit of protectiveness, bought me what they perceived to be the safer option: Jurassic Park, the book, by Michael Crichton.

This was, of course, completely misguided.

Jurassic Park was a kids’ movie—a whimsical tale of a mystical land filled with wondrous creatures gazed upon by worshipful faces in gentle dolly shots, accompanied by with John Williams’ strings and brass fanfares that sound equally at home underneath images of Santa Claus’ sled bounding into the air behind his reindeer.

The book is another animal. Within twenty pages, escaped procompsognathuses are running amok on the mainland—found in a nursery room, chewing chunks of baby in their jaws.

I was hooked. I read the book in three days flat, under the covers, late at night, every gruesome death a thrill to my senses: “Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly down to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick slippery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands.”

I was eight years old, and I loved it.


Jurassic Park was the first “adult” novel I ever read. My parents believed that while movies would give you nightmares, books could do no harm. And so I plowed through Michael Crichton’s back catalog: Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain, and so on. I felt like I was getting away with murder—or at least reading about it. Like generations of kids before me, books became my refuge, my playgrounds, where I learned about the world. And none had more of an influence on me than Jurassic Park.

I re-read Jurassic Park this week for the first time since then, and it was like an extended experience of deja vu. It was eerie how much I recalled across eighteen years. At times, entire passages came streaming back to me, like restoring an old file from some corner of my brain. Other times, tiny phrases, combinations of words would ring bells in my mind and I would realize that my memories of them were so pure and so strong, they represented the very first time I had ever encountered them. And the emotions the characters felt struck me even harder. Fear, powerlessness, melancholy. When I first read them, these were emotions I’d never seen articulated, although I would recognize them soon enough. It’s not a terribly large exaggeration to say that Jurassic Park formed the foundation of my understanding of the adult world.

Yes, Jurassic Park was a world where dinosaurs ruled the Earth, where chaos theory reigned, and people got their guts slashed out. But it was also a glorious world where lucid scientific explanations of genetics, chaos theory, and fractals flowed from the tongue of every scientist, programmer, and systems engineer like liquid chocolate from a liquid chocolate spout. In its way, Crichton-dialog is as artificial and stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing walk-and-talks, but I didn’t know that. I simply assumed that was how highly intelligent people spoke about complicated ideas—clearly, dramatically, and perfectly understandably.

The world of Jurassic Park was also one where the adults, when they weren’t speaking about science, spoke in clipped, 1980s-era dialog, liberally pre-punctuating their remarks with that ever-faithful interjection, “Jesus”.

“You look hot. Want a beer?” “Jesus, yeah.”

“Jesus,” somebody said.

“Jesus,” Gennaro said.

“Jesus,” Malcolm said.

“—Jesus, if an animal like that gets out,”

“Jesus,” Ed Regis said.

“Jesus, hang that up,” Nedry said.

“Jesus!”

“Jesus,” Muldoon said.

“Jesus,” Arnold said.

“Jesus.”

And so on.


These things I learned from Jurassic Park:

That Crays were the most powerful computers in the world.

That needing a quorum meant people were going to make an important decision.

That prescriptions drugs were expensive to develop, and so why shouldn’t the drug companies be able to charge $1000 a pill, $2000—whatever the hell they wanted?

That morphine was something that made sick people say things that sounded really smart.

But even more fundamental than that—I learned not so much how to write, but that it was possible to write. I learned that characters could speak without quotation marks and think in italics. I learned that a carefully placed em dash and an exclamation point could make my heart leap and my blood rush.


I wondered, before I began re-reading, if I was giving Crichton too much credit, if my eight-year-old self had been taken in by a mediocre writer and seduced by the novelty of “an adult novel” alone. The debacle of his 2006 anti-global science screed State of Fear left a bad taste in my mouth.

But no. As I read, my eyes flowed over the words like quickening rapids, and I sank into the text, submerged and speeding through. I was just as entranced as I had been as a child. It was good writing.

Not all of the content holds up. I winced at Malcolm’s rantings and ramblings, which read to me now as a pitch-perfect parody of a pseudoscience peddler. It would be brilliant, if it weren’t so  obvious that he is a vessel for Crichton’s true feelings.

But oh, the craft and construction. I still marvel at how the science serves the story, and the different strategies he uses to seamlessly weave it into the narrative—not just by providing crucial exposition, but using it to propel the plot forward. Often, he inserts the science as characters’ inner monologues that are then interrupted by a cliffhanging plot device. The science doesn’t serve the plot, it is the plot. It’s the setup, a pause in the pacing.

Other times, he dumps scientific jargon in front of the reader and then decodes them in the dialogue. For example, this little snippet of conversation comes a bit after he’s already discussed Cray supercomputers:

“You know who did their algorithms?”

“No,” Nedry said. “This company is very secretive.”

“Well, my guess is they’re doing something with DNA,” Barney said. “What’s the system?”

“Multi-XMP.”

“Multi-XMP? You mean more than one Cray? Wow.”

He didn’t need to slip in the XMP model designation, but doing so adds a little bit of color, and he manages to explain it unobtrusively in the dialogue.

He uses this to aid his characterization, as well. When we meet Ian Malcolm, Ellie’s curiosity at his all-black attire in the Dallas desert heat prompts a classic Malcolm quip that’s half science, half personality: “As a matter of fact, black is an excellent color for heat. If you remember your black-body radiation, black is actually best in heat. Efficient radiation.”

Crichton builds his world out of these scientific anecdotes, bringing Jurassic Park to life as a world where, in the middle of a ferocious raptor attack, there is time for the geneticist to assert to himself that behavior is only a second-order effect of DNA, and muse upon the distinction between empirical and theoretical work.


Indeed, the world of Jurassic Park, the Book, is nothing like the world of Jurassic Park, the Movie. This stuck out even more at me as I reread the book. Yes, the tone is darker—I knew that. But the characters are also so much more interesting.

Spielberg’s players have archetypal story arcs thrust upon them almost apologetically—perfunctory penance to offset the campy thrill of the dinosaurs, whom we all know are the real stars. Thus, we get the dopey subplot in which Grant has a hatred of children that is never motivated, but then—surprise! comes to love them. We also get the mushy Grant–Sattler love plot, and hints of a subplot revolving around Lex’s adolescent crush on Grant.

But in the book, Ellie Sattler’s character is a progressive portrayal of a woman in STEM. Instead of being Grant’s contemporary and love interest, she is his 24-year-old graduate student. Grant regards her completely on a professional level. And interestingly, none of the scientist or technical characters (excepting Malcolm) objectify her—but the nonscientists do. One after another, in throwaway moments, Bob Morris (an EPA investigator), Gennaro the lawyer, and Muldoon the hunter gaze upon her with astonishment or condescension—and each time, she either ignores them or stands her ground.

In Crichton’s world, she’s a woman who really does have it all. Not only is she on track for her PhD, “she’s marrying a nice doctor in Chicago sometime next year”—and she can outrun, outclimb, and outsmart velociraptors just as well as the men. Ellie is not a love interest for the men to fight over, and she’s not a Rambino, a Sigourney Weaver-in-Alien. She is simply, a scientist who is a woman. What could be more refreshing than that?

When I was 8, I saw the characters as either kids or adults—there was nothing in between. But now I can see how Crichton has a cast of research scientists at various stages of their careers, using them to portray the rigors and stresses of academia. At 40 years old, Alan Grant is a fledgling star in his field, probably recently tenured. 33-year-old Henry Wu is a desperately ambitious scientist with a funding crisis, for whom the role of Jurassic Park’s lead geneticist was an industry position he couldn’t refuse. (Before accepting, he asks Hammond: “Will my work be publishable?”) And at 24, Ellie is a PhD candidate—brilliant and undaunted.

And then there is 12-year-old Tim.

Tim is the beating, emotional heart of the novel. He’s intelligent, quiet, and vulnerable. In the movie, he’s an insufferable little snot. He talks Grant’s ear off, and for a while, seems to exist only to justify Grant’s otherwise odd hatred of children.

In many ways, in the novel, Tim is an honorary adult. He analyzes the dinosaurs in his head, comparing them to what he’s read in books. Are they nocturnal, he wonders? The famous T-rex attack is written from his point of view, and you see his thought process as he’s the first to realize the electric fences are down.

Tim knows who Grant is, respects him, and is nervous. When he first meets him, he mentally scans his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs to recall Grant’s theories and published work. He tells him a poignant story about visiting the Museum of Natural History with his disinterested dad. He’s a kid who has read about his passion for his entire life and is now finally getting a chance to meet his heroes in real life.

This resonated with me. That same feeling crosses my mind every time I meet someone in the worlds of science and writing whose work I’m familiar with.

And as I read, I realized: Tim was the twelve-year-old my eight-year-old self wanted to grow up to be.