The God Particle and Me

Yesterday morning while we Americans were waking up to a national holiday, our European friends kicked off a world-wide celebration when they announced promising evidence that the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the “God particle,” exists.  (Please don’t tune out just because I’ve mentioned physics; this post won’t teach you a thing, I promise.  But if you’re curious, this video is awesome.)  Of all the articles and analyses I read, The Economist‘s amazing timeline, “Worth the wait: A timeline of the Standard Model of particle physics,” most impressed me with the huge scale of this achievement 131 years in the making!

Standard model timelineA hundred and thirty one years…  Look at the timeline:  where was your family when the electron was predicted, kicking off this amazing journey?  For me the year 1881 stands out for the assassination of Czar Alexander II, which unleashed a wave of pogroms that affected two-thirds of my forebears.  At that time all my family — the one branch that had already immigrated to the U.S.  — and all the rest still in Eastern Europe — were just trying to survive and likely had no time for or knowledge of such scientific developments.  It would be decades until they did.  My father, born when only four particles were known and three discovered, may have been the first.

Meanwhile, progress in particle physics, as you can see from the timeline, was initially slow until the 60s.  You know all those jokes, “When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet?”  My father likes to point out that even when he started work as a physicist, no one had any idea quarks were out there.   There wasn’t even a Standard Model, just a “particle zoo” no one could sort out.  But by the time my sister and I came along and my father started teaching us particle physics on the play chalkboard in the basement, the Standard Model had taken its modern form, with the vast majority of it having been discovered.  (Classroom pedagogy, however, hadn’t caught up:  when I told my sixth grade science class that protons and neutrons weren’t fundamental particles, it didn’t end well.  And don’t ask about the time I told my 9th grade physics class there was no such thing as gravity…)

My father raised me equally on family history and physics theories.  He taught me enough of our background to appreciate our family’s struggle to realize the American Dream, and were it not for him, I could not recognize that it was others who made it possible for me to have idled the day away yesterday reading all about the meaning of the Higgs data without fear of starvation or persecution.  What an amazing journey — my family’s and the world’s.  Genealogical discoveries don’t heal family rifts, and particle physics breakthroughs don’t mend our broken world, but they both pull us out of the mire of our day-to-day to marvel at the improbability of our being here at all.

The Other Obama Genealogy

With election season in high gear, publishers are releasing book after book about the Obamas.  In genealogy circles, the one getting the most coverage is Rachel Swarns’ American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama, because Megan Smolenyak pointed out the book’s “considerable holes” and over-reliance on “family lore and flimsy evidence.”  But there is another new Obama book venturing into genealogical territory, Barack Obama: The Story.  It has gotten much attention for the embarrassing letters David Maraniss excerpts to show how a young Obama’s romantic and intellectual pursuits shaped him.  But as Jill Lepore argues in a recent New Yorker review, the book’s more provoking questions are about to what degree genealogy made the man.

That Obama’s Kansan mother and Kenyan father should have met at all at the University of Hawaii requires Maraniss to trace both lines to get at the roots of the Dunhams’ wanderlust and the Obamas’ Westernization. “The genealogy of any family involves countless what-if moments,” Maraniss writes.  “That is how history works, the history of families as well as the history of nations and movements.  Along with with the rational processes of biology and geography, of politics and economics, there come seemingly random connections that spin out profound and unintended consequences.”  But, as Lepore points out, are Maraniss’ intentions to make biographical or genealogical connections?

Weird stuff happens.  What does it mean? . . . In biography, order is to be found in the journey of life; in genealogy, in lines of descent.  In biography, the boy is father of the man.  In genealogy, the boy is a leaf on a branch on his family tree . . . [his] origins are inescapable . . . Inheritance is destiny.

In the first case Obama actively works to reconcile his unique identity, arriving at the proud conviction that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”  In the other, with no regard for the man’s agency in how to receive his legacy, “ideological pseudo-historians” (Maraniss) use the genealogical line Obama knew the least to argue that his values are un-American and we’re “being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s” (Dinesh D’Souza).

Let’s take a step back from the incendiary issues of Obama’s real or purported political goals to acknowledge which connections we make in our own lives.  Did you forge your own identity, or was it handed to you?  I believe that we do genealogy because of the joy in discovering exactly what were the random connections that spun out the most profound consequence of all — us!  But in our day-to-day lives, it’s our mental biographies, re-written in the aftermath of each new experience, that record our evolving sense of self.

To me the biography vs. genealogy argument underlying Maraniss’ book deserves more consideration than whether American Tapestry was a correct and complete genealogical study.  The latter discussion may make us better genealogists, but the former will make us more thoughtful people.

We Wouldn’t Be Here Without Quite a Lot of Incest

And you’re probably committing incest, too:  if your partner shares your nationality and ethnicity, you’re at least 10th cousins!

So — you in for a trip to 300 BCE to meet our most recent shared common ancestor?  (Too bad it’s Taiwan, not Greece — I need some help with my Ship of Theseus existential crisis brought on by the latter half of this video.)

Philosophy aside, here now is mathematical proof that Henry Louis Gates is right when he says, “We’re all mixed… we all have been intermarrying, or interrelated sexually from the dawn of human history” (source).

This is Your Brain on Story

Brain MRI

In the picture above, red is your brain on story. Green is your brain thinking about social situations. And blue and yellow represent overlaps of the two. The point of the picture is that roughly the same regions of your brain are active when you read stories as when you interact socially. Any questions?


Haha, yes, we’re only at the beginning of understanding the human compulsion to hear and tell stories, as I learned from the panelists at Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative at the annual World Science Festival. Did our storytelling skills develop as an evolutionary advantage, or were they the side-effect of our evolving into the most social of all species? Are stories practice for how we might deal with extreme situations, or is the act of shaping events into a meaningful package the coping mechanism itself?

The causes we can only conjecture. But the demonstrable effect is that stories are a crucial way we make sense of our world. The MRI at the top reveals that reading stories activates the same network in our brain that helps us to understand other people. Other scientific research shows that the more people read, the more accurately they can interpret people’s facial expressions. What it comes down to is this: Storytelling is a simulation of the social world.  Engaging with a story requires imagining another person’s mind. Thus, stories increase empathy, which improves social interactions… which makes us better social beings.

At the heart of all our stories past and present remains a deep, unchanging curiosity about “what people are up to,” a fundamental itch we need to scratch. If stories are simple, primitive, and ancient, as the panelists agreed, what is more exemplary than the genealogical story? After all, the oldest stories, from mythology to the Bible, record both long lineages and involved family history as they grapple with our origins and ultimate fate. And if the whole point of story is to understand ourselves and our interactions, how better to accomplish this goal than through the lives of our forebears, people who are like us and shaped us?

Life is only finite in retrospect; it feels unbounded as we live it, sometimes terrifyingly so. But the stories of our ancestors are life made finite. The ending that death imposes allows us to give their lives an arc and an ultimate meaning that our own lives lack: storytelling as coping mechanism, indeed.  And if the value of their lives can persist past death thanks to our efforts, perhaps our ultimate demise need not be the end of our stories, either.

We who do genealogy have long been motivated by the belief that we are our family stories and are improved by this self-knowledge.  The research presented in this talk suggests that stories can actually change us.  So, the next time a friend or family member mocks your determination to uncover a long-lost family secret, tell them that you are at the cutting-edge of cognitive neuroscience-based self improvement techniques!

Learn from Ken Burns How to Wake the Dead

We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just OK.

Thus concludes Ken Burns in Redglass Pictures‘ recent short documentary, Ken Burns: On Story, in which the man behind some of the best documentaries of our times steps in front of the camera to explain why he tells historical stories.  “Waking the dead,” he calls it, drawing a direct connection between his mourning process for his mother, who died when he was 11, and his drive to bring historical figures to life.

So much of what he says resonates with why I believe so strongly in learning one’s family history.  We genealogists can also wake the dead by finding every trace our forebears left of themselves, from memories that were passed down, to life changes that the government documented, and all the treasured artifacts that someone preserved in between.  Our “cast” may be less illustrious, primarily populated by people who would otherwise remain in obscurity,  but when we do our best work, when we transcend the mere interpretation of findings to understand the complicated nature of the people who left these traces, then we are getting at the emotional truths that matter most.  “Truth is, we hope, a byproduct of our best stories,” Burns posits, “and yet, an emotional truth is something you have to build.”  The effort is as required in genealogy as in documentary film.

But why bother?  History can be adequately conveyed through a textbook and family history through a tree.  Why must we coalesce all these facts into a story, when the work of uncovering these facts is hard enough?  Burns gives the answer when he says that “the kind of narrative that [he subscribes] trusts in the possibility that people could change.”  By people, he means as much the historical characters who lived through turbulent times as us viewers who have as much room to evolve in our own era through a change in perspective and broadening of context.

The real genuine, stories are about one and one equaling three…The things that matter most to us — some people call it love, some people call it God, some people call it reason — is (sic) that other thing, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  And that’s the three.

In the case of genealogy, grandma may have gotten on a ship and sailed for America, where she met grandpa and gave birth to father, but the underlying reasons why she immigrated and chose grandpa, as well as the nature of the world she left and the one she brought father into:  these comprise the three in genealogy.  It’s meaning — it’s context — it’s Burns’ emotional truth plus genealogists’ family legacy.  It’s why it matters that we genealogists take the time to tell stories.

(Or watch here.)

Henry Louis Gates on Genealogy as History

Henry Louis Gates‘ day job is professor in the American History department at Harvard, though his work is better known through the family history programs he’s hosted over the years on PBS, such as African American Lives (2006), African American Lives 2 (2008), and Faces of America (2010), and the currently airing Finding Your Roots. Since that first program, I have always admired the way Gates merges the scholarly techniques of academic research with the emotional drive of our favorite pasttime. He puts heart into history, rigor into genealogy, and shows that while the former may reside in the Ivory Tower and the latter in the living room, the two fields should not be so far apart.

In his recent interview on NPR, Gates makes quite an articulate argument for how to bridge the two:

All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian’s footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.

So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and … Wanda Sykes and John Legend … we’re adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that’s the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.

What an inspiring vision to think that the small details we learn about our ancestors’ lives can add up to a more enhanced understanding of history itself! Often when I read about the events my family lived through, such as the Homestead Strike of 1892, I try to fit what I know about my family into the picture the historian paints about that time. But Gates’ conviction that historians can learn from the individual experiences of my small group of recent Hungarian immigrants learning to be Americans during such upheaval motivates me not only to finish fleshing out this particular story, but also to find a way of sharing it where it can inform the historians’ dialog.

“There are just so many stories that are buried on family trees,” Gates concludes. His personal goal is “to get everybody in America to do their family tree.” In creating Treelines, my goal is to make it as easy as possible for those of us who love working on our family trees to share the amazing stories we’re constantly uncovering with the right sharing tools. From Gates’ remarks, it’s clear that the potential audience is far broader than just our relatives and friends! Our small contributions provide a much bigger window onto the past than we often realize.