June 28 2011

Knowing to Know What I Don’t Know

Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference that was filled with nuclear physicists up at this college called Colby-Sawyer in New Hampshire. Sometimes I get invited to speak at science conferences because I do alot of science-y cartoons with Robert Krulwich (who is like smartest guy ever)– and I show cartoons and explain how science and cartoons go nicely together. I’m kind of the ‘entertainment’ at these things.

The problem is after I speak at these conferences– often the attendees assume I know alot about science in general. I might be good at doodling and animating and sometimes funnying– but my science knowledge runs as deep as a puddle in the sun. (But I use that to my advantage in my work because if I can explain the science to me– I know anyone can get it.)

Some dude will come up and say something like, ‘Excuse me? I enjoyed your cartoon about Carbon but I’d like to point out that molecules that are higher in energy have a higher enthalpy than molecules with lower energy but as the number of carbons in an alkaline increases….blah blah blah…’ I let them finish and then basically point at my face and say, ‘Me not know nothing. Dum dum.’

Ok. Maybe I’m better at it than that– but I usually have to out myself as being ‘non-practicing’ science person right out of the gate. Cut off a conversation to basically let them know that I don’t speak the language.

I’m usually smart enough to close down science conversations– but unfortunately I have a bad habit of continuing conversations on topics I wrongly feel I should definitely know. Like art or history.

Like I’ll be at a party or whatever and someone will say something like, ‘You’re familiar with Mel Ramos, right?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Sure.’ And from that point on I’ll mentally drop out of the conversation while I futility google my brain for any mention of “Mel Ramos“. (How bout Mel Blanc? I got Mel Blanc? I got Sharples! Can we talk Sharples? I could even go Blount…)

In situations like that my brain usually tricks me into thinking info about Mel Ramos will magically click in if I just will it to do so. I’m not sure why I’m convinced I have some secret stash of knowledge locked up in my head– because whenever I open my ‘Mysterious Closet of Knowledge Unbeknownst to Me’– all that spills out are ancient Zelda cheat codes and scribbled lyrics to Peter Piper by Run-DMC.

So I’ve started a mental project of working on outing myself more and more in conversation when I don’t know what people are talking about. Removing the default position of knowing into the more comfortable ‘refresh me on what you’re talking about’ starting point. Regardless of how embarrassing it is. Seems like a ‘smart’ idea.

Anyway, yadda yadda. The conference speechifying went really well. People dug it. And I learned something interesting about the (surprisingly cool and down to earth) physics people! There’s apparently a deep rivalry between physics people and chemistry people. One physics chick said, “Physics is simply better than chemistry. Physics doesn’t smell.” Another guy said you don’t need any faith to believe in chemistry. And one woman talked about how years ago there was a chemistry conference and a physics conference scheduled on the same weekend– and the university stupidly organized a joint party that went all sideways. Almost turned into a throw down brawl. She was like, “Why did they think that would work?”

Ok done writing this morning. Going to make smore coffay…

ok bye!

PS. Here goes Mel Ramos’s website. Robert Krulwich’s blog. And Mel Sharples.


SS says:

Todd ain’t no dum-dum! He is one of the smartest people on our planet!

Sassy Starshine

Anonymous says:

When someone starts a conversation with me about something I don’t know I usually just pick a big slimy booger out of my nose and flick it at the person.

Angry Map says:

He writes like a third grader and that does not scream “smart guy”

Amy says:

Don’t beat yourself up, tODD. I do it in my classroom and I’m a teacher!!

USA USA says:


Anonymous says:

yeah man, you just gotta own what you don’t know. If you think you might now a little, say something like hum a few bars or whatever. being confident in your not knowing is the most important thing.

Stitches says:

Glad I’ve finally found somehtnig I agree with!

Goats says:

I loved the peter piper reference! I too transcribed the song by hand in or around summer 85! And knowledge is overrated! People witht their politics and NY Times! fuck that shit! I didn’t know Andrew Cuomo was the NY governor until yesterday! And I live in the damn stated AND voted! Who cares! That silliness just gets in the way of important sutff, like knowing the ranked competititve eaters on IFOCE! Or how many games ahead/behind the yankees are!

jiggy says:

Give me the Zelda cheat codes! I’ve been trying to win this stupid game for over 20 years!

Joey Kava says:

Don’t feel too bad about it Todd. I think we all get embarrassed when we’re forced to accept that we might not be as intelligent as those people around us would have us believe we are.

Just remember the old saying, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance befuddle them with bullshit”.

Colonel Mustard says:

Did they have pretend girlfriends at the conference?

Crumbles says:

I was at that conference. I got into a boring conversation with some science geek annnnnnndWHAM. Face down in the punchbowl, they told me.

Krankor says:

Physicists have no respect for chemists. However, I wonder where the Nuclear Chemists come down on the subject.

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