Thanksgiving, Day 5: Paper Clips

Clearly I have lost my mind. Paper clips? Really? Do I not have enough ideas that I have to start scrambling around in the office supply cabinet now?

No, at least not for the reasons you’re thinking. But we are talking paper clips today, or more to the point what paper clips represent, and how they changed my perspective on a lot of the everyday things that litter the world around me.

I can see FOREVER.

I wish I’d been stoned when I thought of this, because it totally sounds like the kind of thing that you would come up with when you’re stoned. Alas, I haven’t touched the Demon Weed in a very, very long time, so it was my own brain that managed to think the following thought: a paper clip tells us almost everything we need to know about mankind. If an alien wanted to know about our species, a paper clip could provide it with a treasure trove of information.

First of all, the physical thing itself. It’s made of steel, and that fact alone says a lot. It means we’ve learned how to work metal and create alloys, as steel does not occur in nature. Just figuring that out took millennia of trial and error, and that was even before we figured out how to make good steel. On top of that, it’s small. If the alien were presented with a single clip, it might conclude that it was made with very precise tools and by an experienced craftsman, much in the way jewelry is done.

But then we dump out a whole box of these on the alien’s desk. Maybe take a few and bend them up to make a little sculpture or something, or combine them with a rubber band to make a slingshot of deadly inaccuracy… Well, now the alien figures we can’t possibly have that many master craftsmen hanging around, personally bending every clip to perfect, identical dimensions. We must have mastered mass production, the ability to quickly and cheaply turn out vast quantities of nearly identical things.

What’s more, they speak of our planet’s richness of resources – and our ability to harvest them – that we’re able to use so much steel to create something that is clearly disposable. In other eras, even that much steel might have been treasured, or even hoarded. The paper clip speaks of a rich world, inhabited by a species that is skilled at using its resources.

Then the alien says, “Okay – but what is it for?”

“It’s for clipping sheets of paper together. Paper. Clip. This isn’t rocket science, guys.”

We need paper clips because we have paper. In fact, we have so much paper that we have to organize it together on a regular basis. This speaks again of our abilities in resource management and mass production, what with having so much paper. It’s not just that we need a special device to hold it together because we like paper bundles, but that we use it as a primary way of conveying information. They can infer that we have a written language, and perhaps even that there exist organizational structures that require the movement of carefully organized packets of paper from one place to another.

Then, if we abandon the alien conceit for a moment, the clip tells us about the universe and our place in it. We can ask where the iron and carbon in that steel came from, taking us to the evolution of the mining industry and basic smelting, our mastery of fire and all that came with it. We can look at how seams of ore are laid into the Earth’s crust and speculate how they got there – the movement of strata due to tectonic upheavals, and the initial era when the planet accreted out of space dust. Our search eventually leads us all the way back to the catastrophic explosion that occurred in the heart of a star countless millennia ago, where all these atoms were generated in an instant of heat and pressure the likes of which we can never truly understand…

The paper clip itself is a map of human history, and a guide back to the earliest days of the universe.

Not you, Clippy. You suck.

But, then again, so is nearly anything you have stuffed in a drawer somewhere. Every object in your home has a physical history that ties it back through the ages, that ties it to countless inventors and workers and discoverers. That ties it back to the origins of the universe itself.

If we were truly aware of how significant everything around us is, we would never get anything done.

Perhaps what I am thankful for, then, is not really the paper clip. It’s the way my mind’s eye opens up when I hold one and really think about what it is. It’s that curiosity, that wonderment about the universe – that ability to ask questions and find answers – that I’m truly thankful for. The paper clip is simply a tiny, convenient symbol for that.

My Boyfriend Thinks I’m Weird

This should come as no surprise to anyone, really.

I was making dinner and had Real Time with Bill Maher playing on my phone. I had really wanted to hear this episode, because while I don’t quite see eye-to-eye with Maher, I do occasionally find his show entertaining, and this week he had on Neil deGrasse Tyson as his special guest. I have long been a fan of Tyson, and I always enjoy seeing him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and his own show, NOVA Science Now. I got to the great moment where he threw a wobbly over how the financial crisis might have been avoided if the nation made teaching math and science – especially math – a priority, and I turned to The Boyfriend and said, “He is my favorite astronomer!” [1]

And he gave me a Look. It’s the look that said, “Your favorite what? What kind of person has a favorite astronomer?” He was too polite to put it in those words, but I know a Look when I see one.

I tried my best to explain why I was so excited about the work he was doing, the way he was doing his best to expose the wonders of science and scientific education to the public, and how happy I was that there was someone taking up the job that Carl Sagan left when he died. I tried to explain why I thought it was so incredibly fantastic that right now we have verifiable evidence of planets circling other stars – thousands of them! And some small percent of those planets might harbor life, if not intelligence. I wanted to go on and on about the benefits that science funding brings to a population, why it’s important to teach critical thinking to students, why one half of one percent of the federal budget is WAY too little to spend on NASA, and why people should get excited about the progress we’re making in understanding the universe.


I wanted to figure out why it is that Justin Beiber is the most searched-for person on Google, while there are probably not one in ten people reading this who have ever Googled Norman Borlaug, much less know who he is. [2] Granted, Bieber has better hair, but still…. This is a man whose research effectively saved a billion people from starvation, who revolutionized the way humanity grows food and eats, and who has won more and better prizes than that Bieber boy – or any of us – could ever dream of.

Anyway, I long for the day that people can talk about their favorite scientists without getting a Look. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to pretend that Lady GaGa and Ke$ha [3] are relevant, just to pass for normal. But secretly, I’ll be admiring the big-brained types from afar.

Oh, Richard Feynman, you’re such a scamp….


[1] Running neck-and-neck with Phil Plait. Sometimes it’s so hard to choose.

[2] Assuming there are more than ten people reading this…

[3] Who?