As a graduate student in the space sciences, I’ve learned a thing or two about humility. Namely, that to succeed in my career, I need a good dose of it. We scientists can have pretty large egos—if you’ve ever seen the character of Leonard Hofstadter in the CBS sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” you know that he wants to succeed as a scientist to compensate for the lack of affirmation shown him as a child. Many scientists are indeed like that, and, as a result they hate being wrong.
I hate being wrong—it’s humbling. Sometimes, it’s humiliating. But through the trial and error of my oh-too-many-years-of-schooling (23 and counting…ugh), I’ve learned that generally the best thing to do in front of my academic superiors—assuming I am wrong in the first place—is to quietly accept their constructive criticism. It’s hard. I don’t generally like it. But, usually they’re right and I save face by not sticking up for my (wrong) understanding. And, I get to benefit from their knowledge and experience. What’s more, it’s never backfired. I don’t think it’s ever held me back in my career, and I’m very thankful where God has led me, that is, to Johns Hopkins University to earn a PhD in planetary science and the opportunity to work with the front-liners who are the true explorers in the Solar System. I would have been happy with some back-water university awarding me a PhD, for I never aspired to where I am now. This brings a certain verse to mind, namely, James 4:10 (NIV): “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” Just looking up at night can be simultaneously humbling for us and result in exultation toward God.
Turn off your outdoor lights for a moment at night or get in your car and drive somewhere far away from lights. Let your eyes adjust to the dark for a few minutes, and take in the sights above. Most of those stars you see are in the ballpark of 40 light years away. At 5.9 trillion miles per light year, those stars are roughly 230 trillion miles away! Yet, that is only a tiny speck within our Milky Way galaxy, and our galaxy is but a drop in the cosmic ocean.
To me, that’s reminiscent of Psalm 8:3-4 paraphrased in The Message:
I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry, Moon and stars mounted in their settings. Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way?
I also belong to an email list-serv of astronomers who are Christians. I remember an exchange a little over a year ago in which we encouraged each other to lift our research to God in prayer and ask that He be glorified. I’d say that’s an act of humility, too. That reminds me of this prayer by one of the famous fathers of modern astronomy and brother in Christ, Johannes Kepler: “If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of thy works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for thy glory, gently and mercifully pardon me: and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to thy glory and to the salvation of [men], and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen.”