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5 Things That Give Me My Spark

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When I looked out at the audience in New Orleans, I saw myself in one of the seats. Many of the kids there were barely younger than me, and like most of them, I was born and raised in Louisiana, a place where I think it's fair to say that physics is not exactly the most popular hobby. If I could tell a slightly younger Henry -- and by transitive property, any high schooler in that audience -- one thing, I would remind him of the lesson my parents taught me. That's the key to turn a spark into a fire.

1. Just plain science!
Science is awesome. It sounds cheesy, but I love it for what it is, not for what comes out of it. Too often we get so absorbed in the truly amazing applications of science -- miracle drugs, shiny new gadgets -- that we forget about why science is cool independent of these things. I want to remind people how fascinating our world is, and how science gives us access to so much of it.

2. Being confused.
I love being confused. Being baffled. Not knowing the answer. That's what real science is about. It's a rough draft. It's always a work in progress. In school, we have this tendency to only focus on what's already been discovered. But it's not about how many facts you can memorize or how many equations you can solve. Of course that's important -- we need surgeons who can tell a liver from a kidney, and we need bridges that don't break because somebody forgot a minus sign -- but for me, the really neat stuff is that which nobody's figured out yet.

3. Being awestruck.
Science is pretty! There are pretty pictures in astronomy to be sure, but I'm not talking about that. I can't tell you exactly what I mean; at best I can give you an example.

Thanks to modern telescopes, we can see light that was released when the first atoms formed --- light that is almost 14 billion years-old. The equations that govern that ancient light also govern the light that enables you to read this sentence! And the law that has been in effect for 14 billion years and has a jurisdiction at least 14 billion light years wide is so simple that it takes a just one line to write it down. It's amazing, really.

4. Teachers and mentors.
Sparks are contagious. I got mine from a great teacher, Nadir Jeevanjee, as well as great mentors, Dr. Jason Rhodes and Dr. Michael McDonald. Without their constant support and encouragement, I wouldn't even know what science was, much less how to do it. This is part of the reason I wanted to give a TED Talk. If I can inspire in just one viewer a hundredth of a percent of what others have inspired in me, it will all be worth it.

5. My parents.
When I was little, my parents told me to read books even if my age didn't fall into the range on the little sticker. They weren't silly enough to try to put me above my classmates; instead, they were trying to teach me a lesson: I didn't have to restrict myself to what somebody else thought I should do.