CalTrain Musings

Diana Chapman Walsh
Jan 18 · 4 min read

I am standing on the northbound platform of CalTrain awaiting the 8:44 am to San Francisco. A train is announced and flies by going south — the “bullet” toward San Jose — a disturbance in the field, whistle blaring, wheels thundering, an evocation of the horrible majesty of the “iron horse” introduced in the early 1800s, now electric rather than steam. But jarring.

It carries me back a mere half decade (really; that long?) to the time when we would repeatedly humor my then-five-year old grandson by sitting with him at this Menlo Park station, hold his hand and feel the racing of his heart as we strained to hear distant auguries of the next train. His whole small being exuded the frisson of fascination stoked by fear, a primordial terror, waiting and waiting, glancing up the track ever so carefully, shielded by the bulk of his father seated next to him. The human drive for mastery of terrors real and imagined. Confronting The Machine, on its own tracks.

These are the very tracks, his mother once told me, onto which older children of this community have been known to fling themselves in front of oncoming trains when they can no longer endure the stresses of this world we have made for them. A tragic cautionary tale for today’s parents, desperate to equip their children with survival skills for a future none of us has courage or imagination sufficient to fathom fully. She mentioned the suicides when she was seeking a school for her son that would help him find a balance between ambition and compassion, the latter not least for himself.

Last night I re-read parts of Roy Scranton’s book of climate change essays, We’re Doomed: Now What? He who made his writing debut, after fighting in Iraq, with a New York Times op-ed piece titled, “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.” The last chapter of We’re Doomed recounts how the birth of a daughter has shaken him, changed him, unmoored him from an intellectual distance he can no longer sustain.

My own beloved daughter — like those of many friends — deflects talk of climate change, the worry that haunts me. I skirt the issue because she once asked, in agony, “So what are you telling me, Mom? That we are all going to die? That my son won’t have a future worth having? What do you want me to do with that?”

My husband and I have moved out here to Silicon Valley from Boston to be with our daughter and her family, an unalloyed joy. The last thing I want to inflict on them is fear or anxiety. Here we are in the epicenter of technology, the world of solutions that proliferate even faster than new problems do. The world of techno-optimism, shiny and seductive. There is comfort here.

And, yet, we sit by the train tracks and tremble, too transfixed to turn away.

The next day I find myself at a luncheon in Palo Alto sponsored by MIT, on whose board I sit. “Women in Science and Technology” is the theme. The audience, some 60 women of various ages, are mostly MIT graduates, parents, wives, donors. The speaker, Maria T. Zuber, a world leader in planetary geophysics, tells her personal story: growing up in eastern Pennsylvania coal country with a grandfather and a telescope (and a mind) that set her on a path to become first in her family to attend college, first in her high school to earn a Ph.D., first woman to head a science department at MIT and to lead a NASA planetary mission; she’s played leadership roles in ten of them.

She is funny and fun and inspiring, leaving no question in anyone’s mind of the thrill of a life in science. The first question from the audience, though, is on climate change — “where do you see hope” — an area at MIT among many for which Maria has administrative oversight as vice president for research. Climate, that is, not hope; hope’s everyone’s job.

She is eloquent and reassuring about MIT’s institutional commitment, and her own personal one, to work toward breakthrough solutions. And she senses under the question — we all do — the terrible dread my grandson felt beside the CalTrain track. The news is very bad and getting worse, she acknowledges. The latest reports are alarming. But they have only science as we know it now on which to base projections. And science is changing fast. She should know; she is driving it forward.

We have hope in nuclear fusion, she says, there first of all, and lays out a timeline of maybe 10–20 years before it could become a practical reality. Hope in better energy storage, also advancing apace. And, third, we will have to find a way to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We are not there yet. We need innovation across the board, lots and lots of it. And it is happening.

“Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” the next questioner asks, adding “I think I know the answer.” We all do. And we go home very glad to have this brilliant, expert, effective, and tenacious planetary scientist sitting beside us on the CalTrain bench, three semi-plausible solutions up her sleeve to buffer us from the blast of the oncoming train.

Diana Chapman Walsh

Written by

DIANA CHAPMAN WALSH, Ph.D., president emerita of Wellesley College (1993-2007) has also been a trustee of leading organizations in education and health.

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