Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Longing I Could Not Shake

I've described to an extent how, as a physics undergrad at Caltech, my soul became by degrees more and more starved for meaning.  Caltech was certainly an intense experience, and in several ways.  We studied hard, we partied hard, and we were a creative bunch who could always find "wacky" ways to pass the time.  But my experience was missing the one essential element I had most anticipated, namely, deep conversations about important things. 

Caltech is a place where everyone is engaged in furious investigation, so furious that apparently no one has the time to ask "what for?"  Caltech has the best professor-student ratio of any top-notch university in the U.S. (3-1), and in fact I personally got to know or do research with half a dozen different professors from as many different fields.  But, despite my best efforts, I was unable to engage any of these professors in any useful conversation about the wider significance of their research, the long-term goals of their investigations, or how they connected to the real world.

The 80-year-old chair of the physics department himself, who I spent many hours with in a small (5 person) research tutorial my freshman year, would deliberately bring up Pulitzer prize winning nonfiction -- I specifically remember "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and "Godel, Escher, Bach," being among them -- discuss them superficially, drop a few hints that he found them imprecise and speculative, and then end further discussion with four words: 

"Very interesting. Very interesting."

One day, looking for help in clarifying my own research goals, I went to him and asked whether he would like to hear what they were.  "Not really," he said.  That's when I stopped bothering him.

My first summer there I worked with a planetary scientist on a theoretical puzzle concerning the moons of Mars, Phobos and Demos.  He was a bit more personable, and in fact I did have several conversations with him about the question of whether there was any useful knowledge aside from science and engineering.  But at no point did he budge from the position that all non-science was polluted with subjective feeling and therefore of little or no interest.  Bizzarely, it was thus impossible to get him to discuss the motivation or purpose of science, except in terms of having a successful career as a scientist.  But that's like asking a plumber what plumbing is for and having him answer, "So you can be a successful." "So you're saying that you can't be successful outside of plumbing?  What about carpentry?"  "But carpentry is polluted by subjective judgements that haven't been verified by plumbers yet." 

The next summer I worked with a theoretical physicist on quantum information theory.  He was a quiet guy, but we built up a rapport and seemed to understand one another on most things.  Later, when I wrote him a long letter defending my decision to apply to grad school in philosophy, he sent back an email containing only these words, "Different people think about different things."  At the time, I felt validated.  But now, looking back on it, this was the most brilliant refutation of all, because it pretended there was no controversy in the first place. 

I myself would often doubt there was a controversy.  But this feeling would only last as long as I was preoccuppied with some piece of mathematics or other.  As soon as I had a quiet moment, the old longing for something more complex -- more human, more anything -- would take hold and drive me back to my poetry.

My growing relationship with poetry and art is the next important chapter in this story.

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