Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tavel and Context

The flip side of getting research funding is the requirement to attend yearly meetings to update the funding agencies on progress made in meeting milestones. I am sitting in my hotel room in Washington DC this morning getting ready for my presentation. I arrived last night at about midnight and I head back to the airport after I give my talk in the early afternoon.

I am reminded of the many quick work trips that I take to all kinds of neat places. But usually, all that I see is my hotel room, the conference room, and the road between the hotel and the airport. Each geographic location offers unique vistas and local culture (or lack thereof). But, in addressing the deepest questions, to me, sightseeing and travel provide only the most shallow returns.

An itinerary that highlights places that spawned ideas that changed civilization would be much more interesting to me. It would be awe-inspiring to see the simple objects used by Cavendish to do his famous experiments or to view Galileo's crude telescope in the natural setting of the Italian countryside, where his observations yielded insights into the true nature of the universe, overturning centuries of dogma and ignorance.

I would like to revisit the meeting room of the first continental congress, where the new paradigm of self governance took root and changed the world. Having recently read the biographies on James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, a visit to the birthplace of their great ideas would now be more meaningful to me.

While the site of the ruins in Rome were deeply moving based on the human ingenuity and appreciation for beauty that they exemplify, I found that the experience would have been more fulfilling had there been a broader intellectual context. Similarly, the Vatican and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are magnificent, and the fact that all those people labored for so many years to express their faith may be admirable, but I found the structures to be akin to beautiful facades harboring emptiness.

Events and places are meaningful to me only when there is an intellectual context. Contrast the zombie feeding coins into a slot machine for hours on end with the experience of understanding a deep idea for the first time. When I first took Quantum Field Theory, I recall the thrill of seeing the connection between fields and particles and how so many laws of physics arise from a variational approach (i.e. nature acts in a way that minimizes or optimizes a quantity). When struggling with my attempts to understand the fundamental limits of the nonlinear susceptibility, I recall the final stretch of my frenzied derivations with fondness: a beautifully-simple equation crystallized into its final elegant from out of a huge mess of mathematics. In that moment, I understood something new to the world for the first time.

Learning is characterized by long periods of drudgery, punctuated with the occasional elation of understanding. Similarly, humanity evolves through long cycles of stasis that are interrupted with abrupt paradigm shifts, which change the course of civilization. If I am forced to travel, my preference is to visit those places that produced singular moments that led to revolutions in thought.

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