THE SCIENTIST (5-11-04)
It happens every so often.
PBS is the usual culprit. Either that or some Time magazine article I've spotted while scanning a newsstand for the week's Time Out. There they live, in a world of big ideas and transcendant importance. My heroes: Scientists.
There was a time when I could think of being nothing else. As a child, we made frequent trips to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, back when their now-musty diorama of cavemen drilling a hole in some guy's skull was relatively new. I enjoyed the dinosaur bones and the crawly things behind glass, as most kids do.
But nothing held my attention like space. You have to remember that the shuttle was brand new back then, and all kinds of things seemed possible. Space stations, Mars exploration, who knew what was up ahead? The two Voyager probes were just reaching the outer edges of the solar system, accompanied by Star Trek: The Motion Picture to wonder about their fate. Pioneer 10 and 11 did, in fact, leave the solar system at that time for parts unknown.
A visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston was like a sugar I.V. to a kid like me. So many rockets...so much space gear...so many scientists...
So for the love of Pete, what fool would take some stupid office job when you could be a SCIENTIST? Scientists weren't concerned with the boring goings-on of normal adults, they were aiming their intellects at cagier quarry: Molecules, supernovas, molten lava...LIFE, man, LIFE!!
Keep in mind that this was also the era of E.T., War Games, and all those Spielberg and Lucas showpieces for fantastical scientific thought. Well, there was just no question. I was going to be a scientist.
To think back on it, I can't honestly remember when that changed. It wasn't any specific event, that much I know. Through all of my life, I've retained an intense interest in anything pushing scientific boundaries, and have devoured what documentaries and articles I can whenever possible. But at some point, it stopped being what I wanted to do for a living.
It's possible that the intense hatred I was developing for all things math-related had something to do with it. I ate up Science class, but try putting a math book anywhere near me and you could see the electromagnetic repulsion. For me, the two didn't seem to be in the same moral universe: Science = Good. Math = Eeevil.
The final separation probably occurred around the time I was discovering my sister's keyboard (by nabbing it between her lessons). At that time, the inextricable link between math and science had likely become more clear to me, and it must have been plain that such a thing as science could not be my future.
But it's odd that I don't remember it. I remember boundless devotion and then...everything else. At some point, the musician took over where the scientist had diminished, and the course was set from then on. I'd put the final kill switch at about 8th grade, probably. I remember high school pretty well, and I seem to recall already being over any notions of a scientific career.
And yet it never quite went away. I feel these powerful yearnings upon watching Contact, seeing a NOVA episode, or seeing a piece of a solar sail at Rockefeller Center. I visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and gaze in wonderment at all that science has created. I read books about string theory, the expansion of the universe, dimensional layering, and I think, "My God, how could I ever have given this up?"
Really, though, it's pretty obvious: I'm a sucker for concepts. The broader and more sweeping, the better. Give me a cockamamie theory and I'll parade it like it's a freakin' inflatable Snoopy, impressing those who wish to be impressed by my grasp of the universe as we know it. See, I like the END RESULT of good science. I do NOT like the process of practicing it.
In music, this can be gotten around, because the learning curve is quite a bit less steep, and once you've got it, it's simply a matter of keeping it up and expanding outwards gradually. Which I guess you do in science as well, but damned if it isn't eight million times less entertaining.
In the final analysis, it must be concluded that my great powers of accepting the inevitability of delayed gratification do have limits. Limits that scientists far surpass. I see these men and women, embarked on lifelong quests for a single piece of information, one key that will make the great puzzle the least bit clearer, never knowing if they themselves will be alive to see their toil rewarded, and I wonder: How in the hell do they do it?
So as much as I may accomplish in my life, as many hard-won artistic victories as I may stack up over the course of a century, I will never, ever abandon my long-standing adoration of my true heroes: Scientists. May you remain as stubborn, steadfast, and visionary as I could never be.
(matthew is a card-carrying member of the Planetary Society, which you should join post-haste)