Weekend in Richland

In Travel on December 20, 2010 by ryepdx

(Note: As always, names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

At the end of the first week of being unemployed, I took a road trip with a friend from my Freshman year in college, Jane, and a friend of hers from the college she now goes to, John. We drove to Richland, Washington to meet with a mutual friend of ours.

His name was Bartimaeus, or Bart for short, and he was blind. Well, legally blind. He could see things well enough to pretend he wasn’t blind, but his glaucoma had left him unable to read anything in 12 point font at a distance of more than three inches away. This, of course, did not stop him from riding a bicycle to work every day, nor from running cross-country on a regular basis. He had never really bought into, as he put it, the β€œblind cult.” He had the scars to prove it, too, the most impressive one having come from impaling his leg on a bit of re-bar left sticking out of the sidewalk his Junior year in college.

He worked up at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, doing research for the U.S. Government. Most of the stuff he was working on he only had a partial understanding of; as a recent college graduate, his security clearance was not yet very high. Still, it was obvious that whatever he was working on was very, very cool. Technology research for the U.S. Government is rarely otherwise, I imagine.

Jane, for her part, was doing a paid software engineering internship for Intel, while John was in school to become an industrial engineer. I was among my people, my nerds. Actually, as a nerd I was outclassed in every way. I was a web developer, primarily, and math had never been my strong suit. Bart, on the other hand, had double-majored in computer science and math. Not only that, but on the exit exam all computer science majors are required to take before graduation he had gotten the best score in the history of our school, and had placed in the top 2% nation-wide. The summer we were both on campus working on our respective Richter research projects, I witnessed him devour a book on abstract algebra. Last I had seen him he had been teaching himself quantum physics. Since then he had apparently moved on to tensor theory. He’s the sort of person who gets depressed if he’s not learning something new about mathematics. I’m worried about what will happen if he finally learns it all.

John and Jane were by no means intellectual slouches either, though my grasp on their respective intelligences was a bit vaguer than the one I had on Bart’s. All I knew was that they were able to keep up with Bart when he began talking math, which, to be fair, was not all that often. More often than not the conversation was filled with Brian Regan and Futurama references.

We jammed a bit and I was somewhat impressed with Jane’s guitar skills. She played classical style, whereas I have always been more of a strummer. Bart joined in with his djembe and his electric drum set. He also was quite good, though this was no surprise as I had heard him many times before. After we had been jamming for a while, he gave Jane and I a couple impromptu drumming lessons. Jane picked up paradiddles and flams faster than I managed to, and I was left wondering what I was doing pursuing music full-time when I was so outclassed by these people for whom music was only a hobby.

I began to wonder if I was short-changing myself, or short-changing the world. I realize that there are not many people who can manage working with computers and technology for long periods of time. There’s a reason there’s a labor shortage in the science and technology sector. Am I better suited for that world? I began to wonder. Would I be doing more to affect the world by working to advance science than I could be doing as a musician and writer?

For it seems to me that both practical and aesthetic considerations must be addressed. For the aesthetic is practical, speaking to the emotions and affecting most of the decisions we make. Forgive me, you pure artists, for I do measure the value of a thing by its usefulness. In this respect I am a scientist, or at least an engineer. But I do believe it is a noble and useful pursuit to encode and direct the values of society through art, to engage people in thought that goes beyond the day to day matters of survival. I believe that is a privilege we have as a population that has advanced past the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. We can address the higher rungs and look further into the future toward a bright and dazzling horizon, or toward our own doom if we are not careful.

Yet all our flights of fancy and cultural dialogue is for naught if the foundation which we build on is ignored. Without science, without engineering, we would be much more stuck in the mire of our physiological needs, much more concerned with our own hunger than with the hunger of our poorer neighbors. We as a species would be hard-pressed to advance, for peace is hard to come by when life itself is violent. There could be no working middle class as we know it now, only the working poor as there was in the past. There could be no social conscientiousness, no green movement.

There is some irony here, of course, as most of the problems these movements address have been caused by the same scientific advancements I am lionizing, but I do posit that the overall wealth of the human species has been increased by the augmented efficiency of labor resulting from those advancements. This increase in wealth has in turn freed us from having to always worry about ourselves and allowed us to worry more about getting along with others, as well as the direction of our advancement. Thus I would argue that the advance of science has been, on the whole, positive.

And here I come back to art. For without art there would be no dialogue about getting along with others, or about the direction of science’s advance. Art is, for me, the dialogue culture engages in. To be always engaged in that dialogue is, I think, what it means to be an artist. And so which is more important? They are symbiotic. Am I short-changing myself then, by trying to carve a path of my own? Am I short-changing the world by refusing to commit whole-heartedly to either art or science?

By carving my own path I must try to walk a line that straddles both. The point for me, I realize, is not to be entirely an artist or entirely a scientist but something between the two. This is, after all, what it means to be myself. It means I must learn to be comfortable if I don’t fall neatly on one side of things or the other. It means I need to find a way to make that work, sure, but there’s no reason to think that it won’t. It means I must find a way to live creatively.


3 Responses to “Weekend in Richland”

  1. WOW!

  2. Two things:

    1. I’m from Wenatchee, WA originally– eastern Washington parrrrty. πŸ˜‰

    2. What a great post on the benefits of both art and science. I worry sometimes that academia sometimes ignores one or the other (I’m a Master’s student in higher ed. student affairs), so the concept of how we incorporate all aspects into life and why we should do that has come up in conversation from time to time. Well-said.

    • 1. Haha… I, uh, don’t actually know much about Wenatchee, but yes. Parrrty. πŸ˜€

      2. Thanks! I’m glad you liked my post. I’d be interested in hearing about those conversations sometime. I’ve heard there’s a brain-drain going on in the U.S. right now and I’m sorry to say that what you’re talking about may be worsened by that. As academia’s resources wane, I think we’ll see a lot more specialization (i.e, myopia) going on. Only resource-rich organizations and individuals can really afford to spread their resources around, after all. It seems to be much smarter to focus one’s resources when they are limited.

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