Cutting Edge and Exile

In an effort to maintain their reputations, and the concomitant privileges pertaining to same, some of those with any standing in the community of theoretical physics are surrendering their grasp on failed ideas, and jumping to the cutting edge with the embrace of decades old ideas (eg., Twistors; Schwinger’s stuff; …) founded by senescent – at best – eminences. Despite the reverence in which the founders of such ideas are held, the most important aspect of the ideas themselves is that they have languished; they never died, but neither did they ever catch fire, so insufficient attention has been paid to them over the decades to warrant finding irremediably fatal flaws, if such flaws exist. This makes them excellent intellectual hidey holes in which to sequester oneself during these End Days. Sigh. Heavy sigh. (As mentioned previously, most fugitive theorists have latched onto black holes and dark mattergy.)

Clearly I am bemoaning the deep backwater to which my own ideas have been relegated, but then, I am not an eminence. Nor do I display gravitas in my dealings with my fellow humans, so normal humans – those at all interested in theoretical physics, and who are even vaguely aware of me and my notions – find it difficult to imbue either me or my notions with any respect, so …

But my time is limited, so I am told, and I shall be denied senescence. Maybe that’s for the best. No one wants to witness me plum deeper into the depths of curmudgeonliness were I to grow too old, so let’s talk about something else. In particular, let’s talk about the Arts, paying close attention to those bits that I’ve found most enjoyable.

Although not as confirmed a reader as Tony Smith (see eulogy here), because I go out and play more than Tony ever did, or even wished to, I have read a fair bit in my life – although, as will become clear, much of my reading was in no way intended to advance my critical thinking, or to deepen my philosophical outlook, or even to help me be a better physicist. Much of it was frivolous, but – as I lack gravitas – this is to be expected.

Anyway, many moons ago a sister-in-law of mine, aware that I did read a fair bit, commented on that, and she asked the following question: “How many books have you read in your life? 50?”

To her 50 was a borderline inconceivably large number of books to have read in one lifetime. I did not tell her that I owned more than 70 books by a single author, many of which I’d read multiple times. But I did store this question in my hard drive. It made me aware of something to which I had hitherto given little thought: most people will read very few books in their lifetimes; some will read none. They may lead very contented lives, full and successful, but without books. It reminds me of a very funny refrigerator magnet I once saw. It depicted a young woman’s face, smiling whimsically, and thinking: “And yet another day I’ve gone without using calculus.”

So, if you haven’t guessed already, those 70 plus books were authored by P.G. Wodehouse. Were I to be exiled on the island of Elba, and told I could have the books of only a single author for all my years there, I would choose Wodehouse. This, even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any. What’s important is choosing an author whose oeuvre is extensive, and whose books have already proven themselves worthy of repeated readings. Yes, I acknowledge that many serious thinkers consider his works frivolous, his stories contrived, their endings unrealistically contented, but all of that pleases my mildly autistic brain. However, the real reason for choosing Wodehouse is the language, the turns of phrase that leave one – if that one is me – basking blissfully in their linguistic refulgence. And it doesn’t hurt that all this brilliance illuminates goofy plots about goofy characters in a world free of cartels, serious thinkers, terrorists, and intellectual ossification. Replace each of those things with smiles, and you get the idea.

Meanwhile, the powers that exiled me on Elba were kind enough to give me a large screen TV and a DVD/Blu-ray player, but again, being of the persnickety punitive persuasion, they restrict me to discs associated with a single studio. Without hesitation I choose Ghibli. I mean, how many times can I watch Hulk smash, whereas Ghibli animations are transformative, transporting, and some other “t” word, meaning magical, to complete the alliteration. And unlike the majority of American films, Ghibli characters are not sharply divided into good and evil. Instead there is an ever fluctuating spectrum of behaviors manifesting self interest at times, and altruism at others, with occasional dollops of cynicism. The artwork and stories make me feel happy. Being myself concertedly non serious, that feeling pleases me. (Not that the stories aren’t at times very serious; the most serious of them all I have yet to view, and I shall likely never view it, for I am informed that in depicting humanity at its worst, it makes one feel the opposite of happy and contented. I refuse to spend my exile on Elba wallowing in humanity at its worst. Just leave me in peace.)

Art and music are more problematic. I’m quite fond of Cézanne, so I’d choose his works, but not with the same conviction as my literary and film choices. As to music, my tastes vary so rapidly that I’d simply ask for a guitar or piano instead, and failing that, I’d choose to sing or hum whatever struck my fancy. I’ve written a two chord piece of music for guitar that resonates so profoundly with my brain that I cannot conceive of it being bettered. When it comes to music, I am easily pleased, and just as easily annoyed. Best to leave me to my own devices.

I’ve been to Elba, by the way. It’s a pleasant place to be exiled. And I promise not to escape and attempt to be emperor. The responsibility of that would be just too much.