MYTHOLOGY

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My submission is an essay/collection of thoughts sparked by the questions. It is informed by my background as a physicist and is thematically focused on my current, somewhat scattered, thoughts on the role of beauty in my practice of science. One could consider it a piece of an ongoing conversation with myself.

Winged Cypsela:

An Essay by Jacob Bringewatt

Sometimes my mind feels scattered, like my thoughts are dandelion cypsela, thrown to the wind. Sometimes it helps to speak those thoughts, to friends, to family, to an empty page. Sometimes that dialogue does not quite seem to work.

Sometimes time rushes by, the wind dies, the snowy ashes of once-spring thoughts must float down to, one hopes, fertile earth and seed again. Perhaps next time they won’t have to descend.

And so, I must begin this essay with an apology, of a mundane sort, although parts of me wish for the apology’s greater cousin the Apology a la Plato (Apologizing for Socrates), or, more fittingly, G. H. Hardy (Apologizing for the mathematician). The apology is this: as I write this, the text, the ideas, must settle firmly on the ground much too soon, fixed, immutable, waiting for the next generation of thoughts. I begin too late to draw the right connections, must grasp out to one side, only to lose what thoughts were previously contained. As the annual cycle of ideas and conversations of whose collection this essay is meant to join comes to a close, the perineal flightiness of my thoughts can not quite be overcome. This state of affairs was not for lack of effort: I wrote three-quarters of a dialogue between some reflection of myself and some reflection of nature, I wrote three sentences on the meaning found in the abstract, I wrote mathematical calculations on roughly three hundred pieces of scratch paper for my day job (although, “job” a mundane term of three letters sells my love of that process short). I sought inspiration in reading (Mara Beller’s history of the origins of the quantum theory as a dialogue between its founders, William James on habits and patterns of thought, A.K. Ramanujan on arriving in new places, Jacob Bronowski on science and human values). I talked to my grandparents and discussed beauty and religion and then wrote an essay much too personal. I considered writing poetry (not my forte) or a short story (something I do do, if not as well as math), but I couldn’t quite say what truth I wanted to “tell slant” as Emily Dickinson suggested. To do that one must know what the truth is, and, of that, I am not sure. Maybe after another decade or two of such cycles of thought, of dialogue, of quiet contemplation, of equations, of poetry and of stories, maybe then I will know the truth straight enough to slant it. I like being abidingly naive enough to have such hopes.

But, for now, I don’t yet hold that truth. And the wind dies, the ideas currently afloat must settle, the essay is due. As a graduate student, I no longer take classes, but I still remain ensconced in my role as student. A fortunate state of affairs, but writing at a deadline is one of its ever present stresses (and unfortunately, I am sure, a source of ever present errors of word choice and grammar).

Therefore, telling it slant no longer an option, a graceful subtlety of expression that must await some later season. I must resign myself to telling something besides the truth. Instead, I tell just musings, and hope they suggest some truth. Consider that the unfortunate tangled nature of my thoughts is fortunate: even straight is slant, and perhaps, that is good enough.

I am a theoretical physicist. I wanted this job (although again I find the word inadequete) since I was 12, and although my childhood fascinations with the beauty of understanding this field promised me are still a subtle siren song, my current dreams of understanding have grown less grandiose. The more I learn, the less I feel I know. If, with the vanishing of the naivete of childhood, understanding, true understanding, Truth, recedes further and further from view, or perhaps a better analogy, is more and more strongly refracted through the kaleidoscopic prism through which we must view reality, the beauty, the aesthetics, of looking grows ever more essential. (Two of the six quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons, as well as more exotic matter, are named top and bottom. However, it was once suggested, whimsically, to name them truth and beauty. I prefer the whimsical name.)

Truth need not be beautiful, of course, the universe doesn’t owe us that aesthetic pleasure, but beauty, parsimony, the elegant click when one feels, perhaps, one has had a fleeting glimpse of some truth, is undoubtedly a source of meaning, of breathless awe, like no other. In this sense, at times, I view myself an artist.

Science is not art, of course; to claim as much is to erase the differences of the mediums. Science comes with its own rules, its own customs. It insists, above all else, that when another participates in the act of recreation that the result, the image of reality, be the same as that envisioned by the original creator. It relies on a careful empiricism, a rigorous language of mathematics. It is asked by society to be useful in material sense, in principle, and, typically, in practice. I do not discount the miracles of modern science for the advantages it brings us in material comforts, in safety, in growth, and I admire those who seek, primarily, these ends through scientific advance, but I think, perhaps, there is something more we should ask of science than that. Something that resonates more closely with the soul of the enterprise, something more universal.

G. H. Hardy claimed beauty to be the defense of the mathematician, that mathematics is harmless in its commitment to aesthetics. But aesthetics are more than just harmless, and whatever technological marvels may come of the scientific practice, I prefer to view my work, at its best, in the context of beauty. And to me, it is beauty, it is discovery, it is the shared practice of the creative act that connects and unifies art and science as human endeavors.

Unity and symmetry are tightly bound with beauty. It is known we find symmetry in faces beautiful. Similarly, physicists often find beauty in the symmetries of nature. I think part of the beauty of symmetry is it allows understanding, a pattern, a consistency that allows more to be contained at once in one thought, allows one to briefly catch and hold ideas that seemed, without this symmetry, to be pulled apart. Connection is beautiful. The sublime is found in unification, the holding together of disparate things, the finding of commonalities, of pattern, of structure. Synonyms, but also antonyms.

And so, the scientist is an artist of a sort. But, of course, also is not. To engage in that act of creation, of unification, is also partly to destroy. The pleasure, the meaning, the experience of this game of ideas lies in finding some balance between the unbridled meaninglessness of the rushing current of experience and contentlessness of the fully abstract. It is this game, I think, of finding this parsimonious balance that drives me, whether that be via the unification of metaphor or the unification of mathematical equality.

This game is a human game, of course – beauty is a human experience. It is some strange, complicated interaction of a mind I do not understand with some greater world I also do not understand. But that exiting, that dialogue in the midst of this confusion, is not nihilistic, it is beautiful, and I believe, that simple beauty and the truth it reflects, however slant, is more than enough to feel connected via a deeply human sense of sublime beauty to a more than human world.

Jacob Bringewatt

Maryland, United States

My submission is an essay/collection of thoughts sparked by the questions. It is informed by my background as a physicist and is thematically focused on my current, somewhat scattered, thoughts on the role of beauty in my practice of science. One could consider it a piece of an ongoing conversation with myself.

'Mythology' archives stories that act as gateways to other worlds, both real and imagined.

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