May 24th, 2005

me: ooh!

Meditations on Millikan

I am in the City of Angels, in a place that commands a good deal of my memory if little of my affection. When I first lived here I lacked money, and Los Angeles is a city that loves money as much as London does. I did, however, have stock in trade: youth and good looks. Unfortunately, unlike the aspirants whom she consumes voraciously and continuously, I was not out to gamble them for her gifts of fame and fortune. Or rather, prise them out of her clenched fist. Despite my familiarity with her streets, her languages, her milieu, I have ever felt an alien here, an unwelcome trespasser.

I am in an enclave, Pasadena, a rare pedestrian-friendly oddity with broad, tree-lined avenues. I am sitting on the eighth floor of the tallest building on the California Institute of Technology Campus. It looms over the center of campus, a black-sheathed edifice that seems to cast a perpetual shadow over the Japanese garden to the east, although that is an illusion. I know the sun reaches it because I can conjure its tortoise inhabitants in my mind, sitting on its flat rocks with their leathery necks extended and their impassive faces turned up towards the light.

The monolithic library with its black-tinted windows invites comparison with the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A massive quantity of information resides within and may be accessed from its walls. I can never shake the feeling that, if touched correctly on a hot summer day, it could actively transform knowledge into wisdom. But perhaps such superstitious yearnings for transcendental enlightenment demean its real power. Its contents are the result of painstaking toil, of the application of rigor and method and above all, investments of time. Sacrifices of youth, sublimation of body to mind. Under every great discovery, every momentous paradigm shift, there lies a body of dull, obscure, eternally unappreciated work.

The interior of Millikan accurately reflects the nature of this research. Its white walls and floors are crammed with oppressively tall bookshelves placed much too close together. The meticulous ordering of the volumes doesn't invite their removal. Crude, ugly wooden desks outfitted with spectacularly uncomfortable chairs stand near the windows, which afford breathtaking views of the surrounding city. I have rarely seen anyone appreciating the lush valley or the sharp upthrust of the San Bernadino mountains. They cast their eyes downwards, faces lit from beneath by the green glow of the photocopier or from above by the hot white fluorescents. They don't project themselves outwards, not past the rims of their glasses, pages, the shelves, their own feet. The view is too vast, or perhaps – dare I say it? – too arousing.

Millikan doesn't encourage sensuality. It practically flaunts its complete lack of aesthetic appeal. Fashions in philosophical thought may have progressed, but this house of science remains steadfastly devoted to Descartes, to his desire to be free of the craven needs of his body in order to gain the fulfillment of his mind's potential. Do I think this is a mistaken aspiration? Do I believe that striving towards an acceptance of the desires of the mind and the body is a more worthwhile pursuit?

I don't know, buddy. Maybe you should look out the window and decide for yourself.