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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Meditations on Millikan [20050524|04:20]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |tired]



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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: angelcityblues
2005-05-24 03:48 (UTC)
I'm glad you made it safely.

Would love to see you while you are here. I'm in class tomorrow and Thursday (boo!) but have much of the rest of the week free. Happy to drive to your neck of the woods, as well.

xo

s.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-24 16:17 (UTC)
Hey, maybe we can meet at Lucky Baldwin's in Old Pas tomorrow night? Weekends are kind of insane there, but it's mellow on weekdays.
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From: tdj
2005-05-24 05:30 (UTC)
Aw, nuts! You were in the LA area? I just left there!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-24 16:17 (UTC)
I just got here. Gonna be here for a couple of weeks, though, are you coming back?
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From: tdj
2005-05-25 00:01 (UTC)
No, I'll be in the Bay Area until the 3rd, then off to Texas and (with luck) London.

If you'll be headed SFwards before then, drop me an email?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-25 03:57 (UTC)
Unlikely since I'm working on a paper, but if I do head that far north, I will.

When are you going to be in London?
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From: tdj
2005-05-25 05:38 (UTC)
June 6ish - June 11ish. Flying the Delta standby express with an employee friend (supiluliumas), so everything is a little in the air. Would you be around then? If so and you have an hour for the London equivalent of "coffee" (which I hope is a pint), it would be a pleasure to say hello.

Best of luck with the paper!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-25 14:28 (UTC)
I sent an e-mail to your LJ address.
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[User Picture]From: victorine
2005-05-24 05:56 (UTC)
This sounds like the start of a really good sci fi novel.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-24 16:18 (UTC)
It's a bit autobiographical, though. ;-)
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[User Picture]From: seismic
2005-05-24 19:09 (UTC)
Doesn't all fiction contain a grain of truth? If the rest is actually fiction, this would be the grain...
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[User Picture]From: bram
2005-05-24 06:36 (UTC)
My old friend "LQ" used to work in that building, maybe even on the 8th floor. Are you anywhere near the LIGO (gravitational wave) people?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-24 16:22 (UTC)
I think LIGO is housed in Bridge, which is right next to Millikan Library. My (former) lab is in another building, not far away.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-31 21:20 (UTC)
I went back to Millikan today and I noticed that at least some of the LIGO people are on the 6th floor.
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[User Picture]From: taische
2005-05-24 16:31 (UTC)
I was once, in a sense, tried and convicted of bringing too much color to an environment such as that- and they didn't even know about all the sex on the roof of the building (... great view)! As for the "trial"- my evening dress, dentifrice, and frolicking social life led a few almost-certainly undersexed, professionally (and probably otherwise) underperforming, discontents who worked at the lab I co-founded four years earlier to raise concerns about my mental stability with the lab's other co-founder, who at the time happened to be my research advisor. The sentence: I was summarily locked out of the lab with no comment or warning, ending my relationship with my advisor. Could I have made a stink about it? Sure. But I was really more disappointed than angry, and just didn't feel like being there once that happened. The department's best (by objective academic measures) and most creative students- who I was able to attract to do work in support of my research by offering the opportunity to do creatively satisfying work in a fun, relaxed, comfortable lab space (people would even spend free time there!)- offered to leave the lab in solidarity, but I encouraged them to stay by way of not marking themselves politically and not losing the benefit of all the work they had already done. They ended up leaving the lab at the end of the term, in any case, and later, like me, left formal academia altogether. In fact, two of them stayed in touch and ended up becoming business partners in addition to close friends (remaining so to this day).

Striving toward the desires of mind and body? Certainly. Their acceptance? I think it's easier to change ourselves and our situation than it is to change the world.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-25 04:07 (UTC)
I hadn't intended to imply that universal acceptance was the goal. I was talking about the personal, internal struggle to accept and not be ashamed of one's desires.
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[User Picture]From: taische
2005-05-25 04:20 (UTC)
That makes perfect sense. I suspect I may have been too blinded by a flashback as I read to be perceptive. :/

I always enjoy your writing and feel compelled to thank you for sharing it.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-05-25 00:42 (UTC)
This reminds me of Joan Didion.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-05-25 04:22 (UTC)
I haven't read any of her essays. I think I shall have to get Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2005-05-25 05:13 (UTC)
Yeah, that's the book it reminded me of. And it is mostly essays about California as well.
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