Skip to main content

Writing and music and fighting

I cannot get over this song/video by the White Stripes. I realize I'm extremely late to join the band wagon, but better late than never. I've encountered them before on others' recommendations, but for some reason I never connected. However, this song has excited a strong resonant response somewhere deep down inside me. I don't know how to explain it (maybe it's just gas?), but I'm thoroughly entranced.

I finally became interested in the White Stripes after watching the documentary It Might Get Loud. If you have Netflix it's available on Instant viewing and I highly recommend it. The movie follows a conversation among three guitar giants: The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White. My favorite part among many amazing scenes is when Jack describes his crappy, plastic, red guitar that he bought from Montgomery Ward. He laments how many guitarists obsession for collecting pretty instruments. In contrast, with his music and instruments he prefers to "pick a fight with it, and win." His son then proceeds to stomp on the guitar.

One of the Youtube commenters says it perfectly, "That poor guitar had no choice, Jack White forced it to give him everything, including its soul. He possessed that guitar and made it do his bidding."

I'm no musician, but I can relate to this notion of picking a fight and winning when it comes to creative processes. I'm doing that now with my research and my teaching. As a recent example, I realized that my understanding of statistical methods was, while on par for astronomy, not good enough to do a lot of the science I wanted to do. So back at the IfA I joined forces with some of my fellow post docs and a few students, and we collectively picked a fight with statistics. By seeking to understand the subject at a fundamental level, we won on several fronts (see here, and here, and here). I then took the leap of teaching a new statistics course here at Caltech (more on this later). If I wanted an easier first quarter of teaching, I could have taught an exoplanets seminar. But I think I'm much better off for having stepped out of my comfort zone.

Another fight for me is the process of writing. For me, writing is definitely like a fight. The challenge as I see it is that writing---technical writing specifically---is a very linear form of communication. However, our brains are decidedly non-linear. Ideas bounce around, words dance and play and often refuse to cooperate. Sitting down and writing is the process of wrangling those words and ideas, forcing them to walk in a line, yet allowing them to play just enough to make your writing worth reading.

I'm still a long way off from where I want to be, but I constantly remind myself that it's an ongoing battle. You win not by arriving, but by continuing. (Ooh, I like that!)

P.S. Here's another great scene from the movie


Amy P said…
Did I talk to you about that movie while in Houston? John and I watched it in early December. It was great...who knew all that cool stuff The Edge does is with a big rack of boxes with knobs and an old black Mac Book like mine. The harmonica mic that Jack White can pull out of that pretty green guitar is pretty damn cool, too.

I wanna hear more about this statistics thing you have going on. Engineer Amy is excited for you! :)
blissful_e said…
"I think I'm much better off for having stepped out of my comfort zone." And so are your students, your own research, and, by extension, the future of astronomy.

This is a great post, and I too will be excited to hear more about your new statistics course.
jcat said…
Great post! 'It might get loud' was my favorite Christmas present this year -- my nephew hit a home run!

IMO, Jack White is the best rock musician of his time, as were U2 and Led Zeppelin in theirs.

My interest is piqued by your new statistics course; looking forward to hearing more about it!

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…