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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!

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