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The Learned Astronomer

I heart Breaking Bad, a show TV channel that I've been watching on Netflix Instant. It's a show about a former chemistry genius turned high-school chem teacher, turned crystal meth king pin. The acting is out of this world, the best since The Wire. The characters are amazingly well written. They're nuanced and real. There are a few type-cast bad guys, to be sure. But the main characters have good streaks, bad streaks and, well, they're multi-layered human messes, just like you and me.

The scenes and situations---with their sympathetic focus on how mundane, every-day occurrences have profound impacts on our lives---remind me a lot of what I love most about Alexander Payne's movies (see The Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways). There's not an episode that goes by without at least one scene that makes me cringe, wince or recoil at the awfulness of everyday decision making and consequences---awful both in the pejorative sense and and because some of the scenes are just plain full of awe.

And speaking of awe, the show is set in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Talk about beautiful! The show is shot in a way that highlights the impossibly bright, crisp, detailed vistas you see only in desert towns. Unlike many shows set in the American southwest, Breaking Bad really highlights just how stunningly beautiful the desert can be. It's not just hot and dry and desolate. Sure, it can be. But it gets cold in the winter, flowers bloom everywhere in the spring, the morning hours in the summer is stunning. The low angles, wide field of view, the focus on vegetation and sunlight make the show a welcome departure from the moody monochromes, shaky cameras and tight shots of modern filmmaking.

Anyway, the motivation of this post was a scene from Season 3, in which the main character Walt meets his new lab assistant. After making a batch of crystal in his brand new lab, they share a true nerd moment, during which they revel in the beauty of science in general, and chemistry in particular. It's funny how this scene is ostensibly about making one of the most dangerous and damaging drugs known to man, yet ends with a recital from a Walt Whitman poem that I somehow completely lost from my past:

This learned astronomer needs to get out under the stars more often!


Jason said…
Feynman rebuts Whitman in a footnote of the Lectures:

"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"

Here he is speaking extemporaneously about it:

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