Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wanting more from life: the starvation of the intellect

I recently spent a very satisfactory month working my way through the 500-page biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. Satisfactory on many levels, as it was solidly written, well put together, and spent a great deal of time covering aspects of science and mathematics that will never fail to capture the hungry parts of my imagination and intellect -- even if that intellect is both out of practice and full of holes to begin with.

While reading, cirled repeatedly back to the same questions that prompted Julia and I to start Pooplosphy in the first place: where are the great discoveries and discussions of the current age occurring? Where are the collections of such immense minds as Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Schroedinger, and Heidigger now? Einstein's biographer tells of the meetings these people had, the letters and ideas they exchanged, the longs walks they took together through Berlin and the Alps, hashing out the issues of cutting-edge physics and mathematics.

Walking, together, and talking, while trying to piece together a tangible understanding of the nature of the universe.

Reading of these men and women made me both sad and envious, on many levels. Part of this is due to my own lack of understanding. Although I started university by studying physics, and ended with a degree in mathematics, these subjects were always far more difficult for me than for my colleagues. The four-year university format doesn't allow much room for the slow learner, or the one who needs a more foundational understanding of the nature of mathematics and science herself before delving fully into, say, real analysis and quantum mechanics.

The intricacies of general relativity will probably always be a closed book to me, even if described ten ways from Sunday using any amount of metaphor and analogy. Although I regret the non-genius nature of my rather woolly intelligence, I have come to terms with this fact. It detracts in no way from the pleasure I find in having long discussions in which a knowledgeable friend attempts to deepen my understanding. In fact, I assume it gives both of us pleasure; after all, I enjoy helping other writers improve their work and unearth their own literary voices. Why should not a physicist friend enjoy leading me to some glimmer of insight into Einstein's theories?

But this leads me to the aspect of envy that mixes with the sadness. While in the midst of this book, I made a quick trip back to the city of my university days for a roommate's wedding. I spent three hours wandering the campus and surrounds that had been home to the happiest years of my life.

The sadness came when I realized they had been the happiest. Yes, I now have a wonderful spouse and beloved child and a house in the country, but my mind seems to have spent the last ten years asleep. If I cannot have wilderness at my feet, I thrive equally on intellectual stimulation, perhaps even more so. And stimulation is what I found in those four years.

I have a great-grandfather whose occupation was to sit in his temple or his house and study the Talmud while his wife took care of everything else. He was so brilliant that famous chess players from all over the world came to his Ukranian village to play against him because he would not travel. The greatest dream of both my grandparents on that side was to achieve a Ph.D. in engineering. On the other side, my grandmother was a rare woman who pursued a master's in history in the 1930s and my grandfather went back to study politics in his 80s.

So maybe the intellectual thirst runs thick in my blood.

The jealousy stepped in as I paused in the coffee shop near my college (the place I used to earn my paycheck in the early mornings, my hair and math texts always full of the scent of roasted coffee) to read my book and step back just for a moment to the voracious student I used to be. Sipping coffee that reeked of nostalgia, I read of Einstein walking all over Berlin with his colleagues, talking their ideas over for hours.

That, I realize, is what I am missing in my life: the ability to walk out of the house to meet a friend and discuss anything from symbolic logic to what makes Jane Austen great, not as a set of thoughts in passing, but as the passionate focus of interest for a few hours.

And then, of course, to return to problems of potty training and why I can't get my toddler to eat anything more colorful than a scrambled egg. I wouldn't wish to lose the understanding being a mother has given me, both of the supposed nature of the universe, and of the true importance of the seemingly mundane activities of everyday life. But it is always easier to bend my mind to the problems of parenthood when I have stretched it to encompass the problems of quantum mechanics.

Right now the imbalance is extreme in favor of motherhood. Where does your average housewife intellectual find such connection? Only on the Internet? Or through literary magazines such as Brain, Child? After reading Einstein's biography, it seems a poor life in which you cannot walk out your door with a good friend to discuss whatever most stimulates you both.

Shortly after finishing this book, and moving on to a much less interesting one about Blaise Pascal, I asked my husband to help me comprehend, just a little, general relativity. Einstein's great thought experiment ("what is it like to run alongside a light beam?") does not translate to a metaphor I can grasp, and my husband does, after all, have a Ph.D. in physics.

We spent a pre-toddler hour tangling ourselves in the knottiness of quantum space and the question of whole numbers and what they really represent, among other issues. This while he got ready for work and I folded laundry. Usually he's in a pre-coffee stupor and I'm frantically trying to write before our son wakes up.

I realized that this is a level on which we used to talk with each other all the time, when we met back in college. But modern life, outside of academia, makes little room to sate the frivolously intellectual appetite. Our spare hours are more often spent reading novels or hanging out on Twitter, when we're not talking about our son's development, household finances, work, or what the hell to do about the woodchuck under the front path.

I realized that the only intellectual friend I have physically living in my town -- my spouse -- is the one who, like me, has little spare time.

One could argue that physics was Einstein's job, and the job of those in the sphere he worked. But it wasn't, not at first. It was his passion -- Einstein worked in a patent office, and wrote physics articles in his limited spare time, until he became well-known enough to procure a university position. But even before he entered academia, he worked and studied and exchanged letters and discussions with some of the greatest minds of his day.

Maybe this life rarely happens outside the walls of academe. Maybe people like me should always move to university towns, progressive places, walkable communities that have ample supplies of both passionate intellectuals and attachment parenting practitioners.

Is it too much to ask in life -- a chance to study in depth, to absorb the gift of wilderness, to feed insatiable curiosity, to raise your children with love and intellectual stimulation and local organic food among like-minded people, to challenge your mind and understanding, to travel the world, to pursue your own creativity and feed others', to have a family dinner every night and still get enough sleep?

Most of us want more from life than what we've got. Right now I'd be grateful for long walks with a kind genius. Or at least a friend, smarter than I, who can explain Einstein's relativity in language I can understand.

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