Friday, April 13, 2007

record of invention

So I leaned over to my Higgs Bosen buddy at a break during our committee meeting last night and asked him, what with all the news on the new Collider: “Have you been to Cern lately?” (don't I sound urbane? ;) Which of course resulted in some gossip (apparently Fermi Labs has embarrassed themselves badly with an exploding magnet), and delightful use of language (when particle physicists talk about ramping up a new particle accelerator, they say that they’re going to: “get some beam up” – slowly, so as not to compromise the equipment – and then, over time, they’ll “move up to top energy”) and then led into the most extraordinary napkin-sketch conversation.

He’s just filed a record of invention – predecessor to prototyping, forerunner to any possible patent – for a tremendously cool device that would provide energy efficiently and at practically no cost – if it works.

All this he sketched on a scrap of paper for my wondering eyes and made perfectly plain sense of for my fascinated-by-physics-but-not-entirely-savvy-to-it ears.

And of course I’d like to tell you all about it, but seeing how they still need to ramp up a prototype (at the Department of Energy’s expense) that would probably be breaching a trust and the what of it isn’t important anyway, is it?

What’s important is that people think these things up. Manufacture them out of nothing more than grey cells and coffee gone cold and the pure night air. (And oh, right, government funding.)

Wandering around Rodin’s bronze folk at Stanford the other night I got to wondering the thing I wonder a lot whenever I’m moved by a masterful artist’s art: Why do I need this? And why did you, my friend the artist, feel compelled to create it? To drop everything else and just do this? For me. For all of us.

The courage of that astonishes me. I have such a compulsion to be useful – even the way I make my livelihood grew out of that compulsion – much as I love it, it was more or less accidental. I saw an opportunity to do something, something that I did reasonably well, something that other people found to be of use, something they’d pay me to do so that I could eat.

And I like to eat. So I kept on doing it.

But to quit everything else and only create things because they’re beautiful?

M’s sketch last night – the invention – the whole thing was about harnessing energy. Spinning coils and magnetic fields and laser beams – all to harness this one thing and put it to beautiful use. Born of pure imagination, it may well find a useful end. But only because he dreamed the beautiful thing into being. Only because he allowed it to be.

Beauty is its own excuse for being. — Emerson

5 comments:

MGL said...

I had some thoughts that went in this exact direction this morning, but I don't have time to write it down, unfortunately. Great post, though!

Mikkel said...

I am way ahead of both of you. Not only did I think about this two weeks ago, but what I thought was so deep and wonderful that I emerged a changed man. Unfortunately I don't have time to go into detail about it here and now. Must run. Bye bye.

suttonhoo said...

I would love to see the two of you work a room.

priceless.

MGL said...

Actually, Mikkel is $9,99.

anniemcq said...

Okay. I have everything I need now.
Deep thoughts. check.
Camaraderie. check
A good laugh. check.

D. I loved this post so much. So well written and inspiring.

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