Saturday, January 10, 2015

Transitional post

I was experimenting with something, but I have put it back now.

There are actually quite a few posts I'd like to make (the perennial backed-up blog problem), but I think I'll start with one that is a link from the physics of Particle Fever to the novel Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov. I expect the following post will be a review of various expects of this novel.

Let me lead off with a mid-length quote from the book where the famed engineer Semyon Sartorius has just met the former aviator Moscow Chestnova at a party:
… Semyon Sartorius could no longer eat or drink anything. The torment of love for Moscow Chestnova had now taken hold in all his body and heart, and he had to open his mouth and make an effort to breathe, as if he felt tight in the chest. Enigmatically and from far away, Moscow was smiling at him; her mysterious life was reaching Sartorius in the form of warmth and alarm, while her far-seeing eyes were looking at him inattentively, as at a commonplace fact. “Oh what a bitch physics is!” Sartorius said to himself, as he began to understand his own position. “What’s left for me now except stupidity and personal happiness?”

What's interesting about this (to me) is that it brought back quite clearly the moment when I really turned away from math and hard science as a career path.  I had read just one too many articles discussing how almost all significant mathematicians made their discoveries by 30 or 35 and that math was a "young man's game" and that one would definitely be washed up by 40.  The line wasn't quite as rigid with science, but the implication was clear that one needed to make an impact early.  And I sort of knew that I wasn't going to be able to make that big of a splash, so I basically bailed on physics (yes, what a b*tch it was).  While it is not put in quite those stark of terms, Sartorius has come to a point where physics no longer holds any interest for him now, and he has descended to join the rest of stupid humanity.  Indeed, he works on an engineering project for a while and then drops even that to become a bureaucrat.

In contrast, in the humanities, one's accumulated experience allows more material to be brought together, hopefully usefully, and that richer/deeper analyses are available to senior figures, particularly for people like me who are more or less sythnesizers of disparate ideas and concepts.  That's pretty much the case with social sciences as well, though I have to admit I have been feeling pretty ambivalent these days about the utility of social science.  (Again, ironically, it is the very squishiness of social science that some days appeals to me and other days really turns me off.)  Indeed, these past few months have been a return to the nihilism of my youth where pretty much all human endeavor feels pretty pointless.  I assume that's a passing phase.  At least I hope so...

Ok, back to my career path.  While I am absolutely not one of those people who says or thinks that everything happens for a reason (implying that things always work out for the best), I think it is possible to make the most of the opportunities that one does have.  It is pretty interesting that even some of the dead ends I faced in my academic career or in my job(s) have often been of some utility later on.  So for instance, I probably should not have taken as much (or really any) math courses in university.  There is at least some chance that I wouldn't have been so bogged down by them and I would have done better in physics and stayed along that path.  Instead, I withdrew from physics and repeated it a bit later, but the damage was done.  On the other hand, had I not taken those courses, I would never have been able to make the claim that I had a math minor and thus would not have been hired as a math teacher in Newark.  While this wasn't an ideal job, by any stretch of the imagination, things were very bad on job front in 1991 when I got out of college, and I was thankful to have a job.

Some of the odd temp jobs between that first teaching gig and then my internship at the Metropolitan Planning Council are starting to pay off (sort of) in the sense that they are working their way into some of the plays and short stories I am writing.  That's a bit intangible, I suppose, though it does bring me at least some pleasure, so I guess it's worth it.

However, it is true that if I knew everything about my career trajectory, I probably would have gone directly into engineering.  The fact that I don't have an undergraduate background in engineering locked me out of many faculty positions when in fact I would have been well-positioned to teach discrete choice modeling to civil engineers.  I suppose if I had known everything, I would have tried much harder to publish in sociology journals and not done nearly as much interdisciplinary work.  While this was valued more in the 1980s and 90s, many departments have gotten very choosy about whom they hire now -- and oddball candidates just don't have a chance.  So I guess I really should have either stuck to one field or been born 20 years earlier...

I guess that isn't the most elegant of transitions, but that's ok.  Watch this space for the review of Happy Moscow, coming later tonight or tomorrow morning.

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