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Ice, None

Oakland, California

I moved to what I call “The Red Cube” – or sometimes Qaaba – a few weeks ago. The East Bay is sunny and original, as always. I usually glance through a big window that overlooks a highway, which accompanies my lonesome, and sometimes hardly interesting, days. While I was supposed to do other things, The Underachiever in me pushed forward a fiction book through the hands of my sweet lady. It was hard to get back to read words that didn’t have to be grounded in substantial research. Kurt Vonnegut is nonetheless an enjoyable companion. I held my breath and read the crazy story of The Cat’s Cradle of which I will give away nothing but a pinch of “Bokononism” and a piece of the thoughts that it aroused in me.

Let’s go to Chapter 18. Dr Hoenikker’s aide, Dr Breed, is having a conversation with the protagonist about science. The latter, also the narrator, goes:

Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul. Dr. Breed was astonished, and then he got very sore. He drew back from me and he grumbled, “I gather you don’t like scientists very much.”

“I wouldn’t say that, sir.”

“All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.”

“That’s putting it pretty strong.”

[…]

“I’m sick of people misunderstanding what a scientist is, what a scientist does.”

“I’ll do my best to clear up the misunderstanding.”

“In this country most people don’t even understand what pure research is.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d tell me what it is.”

“It isn’t looking for a better cigarette filter or a softer  face tissue or a longer-lasting house paint, God help us.
Everybody talks about research and practically nobody in this country’s doing it. We’re one of the few companies that actually hires men to do pure research. When most other companies brag about their research, they’re talking about industrial hack technicians who wear white coats, work out of cookbooks, and dream up an improved windshield wiper for next year’s Oldsmobile.”

“But here . . . ?”

Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.

“That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.”

“Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

I hope the late Kurt is not disappointed at the quote – which, by the way, I took from the internet – that boosted my interest in the book and signalled the difference between fiction and nonfiction, as I slowly became accustomed at the new environment of pages written out of fantasy and creativity. I found out in the next chapters that Dr Breed is one among the book’s assholes, or, better said, one of the structural characters in Vonnegut’s effort to humanize and de-humanize the least acceptable fallacies in humankind. You will find in the book how everybody behaves in manners that make the reader twitch. This could be the reason why the book has not yet become a movie, although modern technologies and DiCaprio’s production company might do the trick as we approach the novel’s 50th birthday.

I tend to digress. Dr Breed has a very strong, though fictional, point. In a “scientific” world, we are part of an ecosystem that can collapse any minute (in astral times). Why should we bother getting health insurance, buying the newest iPod, or making somebody fall in love and claiming this person as an owned object? Our life is something very stupid, seen with the eyes of science. Sure, it’s beautiful to see how the world came into existence and still goes around. Still, there is no purpose in doing that. Knowledge, just like working, is a way to escape the ineluctability of the end of life. It’s the constant endeavor of humans to fill the gap between birth and death, with activities other than animalesque “eat, sleep, and reproduce”.

I think knowledge is a good way to go. Original and entertaining, research reaches two goals, that of satisfying human curiosity for a planet that we haven’t managed to understand yet (and for human behavior, of course) and that of occupying human’s free, lucid, and rational time.

This is the only reason I want to pursue a graduate career. I find little need to be selfish or altruistic. I just want to entertain myself with research per se. What’s wrong with it? Why can’t I put this as my statement of purpose in my applications?

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4 responses to “Ice, None

  1. calvinaftercal January 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    A lot of knowledge can be gained from a fictional book, but it’s a different type of knowledge than that of a nonfiction piece or research text. Vonnegut is one of my absolute favorite authors, combining cutting wit with black satire and sprinkling on sad truths about humanity. If you don’t finish reading a Vonnegut book – “Slaughterhouse-five” and “Breakfast of Champions” usually accompany “Cat’s Cradle” as his three greatest, but honestly they’re all fantastic – and feel like you’ve learned something, then you didn’t read it right. But I’m glad you noticed the scientific angles in Cat’s Cradle, they are uniquely suited for a student engaged in graduate research like yourself Paolo.

    Good luck with your forays into reading fiction! Let me know when you’re ready to tackle “Infinite Jest”.

    • bottleneckanalysis January 11, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Calvin!
      I abide to an almost strict policy of >300 pp. books. Simply because I have very poor skills at getting to the last pages. I have dozens of “started books” in my shelves. Thank you for your Vonnegutian advices, I’ll do my best to break my lilliputian rule.

  2. Ali Glenesk (@aliglenesk) January 11, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    I like your description of your house window view. Sounds friendly yet lonely.

  3. Pingback: #Kony2012 – The Attack of the Doves « bottleneck analysis

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