Category Archives: Science

Ecoloy_Symbol

It’s Easy Being Green

“The earth is what we all have in common.” – Wendell Berry

I grew up listening to the sound of ocean waves crashing on the beach from my bed, a river at one end of our street and a pond at the other. I became a person while living on this magical peninsula where highlands and forests rapidly tumbled down to verdant meadows and coastal wetlands swaying with phragmites, saltwater marshes teeming with life. I was keenly aware of my place in nature, watching every bit of this vibrant ecosystem change with each season, constantly discovering clever little things that the plants and animals around me did to survive. We lived off this land, growing the most spectacular Jersey tomatoes and vegetables in a garden in the backyard, fishing and crabbing in the summer, and eating duck and venison year-round. I was raised to honor the sanctity of life, to never waste or take more than we needed, and to cherish the gifts the earth gave us.

“If you truly love nature you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent van Gogh

It’s not a coincidence that by spending so much of my childhood outside in nature, I developed an extraordinary sense of wonder. I came to know the trees and plants around me intimately, to feel a kinship with egrets and dabbling ducks, and to consider my place in the universe like a fish in the river or ocean – sometimes a clam left abandoned by high tide. Every time I go hiking, I see something new, and every moment I am out in nature, I feel a little more whole. My art is nearly entirely inspired by and guided by nature and the consideration of what it is to be a human animal existing, often at odds, either in or separated from nature.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

My parents and grandparents taught us about ecology and we found the word “environmentalist” to describe what we had always been. I fell in love with science as a young girl, entranced by the method of observing and understanding the natural world, quantifying the ineffable sense of wonder I feel like a fluttering in the chest whenever I am in nature. I was shocked to learn anyone would even consider dumping waste into oceans or poisoning streams with industrial run-off. I couldn’t – and still can’t – wrap my mind around prioritizing short-term corporate profits over the health of our ecosystems. I committed to a lifetime of beach clean-ups, recycling awareness campaigns, constantly reducing the amount of plastic I use, and regularly examining my habits to see what I can streamline to do better by the Earth.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

As a participant in the very first Earth Day, my mother has always encouraged us, sometimes against our will, to switch off lights every time we leave the room, to reduce our carbon footprints every way we can, and to consider the environmental impact of all our purchases and activities. As kids, we occasionally begrudged the family policy of never getting takeaway from a restaurant that used entirely too much plastic packaging, washing out and reusing plastic bags and storage containers, or combining all our errands into one trip together to reduce the car emissions we produced over a weekend, but we learned, slowly, how to think about the environmental impact of our actions. We became the kind of adults who walk or ride bicycles wherever we can. In my case, I gave my car away once I realized I could get pretty much everywhere I needed to go by mass transit (not always easily, but it’s something I’m committed to now). I run my business with core values of ecology and environmentalism built into the message and mission. I changed my diet to one that I believe is more sustainable and humane. I know I can do more.



Each Earth Day over the past few years I’ve taken on a new lifestyle change, from little things like switching all my accounts to paperless billing to slightly bigger ones like setting up a composting system in my apartment (that is this year’s project, which we’ll discuss soon). I realize more and more how easy it is to make habit adjustments so small they don’t really even qualify as “sacrifices.” Most often, I just feel foolish I hadn’t thought to do it sooner, like eschewing plastic drinking straws, which kill a staggering amount of birds and sea creatures and contribute to the horrific problem of marine plastic pollution. It took exactly one photo of a bird who had died from eating plastic drinking straws to make me ashamed of every time I’d ever slurped a Diet Coke through one.

(Here are 10 ways to reduce plastic pollution.)

I’ve recently started making assemblage pieces out of the types of plastics that most commonly end up in landfills and the sea (recycled, of course). Now that I am approaching every material I come in contact with as if I were a bowerbird building a nest, I see just how much plastic and foam still passes through my hands. I have no fear that I will run out of materials anytime soon, but I would like to change how much of my life includes plastic and non-recyclable materials.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry

As I am living this type of life every day and trying to think about how to promote love and respect for nature, I am horrified to consider others who are not only indifferent to their impact on the planet, but actively seeking to deregulate industries that pollute for the sake of greater profits. I don’t know how anyone allowed science to become politicized, or how anyone could be so foolish as to accept the nonsensical view that a lobbyist’s or politician’s interpretation of climate science is as viable as a scientist’s.

The beauty of science is that it follows a rigorous method of observation, data collection, and required reproducibility of findings. It is one of the few fields that isn’t wholly interpretive or conjectural, rather empirically evidence-based and grounded in truths that any person can see for themselves. A jackass throwing a snowball on the senate floor doesn’t change the stark reality that climate change is manmade and approaching irreversibly cataclysmic peril. Even if someone insisted on remaining ignorant of facts or is somehow unconvinced, the impact of human activity is the only contributing factor to climate change that we can control. The opposition to responsible ecological policy is led by industries built on fossil fuels and pollution. We deserve better than for our natural world to be sold out by corrupt politicians for the sake of pure greed.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” – Rachel Carson



This weekend I am participating in the March for Science in NYC, a satellite of the national March for Science in support of science and environmentalism. I am marching because I value science and believe it plays a crucial role in society, both for solving our problems and imbuing the general population with curiosity, revelations about the world and universe around us, and truly, preserving the sense of wonder.



I am frustrated that science funding is threatened and regularly cut if research does not support prevailing industries, so I am marching for intellectual freedom and expansion of scientific funding.



I believe it is essential to honor the Paris Agreement and commitments the US has made to mitigate our environmental damage, so I am marching to encourage infrastructure-level investments in clean energy, especially solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy capture.



I am marching because I think it is criminal for oil companies to buy and suppress (or poach) patents for every innovation in energy that threatens their bottom line. I want our tax dollars to fund these advances instead of subsidizing oil pipelines.



I am disheartened by the political destabilization we regularly cause in pursuit of oil and natural gas, and I see the way climate change has contributed to the rise of ISIS and a number of global crises from famines to cataclysmic weather events like the hurricane that could easily have washed my parents’ home away.



I am marching because I truly know in my heart of hearts that when we live in better harmony with nature, it will lead to a fairer economy, global stability, more affordable utilities, and compassionate foreign policy worldwide.



Above all I am marching because I want the people of the US to remember the spirit of Earth Day and to take responsibility for ourselves as global citizens, to take care with our impact on nature and recognize that we are all one world. The actions of a polluter in one country affect the air and water quality worldwide and for generations to come. If we want to do better by the planet, we need to think globally and act locally, starting with ourselves, every single day.



As I renew my commitment to do better, I encourage you to look at your life and find something you can make more eco-friendly starting today. No action is too small, as they all add up like drops of the sea. We can either be the species that saves the planet from the brink of destruction or pushes it over the edge to an uninhabitable wasteland. This choice will be made in our lifetime, starting right now.



I have sprinkled quotes from some of my favorite scientists and writers throughout what I guess you can call this manifesto. If you’re interested in some further reading related to ecology and environmentalism, I highly recommend:



If you are looking for some actions you might take this Earth Day (or any time):

– find a local March for Science or rally near you

– Contact your representatives to voice your concerns about the environmental impact of any proposed legislation and encourage the US to take a leadership role in fighting climate change and being more responsible global environmental stewards

– boost your commitment to recycling, or begin composting (find composting drop-off locations by address in NYC)

– make the commitment to reduce your use of plastics by taking the Straw Wars pledge (In case you missed it above, here are 10 ways to reduce plastic pollution)

– Donate to plant trees! Each dollar plants a tree. You can give your donation in honor or memory of a loved one, and because trees have such amazing abilities to clean the air and prevent erosion, you are honoring them with a commitment to continue improving the world for future generations after we’ve left it.

– Donate to the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Network, or other reputable non-profits and NGOs that protect endangered species or threatened ecosystems.

– Plant wildflowers to support bees and other pollinators. Everyone in my family got free packets of seeds from the Cheerios Bring Back the Bees project, but you can make seed balls or start a garden of bee- and butterfly-friendly plants for pollinators in your yard (or go rogue, as I am doing around my neighborhood in the Bronx).

– Learn about the wildlife where you live. Nature is not just in parks and wildlife refuges, but rather everywhere around us. Identify the plants and trees on your street (this interactive map of trees in New York City never ceases to blow my mind), learn the species of birds, butterflies, and critters you see everywhere around you. If you have children in your life, start teaching them plant and animal identification.

– Consider reducing the amount of meat and animal products you consume regularly. It can be as easy as swapping out one or two meals a week for plant-based options in the spirit of Meatless Monday, or making an entire lifestyle change (for sure, there is much more to discuss about the reducetarian movement soon). Examine where your food comes from and the environmental impact of how it is grown, how far it travels to reach you, and ways you might improve your food choices.

– Participate in a beach clean-up, nature walk, community garden activity, or one of the many Earth Day actions and campaigns

If you have any other suggestions for eco-minded reading, thinking, or actions, please let me know. And because climate change and environmental damage disproportionately affects women and children (we’ll talk about that another time) encourage the young girls and women in your life to explore science and pursue education and careers in STEM with confidence and unabashed wonder.

We need more Millie Dresselhauses in this world (and yes, I cry every single time I see that commercial).

chakras1

Healing Vibes: My First Sound Bath

Many of the coolest things I’ve done in my life have been spontaneous, last-minute “that sounds interesting” kinds of decisions. The night before the Women’s March, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about a sound bath hosted by the Acoustic Mandala Project, whom I knew about through Brooklyn Raga Massive. As I happen to be working on a series of art pieces based on sacred geometry and mandalas, their name jumped out at me, and I asked my mother if she’d like to go directly after the march. We agreed it would be a stark contrast and hoped we wouldn’t be too tired to fully experience it, but we were both so intrigued we couldn’t resist. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.

A sound bath is a meditative experience using specific frequencies of sound (kind of like notes or tones) that – forgive the pun – strike a chord in people. The mathematical relationship among the frequencies touches something visceral and fundamental in the body and mind, and people generally experience incredible healing and a profound meditative experience. These guys carefully explained the concepts, how they derived the tones and discovered the ways different sounds resonate with one another to form chord-like harmonies. They blended electronically purified tones with raga-inflected rhythms, instrumentation, chimes, flutes, and singing bowls struck in person to make an unbelievably rich tapestry of sound and vibrations. I don’t mean vibration in the sort of airy-fairy sense, but actual physical vibrations that coursed through the body head-to-toe for several minutes at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

After the introduction, everyone in the group laid down on yoga mats in a wobbly semi-circle, covered with woven blankets and wearing eye masks. After our day of marching and feeling so connected with women and humanity on a universal level, it was a vertiginous dive into the mind and the self. The first few minutes felt like a psychedelic clearing-out of everything my mind had been processing, just loads of colors and shapes, invented cartoon characters, and as close as what I imagine LSD hallucinations might look like. I typically experience mild synesthesia in response to sound (which is part of why I am so obsessed with music), so any time I close my eyes and listen, it’s a bit like watching abstract paintings swim around. The purity of these tones evoked something much more intense and emotional than usual, which I felt to be the core of myself. The sound bath lasted a bit more than an hour, I think, with various instruments and tones being introduced, moved around the room, and bringing our bodies and minds on an extraordinary journey with them.



I have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the idea of resonance, as it was the basis for the NMR research we did at Pratt and generally a very cool concept (I highly suggest reading more about acoustic resonance and then helping me explain it better). If you imagine two frequencies of energy like waves in the ocean that run into one another, they first go higher (amplification) then move together thereafter (sympathetic vibrations) at a sweet spot that causes more waves around them. It’s a bit more complex, but certain frequencies resonate in relationships that form chords that just feel right, like the brightness of the I-III-V relationship of major triads in music.

They had a pair of singing bowls that not only resonated with one another, but did so in a I-V relationship (I think – it might have been I-IV), so that when one was struck by the feet and the other by the head, the body joined in the brightness of that sound, and you could literally feel every molecule of yourself vibrating like an open chord. Maybe it is helpful to picture a bunch of particles spinning in random directions. When the tones were struck, imagine every one aligning like a crystalline grid and briefly spinning in the same direction, in a way that made the mind experience pure joy and luminous energy. There is more neuroscience and physics to it, but the sensation was like having goosebumps all over, shivering with pleasure, and feeling every part of oneself melt into another state.



Prayer wheels at Sarnath, the site of the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
(Prints available)

I thought that might be the height of the experience, but it continued through a whole bunch of other similar body and mind sensations, choreographed in waves and beautiful complexity. It felt like my soul was dancing, simultaneously a particle and a wave in some quantum state of existence and non-existence. I felt utterly, completely free, like metaphysical flying, but also intensely grounded and connected with the raw physicality of being human.

The “finale” of the sound bath is one of those sensations I will keep with me the rest of my life. They went around to each person and struck tuning forks to a pitch that once again resonated perfectly with the softer tones washing over the room, then placed the forks on everyone’s foreheads. I am struggling to think of any way to describe it except as a soul-level orgasm. The frequencies are known to be healing, for reasons not yet fully understood, unlocking blocked emotions and energies within the body and kind of making them sing. Having this pure vibration reverberate from the head through the entire body for several minutes of exquisite being-in-this-moment presence is like nothing I’ve ever known before. I’ve never felt more awake, yet at peace, aware of everything in my mind, yet open. It was like stretching, seeing stars, and slipping through a crack into some surreality of pleasure and beauty.

I was afraid of the come-down from such a great high, that as the vibrations ceased all the muddy and dark stuff in my brain would gunk it up again. I was astonished to find that never happened. I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the vibrations ceased – I just kind of rode the wave back into myself. I preserved the clarity and purity of that moment for the rest of the session – and since then – as if all the little subatomic particles in my mind and body got right and just stayed that way.



When we took our eye masks off, I saw everyone else’s eyes were wide and shining like mine, as they described things they felt and “saw” and experienced throughout. It was the spiritual equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after rain and lighting up the mind like the sky. My mother described dramatic visuals in shades of purple, which are supposed to be associated with the crown chakra in meditation. I joked with her that purple is the color I’ve always associated with her, so of course her soul would be purple too.

I am still mesmerized by what an extraordinary experience it was, and I doubt I can ever adequately convey to someone what it felt like in that moment. When I think back, it reminds me of the time I jumped off a cliff into a glacial river in Iceland – saying the words and telling the story kept horrifying me every time I repeated it, like I still couldn’t believe I’d actually done that. This sound bath was a similar sort of jumping-off-a-cliff into something exhilaratingly beautiful and unknown, and yet at the same time, diving within, to the parts of my mind and existence I know best because they’ve been with me all along. I will cherish it forever.

Sharing Subjectivity

As I’m sure this entire blog evidences, I’ve never been shy with words. I joke with friends that I can and will talk about any subject for as long as permitted, and probably a little longer, because I really love thinking about things and finding out what other people think about them. It’s not usually the ideas themselves (although I do love a good idea), so much as the exchange of them, the stuff that happens in the brain during conversation and interpersonal engagement, and that spinning reverberation of reflection that happens for hours/days/months/years afterwards. I think that energy of new perspectives is our most potent fuel, in the libidinal sense, and I am delighted to get utterly lost and charged up in revitalizing thought.

I’ve been an oversharer since well before the internet or social media. I think of my body as the semi-permeable membrane by which my subjective experience is barely contained from spilling out all over the world. It’s extraordinarily hard for me to resist sharing my thoughts or opinions, or to refrain from expressing myself, and it’s only through a terrific act of decorum and self-control that I can manage any semblance of politeness or quiet (though I am a compulsive interrupter, and I do feel bad about that). It’s never that I’m not listening to other people (I do, very carefully), but that everything they’re saying is triggering new whirlwinds and thought trajectories, and if I don’t sputter out a few words here and there, I’ll lose them entirely (maybe that’s not a bad thing).

I’ve always thought it was an artist’s prerogative to be a more open version of humanity, to live in a transparent enough way that others can recognize the familiarity and sensitivity of experience. I tend to be terrible at hiding my thoughts or emotions (one of my exes said I wear my heart on my face), but I think it’s to do with not seeing the point in repressing all the things that make me human. I also may be unusually attuned to people’s body language and small facial movements, so I frequently can tell most of what people are thinking and feeling, even when they’re making a strong effort to “not say anything” and cage their reactions.

With that openness comes a sort of unraveling undulation, a turning inside-out of the core self so that the experiences at the surface become among the deepest. I think this feeling used to make me incredibly self-conscious – people weren’t just reacting to my shoes or to my gait, but to my very essential self, which they could obviously sense and dislike just by the way I walked (I’ve lived enough to know how absurd this thinking is; most people don’t care at all about anyone they see, and it’s just idle gazing and rote response). I pay a lot more attention to other people than anyone has ever paid to me (thank God), but I do so with empathy and concern. Even when I’m being bitchy and judgmental, I try to think of what a person’s life is like, how a woman used to look when she was younger, or how a grumpy old man felt when his daughter was curt with him and didn’t care that he was lonely.

I used to write stories (I guess I still do, just not so much on paper) about other people’s lives, imagining what their apartments looked like or the faces they made when they were in love. I was like a fiend for other subjectivities and sensibilities, wanting so badly to understand all these different versions of the Human Experience that I encounter on a daily basis. It gets utterly overwhelming, quickly, when you make yourself too open to everyone else, being possessed by all their ghosts and worrying that one or two will linger after the seance. But it’s rewarding, to really think, well past the cursory examination, into what someone’s entire life is like, to try to see the world the way others do, to understand why we were both born with similar bodies and sensory capabilities yet focus our attention in such dramatically different ways.

Something I have always known, which is becoming more prevalent, is that the more specialized one’s knowledge in a given subject, the more difficult it is to have conversations with laypersons on the topic. Parenthetically, I have always gauged a person’s intelligence not by how jargon-filled and technical the description of a subject is, but rather how capably it is simplified and brought to the level of the audience without losing the significant complexities. I know for a fact that physicists and mathematicians can lose me in several seconds flat, but frankly so can teenage girls talking too much about makeup or boy bands, if they use enough unfamiliar terms and don’t bother making sure I’m following.

The problem I am having lately, the more I study chemistry, is that I am finding fewer and fewer people who are willing to talk with me about all the magical little things I learn everyday, without saying “all that stuff is beyond me,” or tapping out before I’ve gotten into anything even remotely complicated. I think people have a slightly higher tolerance for discussions about art or literature, even if I know that I’m speaking on a very different level of theory than they ordinarily encounter, because paintings and books seem tangible, accessible, and even friendly. But our society seems to have such a strong aversion to math and science, and people seem so quick to believe they are stupid or incapable of understanding it, that no one wants to talk about it, and they roll their eyes and wait for me to finish speaking if I do bring it up. I honestly can’t count the times I’ve watched someone drift off in the span of ten or fifteen seconds, then wait until I finish talking and say, “Wow that’s… interesting.” Often they add, “I don’t understand any of that stuff.”

I have to believe it’s also a fault of my own, that I’m not able to articulate the things I find so beautiful and luminous about science, yet. I recently had occasion to attend a lecture by one of my personal heroes, Oliver Sacks, and in introducing him, the moderator emphasized that he is above all a storyteller. I saw through the course of his talk that the most consistent driving forces for his work were curiosity and the impulse to share everything he learned about humanity with others. He is a conduit, I think, giving access to the far-stretching iterations of experience we could not previously imagine, and bringing back profound insight into ordinary existence. I have always been impressed with his ability to break down incredibly complex, interwoven concepts from neurology and psychology, and make them not only accessible, but palpable and engaging to others. Along with a handful of others who are equally brilliant in their writing as their science (Rachel Carson, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan among them), Dr Sacks let me find the essential relevance and captivating beauty science can hold in my daily life. He gave me new things to dream about, new terrains to explore in my imagination, and from the time I was eight or nine to present day, his writing literally fills me with wonder.

So I keep struggling to find a way to integrate all the things that I am so passionate about, in art and writing, in science and music and history and philosophy and biology and on and on, in a language that is not just palatable, but exciting to others, without my tendency to just breathlessly gush in a staccato symphony of all my most recent thoughts.

I had thought the key was compartmentalization, which is why I have been trying to frame posts here around some specific theme or loosely-organized topic, but they are all of a part, talking about experience and existence. I think it may be more useful to free associate if necessary, to risk saying the extraordinarily dumb things I know I say all the time, and more than anything, to write more frequently, so I can keep a map of that wandering that keeps me alive. Please do let me know if I’m losing you.

The scale of experience

In one of the first lectures for my Analytical Chemistry class, my professor showed the classic Ray and Charles Eames short film “Powers of Ten,” which is always a nice mind-blowing experience, even if you’ve watched it dozens of times, say, on Wednesday nights in college. Though my professor’s intent was to introduce orders of magnitude, in the beginning of a discussion about uncertainty in measurement, error propagation, etc., one line from the film stuck out for me this time (at 5:16ish):

Notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic.

The idea of this rhythm, a sort of tide of matter and being, has stuck with me since that class, and I keep thinking about the scale of people, events, and time, and the relativity of all these experiences.

Considering meaning and what meaningful feels like, the question of significance may come down to a high/low center of “activity” versus the emptiness of “inactivity” or a sea of apparent inactivity that is still teeming with indistinguishable energies at this scale. One of my favorite concepts from psychology has always been cathexis, the handiest illustrations of which were metaphors from photography. Cathexis is the fixation or significance a person experiences toward something or someone that causes everything else to go blurry and fade into the background, the cinematic equivalent of spotting one’s object of desire in the middle of a crowded room. That intensity of energy and focus, I think, relates to a period of high activity on the radar of consciousness, but what gives that activity any more or less significance than anything else?

Facial recognition is another insanely fascinating area of science for me, particularly considering the energy the brain expends in forgetting so many of the faces and objects we encounter in a day. The best example I was given for why forgetting was so important was actually the function of the brain deleting all the faces on a subway car or a crowded sidewalk that proved to be unnecessary background information; if instead the brain tried to maintain and recall all these faces, we would become unable to recognize our loved ones or even distinguish between faces and objects with similar spatial arrangements. To be able to attach significance to targeted objects, it’s critical for the brain to forget and disregard the rest.

Recent devastating losses (which honestly are still too painful to talk about) have made me think a lot about family and the significance we attach to this collection of people who share our genes. Obviously there is a biological imperative toward preservation of lineage and the paradoxical altruism of kinship, but this significance does not transfer automatically to people we choose for ourselves, to love. Yet once the bond is formed, the brain regards significant others, adopted children, and so on, as family, and by extension, an integral part of self. Similarly for friends, neighbors, other people’s spouses, the mind makes room for fondness to develop into importance, for affection to translate into protective instincts and attachments. The people that populate our lives regularly, or to whom we’ve ascribed meaning, elicit intense activity in the mind and heart, whereas perfectly nice strangers, with all kinds of wonderful characteristics that would make them effortless to love, remain insignificant, inactivity, simply for want of introductions or common acquaintances.

This rhythm of experience repeats at internal levels, with feelings that become overwhelming, when the scale of experience becomes too great in proportion to their tenability. Some projects – even terrific accomplishments – become just too important, so big that they are bigger than ourselves and we can no longer wrap our minds around them. I think this point is where my personal commitment peters out regarding politics and global, economic, and social issues. I have a lot of beliefs about how I think things should work, but I don’t know how those beliefs can be adapted and implemented at the scale appropriate to every single person’s specific situation and needs. And I shouldn’t have to worry about that, I guess, because that’s the scale where they operate, and questions of policy are at a different, fuzzier magnitude.

The subjectivities and sensibilities of others remains an enormous, mind-boggling mystery for me, probably because I am so frequently wrapped up in my own head. I think of all the observations, analyses, judgments, memories, associations, predictions, and interpretations that go through my mind during even the simplest conversation with a friend, and I realize that everyone around me is (presumably) spinning around in the same way in their minds. Even when I see someone slack-jawed, appearing to stare without a thought in their minds, I have to assume there is much more going on under the surface, that even the seemingly dullest people are whirring with thoughts they aren’t expressing (maybe? Maybe I’m wrong about that though?).

I think one of my overarching themes in art is pattern recognition, achieved by examining organic shapes and systems at a variety of scales, from the intimacy of macro vision to the abstract impossibility of microscopy and telescopic views. Taking on life, from the comfortably proportionate dimensions of familiarity, through vast and anxious infinities, the patterns and rhythms coalesce into beautiful sameness and elegance, those fundamental characteristics of being.

All this, though, does not fully account for meaning, only a recognition of scale and pattern. I realize that to seek explanation for meaning is akin to asking why we love who we love, but I have to believe it is something bigger than activity and inactivity of attention in the brain. What forces are responsible for the attenuation of attention in the presence of something we just sense will become important to us? Do we only perform that task in retrospect, once the brain catches up on processing and creates memories that present us knowing in the moment that an experience is a big one? Or are we capable of grasping, despite the limits of our scale, when something big is happening to us or around us, that electricity in the air that reminds us that life is happening right here and now?

I guess all I can do is pay attention, as much as I can.

Falling madly in love

When I was younger, I could tell my girlfriends had fallen head over heels in love when they dropped off the face of the planet. When we reestablished contact, it seemed like every other word out of their mouth was this new guy’s name, and everything we talked about reminded them of him. It was so charming and fun to share in that flush of excitement and anticipation that comes with new love, when a person is so smitten she can’t help it.

That said, I have a new love, named Chemistry. And my God, I can’t get enough.

I think in the past, I had a crush on Chemistry, admiring it from afar, the way I might look at an incredibly handsome and intriguing man across a bar and figure he’d never be interested in someone like me, who tends to walk into doors and gets excessively excited about talking animals. I flirted with Chemistry in my job as a research assistant, performing measurements in an art conservation context and wishing I really intimately understood what the spectroscopy was telling us. I even got fair at interpreting and explaining data in very specific contexts, but it nagged me, constantly, that I couldn’t apply what little I did understand to anything else.

My first proper encounter with Chemistry really didn’t go well. In the middle of two master’s degrees, while struggling to stay on top of my job and my art history thesis, I tried to jump into a condensed summer semester of Organic Chemistry, having taken the prerequisites ten years prior. I was a terrible student, I stayed up all hours of the nights talking with a friend of mine about boys and job frustrations and gossip, or complaining that I was frazzled and had so much reading and work to do instead of hunkering down and doing it. I think, as with many self-sabotaging situations, if I’m afraid I won’t succeed, I don’t apply myself, or I stunt my efforts, and I did a bang-up job of getting in my own way that summer (in all regards). I passed the class, but I didn’t get what I needed out of it, so it comes as no surprise that when I went to take Organic Chemistry II nearly two years later, this time as an actual chemistry major in a second bachelor’s program, I really wasn’t prepared.

One of the harder decisions I’ve made, financially and personally, turned out to be blindingly easy after all. I talked with my professor before the final exam and felt that even if by some unfathomable miracle I did well and passed the class (which I did, but barely), I really didn’t feel comfortable going forward as a chemistry major with the level of understanding I had. She agreed that organic chemistry is fundamental to the rest of what I would be learning, and that if I were starting out with such a shaky foundation, it was only going to get worse.

I retook both semesters of Organic Chemistry this summer, and I have to say, from the very first day, I knew it was the absolute right decision. Everything started clicking and making sense in a way it really never had before. I completely understood the reading, with a rich fullness that I never thought possible, and the more I learned, the more incredibly fascinating and illuminating I found the material. I used to treat labs like a cooking class, where I followed along with the procedures and stumbled through a half-assed summary in my reports, but this summer I found I really got what we were doing and why, that I could envision the reactions and explain why things were happening the way they were.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this summer was an epiphany, and I am thrilled at the prospect of moving forward in this field.

Chemistry feels a whole lot like the love of my life, an incredibly beautiful and rewarding pursuit that certainly tests my patience and challenges me at every turn, but keeps me breathlessly excited and anticipating the next encounter. It perfectly marries the ideas I was trying to pursue philosophically and materially through art and writing with an unbelievably satisfying glimpse into the order and nature of the universe, in a way that I find nothing short of electrifying. As with most loves, I imagine, I believe this level of enchantment and admiration will last forever because it is based in the purity of an empirical science, the intellectual equivalent of loving a person for exactly who they are. I might not always be so delighted with jobs or the interpersonal hurdles that come with any profession, but at the heart of what I’m doing, I truly love and believe in the sanctity and loveliness of science.

To bring my whole self to it, without hesitation or insecurity, to give my all and become a better person in the process, to rush in head over heels without fear… feels downright spectacular.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I talk a bit too much about Chemistry after a long time without contact, or if I steer every conversation toward its charming habits and tendencies. The thing is, I’ve just fallen madly in love, and I can’t help it.