January 2011 Archives

Why I am studying chemistry

| No Comments

The most common question I get asked, by far, is why I'm studying chemistry, particularly why I've started a degree on the heels of finishing two master's degrees in art when I'm pushing 30. I've talked about this several times before, but that discussion has predominantly focused on the practical, applicable study of chemistry as it fits into my career plans.

(I no longer use hammers in the chemistry lab.)

I want to talk more about the magic part, the intellectual puzzle, and the extraordinary beauty that chemistry presents on a daily basis.

When I think about why I make art, it's pretty straightforward: that's how I understand the world. Art is a language and toolkit to process information and construct tangible responses and syntheses of thoughts and ideas. Also, it's a compulsion, and I can't look at things without observing their form, balance, color, line, thinking about how I would draw them, or imagining their image juxtaposed with others. When I need to understand something, I visualize it, and I use my hands to make those images part of my reality.

Chemistry, it would seem, is less tangible and direct in how it helps me make sense of the universe, especially at the very limited level I am at now. How does an exhaustive cataloguing of the interactions of types of molecules in organic chemistry help me get at the nature of existence or any kind of bigger truth or ideas?

Here is where I have to somewhat sheepishly admit that a lot of my world view deals with an adjusted sort of animism. I don't literally believe that objects all have souls in the mystic, spiritual sense, but I do believe that every being and every thing has unique characteristics that make it exactly what it is. These properties of existence, at an increasingly fundamental level, boil down to their molecular structure. Subatomic particles, for the most part, are identical, and so it is only the particular quantity and configuration of protons, neutrons, and electrons, that distinguishes a super reactive sodium ion from an inert noble gas.

Chemistry lets you see and understand the properties that make molecules and systems of molecules function the way they do. In essence, it makes sense of the material universe, and to me, that's amazing.

Another belief I have is that love is a construct based on understanding. What I mean by this is that there are only a few ways to love people. You either love them for exactly who they are, you love them in spite of who they are (which is really the same thing), or you don't love them. It's as simple as that.

The more you understand and know people, the closer you are connected to what they really are. It is this same approach that I take toward seeking an understanding of the universe - the more I can see and understand it, the more deeply and appreciatively I love it. And, in what I suspect may be the driving force of existence, my love for life makes me want to understand and know it more.

Chemistry, like most disciplines, is incredible at revealing mysteries. The more I study chemistry, the more keenly I realize how little I know or understand it, which makes it impossibly satisfying. The more predictable molecules seem, the more magical and astonishing the actual unpredictability of the universe becomes. The more I study chemistry, the more intensely I experience true wonder and amazement at all the clever and beautiful things the universe does.

I have had the privilege over time to talk with chemists who understand their discipline the way I understand painting, and it is a remarkably inspiring experience. They have access to an intimate understanding of all the elements and their particularities, the way I access colors and the feel of certain materials, and they are able to look at everything from batteries to cleaning products to psychotropic drugs with the same ability to ask and answer "why is that the way it is?" To me, that's nothing short of wizardry, and I am eternally awed and humbled by that level of familiarity with the world.

I'm oversimplifying my examples because I can't adequately describe the much more profound and luminous ideas the chemists I know actually talk about, but the point is that I want that. I want to be able to really know the paints I'm working with and the goo inside of leaves. I want to remove varnish with solvents and genuinely understand why they're working. I want to be able to see an illuminated manuscript or an oil painting as the miracle of science and molecular interactions it really is, and I want to be able to use that knowledge to get at some of the endless questions I have about the universe.

When I started studying chemistry, it was to supplement my career. The idea was that art conservation science was a more viable field than pure art conservation because in addition to making more valuable (and less likely erroneous) contributions to art restoration and preservation, I could work outside of my field and support myself with chemistry if need be (which I expect it will). I wanted to get a degree in a hard science because, as much as I personally respect the arts, our society at large really doesn't, and I don't want to rely on what I consider skewed priorities to be able to make a living.

It has been an extraordinary and shocking discovery that chemistry is directly related to the line of inquiry I've been following all this time with painting, writing, reading, and photography, and that in fact it is the only logical next step in my personal intellectual/artistic projects. I figured it would be interesting and an enjoyable challenge, but I never expected to find something that I love as personally and intuitively as art or music. I may have found the true love of my life, and I feel utterly undeserving to have stumbled into it so gracelessly and haphazardly. And yet, that's exactly the way I am.

I'm not really done answering why I study chemistry, but I am able to finally say "because I have to, because I love it," and that's an immensely satisfying and electrifying compulsion.

Pleasure that wakens the soul

| No Comments

It is no big secret that I am obsessed with music. I've never understood passive listeners, for whom music is background noise or a rhythmic sound slightly preferable to silence. When I listen, I become possessed by music, wrapped up and enchanted by it, emotionally invested, spiritually engaged, and, in the fullest sense, entranced. It is one of my greatest pleasures, to which I devote a considerable amount of time and indulgence, rolling about in it and filling myself with sound.

A study out of McGill University, therefore, on the emotional arousal and rewards of listening to music, has naturally captured my interest and touched on something important about the way I understand music and the arts.

(If you are not keen on a scientific journal article, you can read the news summary of it here, or a Discovery general interest article here.)

I must pause for a moment, though, to explain a pretty critical aspect of my MFA thesis, which discussed, among other things, the ideas explored in this series of paintings and the rest of the work I did at Pratt.

Consciousness, by some definitions, is a general awareness of thought, more specifically when information travels through the verbal part of the brain. The connection between consciousness and words is the place from where the declarative self emerges, the voice who is "I am" within the self. Conscious thoughts differ from other types of thoughts, as they are the ones we frame with language (however absent-mindedly), and it is this framing that makes them susceptible to socialized or preconditioned responses, psychological inhibitions, associations, and some of the limitations of intelligence, in the traditional sense.

Particularly resonant sensory input, my thesis states, initially bypasses conscious interpretation, allowing for an experience that is first derived in the limbic region, generally understood to be the emotional and reflex-based portion of the brain. Because my thesis was an artistic inquiry, and not a neuroscientific one (though it was based on what I had been studying prior to switching majors as an undergrad), I didn't go into the mechanisms and electrochemical processes for exactly what happens in the brain, but essentially, sensory information is processed differently because we need it more immediately. Seeing a snake or hearing its rattle must trigger fear quickly, instinctively, and with great certainty. The heart-pounding response is equal parts emotional and physiological, but it can usually be calmed with rational thoughts (for example, "that snake is behind glass and unable to harm me").

Was it possible, I wondered, to use the immediacy of sensory information and abstract forms, to tap into that genuine, primal, intuitive emotional response, escaping the word problems of contemporary art? And if this were possible (which I unquestioningly assert it is), can powerful, evocative beauty evoke an intense sensuous level of pleasure akin to rapture?

My thesis claimed yes, that was the goal, and I tried to get at that experience and its philosophical implications (if you reach someone with striking, instinctively experienced pleasure, can you change the way they see the world? and so forth). For my thesis work, I relied on shapes and patterns from nature and especially the movements of water, captured and described in ink, to provoke something visceral and immediate as a gamut to the most personal response. It was, I felt, the best way to tease out what made us happy to be alive.

Music, like visual or other sensory stimuli, initially bypasses the verbal portions of the brain, tapping into what I termed preverbal consciousness. It elicits a powerful, instinctive emotional response first, followed by conscious interpretation. I don't think it's an accident that many of the pieces of music that gave chills in the study were primarily instrumental, post-rock, or electronic, which is to say, basically wordless.

This study on music explored the emotional arousal and "chills" response associated with profound pleasure from music, concluding that the strong emotional feeling was itself the strongest reward. In some ways, it sounds almost simplistic: we like things that make us feel. But when you really think about what that means, compared with intellectual rewards, tangible physical or sensory rewards, and so on, it tells us something about ourself and our place in the universe.

Ultimately I think that I love music because it touches something I can't get at otherwise. When I try to use words or my conscious awareness of phenomena to approach it, it seems to recede and escape comprehension. It is its vexing habit of dissipating right when I think I've grasped it that makes it so enthralling, and this unspeakably lovely quality is what makes me feel so alive.

The goals we pursue in life are often to do with establishing lasting constructs, building wealth or stability, connecting with others and making meaningful relationships. I think it is critical to add to this list the pursuit of profound intensities of emotional arousal, derived through powerful aesthetic experiences. In short, art and music touch your soul, and that's what makes life worth living.


| No Comments

I remember a day during the summer I lived in Venice when the sun was still bright in our kitchen and I was making gnocchi for dinner. One of my roommates was a strikingly observant, insightful person, and she was watching me cook with a somewhat disarming level of interest. I picked up my watch and checked the time, then arranged it so I could keep an eye on it as the gnocchi started to float to the surface.

My roommate looked stunned and asked quizzically, "Are you timing your gnocchi?"

I sheepishly admitted that I was and asked her if I was doing something egregious in gnocchi preparation by introducing the element of time.

"No," she shrugged, "I would just never think to do that."

Later at dinner, she was watching the way I used my utensils and I could see brilliant wheels turning in her mind. Out of nowhere, as was her habit, she mumbled, "I think the way you use your hands, it's always the same." She continued to explain that everything a person did, from the way they brushed their hair and did their makeup in the morning, the way they composed a drawing, down to the way they timed their gnocchi, had a certain character and essence of self made evident by their hands.

I have thought so much about the profundity of this observation and what it means, especially regarding art and science.

I think about the way I iron clothes or arrange my keys and paper money all facing in the same direction, and I can see this specific yearning for order and precision. I look at my writing, my drawing, and I think that these are just as much products of my hands as batters I mix or vegetables I slice just so. It should come as no surprise that I knit and sew with very even tension, that I mix chemical compounds in a very steady, ordered way (and get excellent purity and yields, huzzah), and that if I have any talent for kayaking or sailing it's because of an innate understanding of equilibrium and balance.

Then I think about my mind and the tempestuous, disordered state of chaos and confusion that usually dominates my thinking processes and pushes me toward impulsive, emotional decisions. Some areas of my life are agonizingly controlled, and others are a free-for-all disaster (I'm working on them, for real).

Is it possible, I wonder, for my hands to save me from who I am? Are my hands doing what my conscious brain can't, or won't?

My hands express ideas clearly and concisely when I am flustered by language. My hands show my affection when I can't even say how I feel. When I thought I didn't understand something in Calculus, I started writing numbers or sketching curves and my hands worked out a solution.

I have always been a haptic learner. The notes I take in class appear like a work of art, littered with diagrams and tables, though I rarely need them, since I retain information by writing it. When I want to be clear of a lab procedure, I draw it, to put it in my mind.

When we were children, one of my aunts complained that both my brother and I had "fidgety" hands. We seem to need constant use of our hands, folding and refolding scraps of paper, lining things up, opening and closing barrettes or safety pins, wrapping string or rubber bands clockwise and then counterclockwise, and on and on. Even when my brain seems to be in a state of total inertia, my hands are always working at something, moving, feeling, making, doing. My worst impatience, by far, comes when I have to sit still and do nothing with my hands.

So I've resolved to pay more attention to my hands and what they want to do. I'm going to let them draw and write when they want to, paint even if it's an impractical time, follow them outside when they want to make photographs, cook when takeout would be easier, and generally engage in the things they want to, whether it means touching things my brain says not to or holding others' hands when my heart screams no.

I have this feeling, however foolishly optimistic, that my hands know what they're doing, and if I trust them, so will I.

(All images from here and here.)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2010 is the previous archive.

February 2011 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.