Tuesday, September 9, 2014

1959: Snowed in

In 1959 C. P. Snow in the Rede Lecture claimed that the intellectual life of western society was split in two, with a great divide between science and the humanities. Certainly that split was felt in my education, and i was a willing if self-deluded victim of the split in a self-defeating way that plagued me for years.

I was. through the 8th grade, a math and science whiz. In the 7th grade I had been put ahead in my math and science classes because I was so bored by the classes I was in. My only 'C' came in 7th grade math because I just never bothered to turn in the homework. I was taking the U. S. Army's correspondence course in geometry at the time. I was not just a math and science whiz--on all of those stupid tests from mit or wherever in which one filled in little ovals with a #2 pencil, I always scored 99th percentile in both of Mr. Snow's divisions. But it was science that thrilled me. The 'humanities'--paintings and novels and music--seemed amusements, entertainments. But the 8th grade would be a time when I took refuge in the humanities much as the one might take refuge in the three jewels of buddhism, and for the same reason. I sought relief from the passions of life, most particularly from my passion for the dark-haired 9th grade science teacher, Mr. Cook, whose curly chest hair peeked out above his loose necktie, who drove a 56 chevy convertible, and who was a serious distraction from the elemental tables. I was entangled in elemental lust.

The humanities, however, were safe.  Mrs. Horne, the grammarian, was a rather brilliant teacher in a way that probably might not have been too uncomfortable in black leather, and Mrs. Toone was a large bundle of unconditional love who taught english literature and french. I disentangled myself from the excitements of chemistry and physics and began pursuing poetry and Victor Hugo. As a result, after junior high algebra (taught by a raving maniac who was also a basketball coach) and geometry (taught by a boring brown slump of a man whose only attraction was the mystery of his four initials), my science career was over. I was claimed by the humanities, all taught by doting and safe women who encouraged me to be a 'romantic' rather than a 'realist'--Willie Merle Toone's take on Mr. Snow's distinction. 

There were advantages in my proto-fag hag humanities teachers. I was encouraged to explore the poetry of Yeats, who remains one of my favourites, and the philosophy of Spinoza, with whom I felt some sort of inexplicable connection. Edith Shannon would introduce me to Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan. I would join literary book clubs and read Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell. 

But the great events that were happening in physics would happen outside of my personal event horizon. The closest I would come to math and science as I majored in History and Philosophy was two course in Boolean Algebra, taught by another black-haired man with a loose tie on whom I was slightly crushed. 

I don't know what happened to Mr. Cook and his Chevrolet. Mrs. Horne and Mrs. Toone and Mrs. Shannon remained friends with me until their deaths. Edith Shannon died too young for her to know of my 'coming out' or of my gratitude for her introducing Teilhard de Chardin and McLuhan. Merle Horne and Willie Merle Toone took my 'coming out' in stride, and remained as supporting as they had been when I was trying to understand why Spinoza was such a challenge to his community. 

Only now in my old age, in my second childhood, am I comfortable in returning to my older passions and exploring physics with its not-subtle-enough connection to the physical. I pursued a career that was more 'spiritual'--a word I really find pretty meaningless. Often  I wish I had had enough self-confidence to ignore my fears and take the scholarship offer I had from Stanford, especially since in retrospect it seems to me that the real revolutionaries of the 60's were not the kids 'protesting' at Berkeley but the kids scribbling algorithms in Palo Alto. But the 60's are a topic for another post.

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