Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sweet home Chicago

"Come on, baby don't you wanna go?
Come on, baby don't you wanna go...
to that same old place ... sweet home, Chicago"

It's just exactly ten years since I lived here in the windy city and now I am back, at least for a few days.

In Chicago one can only live at maximal intensity. At the time when I moved to this city, on new year's day of 1994, I wasn't looking for intensity: I thought I wanted to forget the past few years of life in the Europe of crumbling walls, of disappearing countries and ethnic wars. The "years of the end of history" have been sufficiently intense. I wasn't ready for the steep gradients of Chicago, the chasm between the rich and the poor city, splendor of glass and steel next to wretched urban violence. The extremes of human and atmospheric conditions conspired, at that time, in giving me a feeling of being caught into an unreal scenario too large to comprehend, too extreme to relate to. Today I am in a very different mood and I can see that, of all places where I lived, I did indeed live here with a maximal intensity and perhaps for that reason more than anything else I feel in a strange way as if I were coming back home.

Only in Chicago one can be constantly high and low at the same time. This is what makes the Blues... sweet home Chicago. I guess I would not mind returning here, and maybe what I am asking for is itself too extreme, as this city demands, but one can only have extreme wishes here and so I am trying during this short visit to manifest my availability for a possible return.

As in almost all the trips I take there is a price to pay, and so it is that this time also I will have to deliver my talk at a conference at one of the main campuses in town. Many people harbor a distorted image of the scientist's work: they imagine that it is all the "eureka" excitement of making new discoveries and they fail to see the frustrating and stressful, but all so important, time of quiet thinking and long hours of hard work (computation, models, mental images, thought experiments and the like). When I was a kid and I tried to picture my possible future life as a scientist, I also failed to get it right, but for an entirely different reason. I could see all right the part in which I would have to be sitting at a table doing difficult computations and trying to prove that an idea wold work, and I did not dislike the fact that this was necessary. What I failed to imagine entirely is the "performance" component of the job. This continuous "world tour" in the style of a rock band that I have been doing by flying around the globe every so often giving talks on all possible occasions is something I really could not foresee. If I had imagined I would end up working in the performing arts I would have chosen a different type of training. If I had thought that one would have to fight with all strength to protect a minimum amount of time during which to continue to do (less and less efficiently as time goes by) what I should be doing, science, I would have been very perplexed indeed. What is wrong? Why this emphasis on performance at the expense of real science?

In my professional work, much as in my private life, I have always been a wanderer. Most people belong to a definite school, specialize in their subfield specialty of scientific research from the time of their PhD, if not earlier, and continue happily affirming themselves within that same field and specialty throughout their career, paper after paper, conference after conference, grant proposal after grant proposal, up the tenure pipeline and across the various stages of the academic profession. I have been hopping around quite a lot even in my research, not just geographically, and I feel as ill at ease with professional groupings as I do with the ethnic ones.

Conferences are a good (or bad) way of observing the scientific community in its sociological and psychological workings. The capacity to do science clearly conferred to human beings a strong evolutionary advantage: just look at where homo sapiens stands today with respect to the other species on the planet. Some think that this genetic trait might have overshot its target. What seems quite evident, when you look at scientists in the kind of "population dynamics" experiments that are conferences and meetings, is that the capacity for doing science unfortunately coexists with other genetic traits that surely gave many animal species better survival chances: territoriality, gregariousness, selfishness, aggression, rivalry. These traits tend to dominate the scene completely leaving the actual science very often in the shade.

I've just been to a couple of weeks of conferences in a field that, in my view, exhibits some of these characteristics. I won't be very specific, but let me just say that it is a fairly new discipline of a theoretical field of science, which looks extremely promising and full of potential, if only it were not torn apart from the inside by an ever growing rift between two slightly different schools of thought.

The combined effect of the ego complex of some of the main players in the field and the gregarious instinct of the rest created a veritable feud, in all resembling some of those old rifts between rival families within the same village that were passed on from generation to generation becoming ever more extreme as they became totally meaningless. The malady is likely to propagate from adviser to student, from conference to conference, making the atmosphere at all these (too many) meetings tense and unpleasant, the rivalry palpable, the old offenses (that paper of X not quoted by Y some twenty years ago, that idea of Z once dismissed by W) still soring. Is this science?

I generally do not believe in oral communication: I can truly learn something in the end only if I can stare at a written text, so I am already somewhat suspicious, by my own natural inclination, towards conferences and talks, often seeing them only as an expression of group dynamics (stating the role of the various gregarious animals with respect to the dominant male in the tribe).

Of course one cannot complain that we behave like a tribe of monkeys, since after all we are monkeys (apes, all right), but we are also that special kind of apes that is capable of producing science, so why not to emphasize and value this one genetic trait above those of gregariousness, submission to leaders, and aggression, that only hamper the development of our highest achievements?

Now that written communication is so easily available through the internet, why not try to abolish entirely meetings and other such tribal expressions and replace them with the filtered and emotionally more neutral vehicle of written communication, which is so much more suitable to science?

I knocked around quite a bit in my scientific career, landing on different branches in between the trees of theoretical physics and mathematics, and alongside different tribes of resident baboons. This did not help, I know. I managed to have myself known, variously loved or hated, accepted or rejected, and eventually forgotten, by a good number of different such communities. Combined with my volatile geographic location, this does not help at all when I then try to stage a return to any particular part of the world I have inhabited during one of my past incarnations. I am somebody else, a stranger, a traitor perhaps, a soldier of fortune of science most likely, in the eyes of those whose support I would need for a controlled re-entry through all these strange atmospheres.

I do not want to belong to this or that community: "I do not want to be a member of any club that would accept me as a member" was the old Groucho Marx joke (I heard that some attribute it to Oscar Wilde).

In the group dynamics I so often observe at conferences, one is trapped in the dichotomy between being a gregarious follower of whatever recognized leader, or the king of a court of lackeys. Milton's Lucifer had the choice of whether to reign in hell or serve in heaven. I do not wish to reign nor serve, in neither hell nor heaven! No gods, no masters. I only want to be given some time to read, some time to think, and some time to write, without being continuously pushed along by an endless stream of talking. I want to be left to wander the world at the pace of my walking feet. Peace.

I become edgy at conferences, and especially hypersensitive to the continuous displays of childish "know-it-all" behavior the local dominant males feel compelled to exhibit in order to maintain their role in the tribe - and not just on those scientific topics where their expertise is after all recognized with some good reason, but on anything under the sun, with whatever uttered nonsense taken by all the gregarious followers in the pack as pure gold. Honestly, I do not wish to be exposed to any more of this! I am being harsh on my fellow scientists, I know, but I am tired of see people I intellectually admire and care for transformed into a grotesque mockery of themselves just to please the circus crowd.

The price to pay, if I pull the break one day and drop out entirely of the conferences tour de force, may be to disappear even more out of sight, to end up languishing in some corner of the world, far away from any place where I'd care to be, but what can I do? I just do not feel any more like carrying this very heavy weight around from one destination to the next.

Downtown Chicago rises beautifully from the waters. I used to see its skyline from the south side, looking slightly different from the way it appears now from the northern end of the city area. If an Ulysses harboring a dream of return, I know I am so far away from Ithaca that many years of navigation and siren chants are still awaiting. Out on the waters the highrises dance in reflections, green and blue. Sky, glass and water, the substance of modern fairy castles. And being blue and being high like those bridges built between the lake and the clouds. Blue like Chicago blues only can be... Sweet home, Chicago.

"Come on, baby don't you wanna go?
Come on, baby don't you wanna go...
to that same old place ... sweet home, Chicago"