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The Joy of Science

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the process of controlling oneís experience to get the most out of it, whether the experience is physical or mental or any other kind. "Flow" is a state that occurs when one has just the right balance between skill and challenge to keep one interested and involved. And this state provides great enjoyment for those who achieve it.

In the section in which he describes the flow experiences of scientists, he lists the elements that contribute to flow: a challenging activity that requires skill; the concentration of attention; goals and feedback to tell one how it is going; the loss of self-consciousness; and the transformation of time. It becomes more of a game than a project. Like the athlete, the scientist may initially set out to achieve some external goal, but in the process she or he eventually becomes absorbed in the immediate experience, going beyond what was previously known or thought possible.

I have always thought that I might have become a scientist, if I had made the necessary connections, internal and external, when I was young. Iíve always enjoyed solving puzzles, and have had a lot of curiosity about how things work. But my life has gone in different directions. Still, now and then this curiosity of mine has involved me in my own little "research" projects. They never amounted to any significant breakthroughs in the collected knowledge of mankind, but they gave me much satisfactionóand that, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, is what keeps us going, if we grow at all in life.

In my adolescence, I was fascinated by airplanes, and began drawing pictures of them in my spare time in school. My notebooks filled up with pictures of planes in flight, usually in combat (it was during World War Two, and airpower was seen as a major factor in winning the war). Airplanes of that era had developed into a rather standardized shape, so that it was relatively easy to portray them from different angles. With time, my eye developed, so that I could render these drawings in acceptable perspective.

Later, after I had left school for the workplace, I found myself drawing again, this time creating representations of machinery for industrial catalogs. One aspect of these drawings that was common to my earlier drawing of airplanes was in how to portray circles when viewed from different angles and perspectives. The studio I worked in had developed a standard way of drawing round objects and parts of objects to simplify the process and save time. It was a small part of the skills we needed for the job, but very important in the realistic rendering of machinery. I found that I had a good eye for this, and so I began to experiment with the geometry of graphic representation. While my employer was satisfied with the efficiency of our standard methods, I wanted to know how the turning of an object in space affected the circles that might represented by drawing them from different viewpoints.

Over the next few years, I puzzled over this thing. Iíd taken plane geometry in high school and a little bit of analytic geometry in evening college, but I didnít have enough formal knowledge to solve the equations I discovered. This was before the personal computer was invented, of course, or even the soon-to-be-ubiquitous hand-held calculator. I delved into textbooks on geometry and tables of logarithms, but often gave up, feeling overwhelmed. Always, though, I returned to my puzzle after a while, knowing that somehow it had a solution and I was capable of finding it. I asked a few acquaintances who were more educated than I, but couldnít get them interested in what had become to me an obsession. I had whole notebooks full of calculations, page after page of them, but somehow they became circular: Iíd end up back where I had begun, a lost explorer discovering that he was retracing his own footsteps in the wilderness.

Then one day something worked. I took this trail instead of that one, and it all came together. I still could not write the master equations that would sum it all up, my own Theory of Relativity on how circles and ellipses fit together in a precision drawing, but I could plot them with confidence.

In our work, we used plastic templates to draw precise ellipses. (An ellipse is the shape of a circle seen from an angle.) The manufacturers of drawing tools provided an assortment of ellipse templates, representing circles from certain angles. The artist had only to select the template which gave the shape closest to the ellipse required. The difficulty was that these templates were not designed to fit together in common perspectives. I now had the formulas to plot such templates for any angle desired. Sets of templates could be used to draw our machinery in perfect scale.

My employer thought my ideas interesting, but not profitable. I was motivated to at least make my discoveries known in our industry. I wrote up a detailed and lavishly illustrated proposal and sent it to every template manufacturer I could find, without result. At least I had the satisfaction of solving my puzzle. I designed and hand-cut a set of templates for my own use.

A few years later I was enrolled in graduate school, studying journalism. On a whim, I dug out from a box my proposal for template manufacturers and sent it to a technical trade magazine. They accepted the article, and soon it was published into the very market that I had so fruitlessly scoured earlier. Within a month, a template manufacturer asked me to visit them to explore the possibilities in my proposal. Eventually they decided not to go to the expense to design the tooling needed to manufacture my set of templates, but I had a further feeling of satisfaction from my years of research. Soon after that, the advances in digital computers made the calculation of geometric shapes, including circles viewed from different angles, trivial for graphic artists. My proposed templates were now irrelevant. No doubt thousands of scientists have experienced something similar: having solved a substantial puzzle through years of study and experimentation, only to have the next level of general knowledge flood the field with a light that obliterates oneís lifetime of work.

But thatís not what Csikszentmihalyi writes about. Itís not the external world that makes science meaningful to the participants; itís the search, the challenge and the internal reward of accomplishing a goal or a series of goals. The main thing, he says, is to choose what to experience and keep moving, keep surpassing oneís own achievements to gain the joy that we look back on and call happiness. Flow comes in doing, and it doesnít depend upon recognition or wealth to give it value.

 

Donald Skiff, May 19, 2005

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