I'm naturally good at two things - not giving up on projects that take more than a decade, and feeling intense, transcendent joy in response to a scientific understanding of the world.
I'm confused by whether the latter 'skill' is a good thing to cultivate, and wrote this draft post to understand it better.
I was obsessed with scientific phenomena well before I could plausibly understand them. When I was a kid and saw a picture of crowded molecules in a cell, I wanted to die with pleasure. There’s something I feel when watching a Nima Arkani-Hamed talk, sitting in the undergraduate physics lecture hall at MIT, or visiting Los Alamos that gets me every time. Like I’ve been punched in the gut and need to double over to catch my breath, like some intense and transcendent beauty is directly adjacent to me. When I do many hours of work to understand the concepts involved, I’ve been able to stay in the state longer, gasping at the beauty of it.
When I went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I could see emotion on the faces of people around me, and that mirrored to me what I felt when I visited Isaac Newton’s house as a child.
I feel conflicted about this state because you can be enamored with something without understanding it, so I'm not sure that I trust it. Was my childhood engineered to induce it in the presence of anything that looks scientific? Is it a misplaced religious impulse? Am I well-calibrated enough for it to mean something, or is pursuing it just a descent into meaningless hedonism?
Many of smartest scientists I know don't seem to experience this emotion regularly. They don’t feel the need to curl into a ball, spasming in rapturous delight at simple equations, and probably get a ton more done because of that. Sometimes I get intensely afraid that my desire for this state is pure hedonism - and then wonder why I should care, if it is.
Conversely, it feels like one of the most wonderful things you could experience - a wholesome version of hedonism. I've wanted to cry when people think they understand this state but don’t. How many people who pursue art seeking this depth of emotion would find a more powerful version of it in science instead? I feel like you can tell by looking at someone’s life - if you really had been there, would you truly live as you do? It’s not happiness, not gentle comfort, not delighted understanding, not a state of inquisitive play. It’s not obviously useful, and can be voraciously distracting. But to me it feels like something to live for.
This is a half-draft of a blogpost that I’ll probably never finish, but I’m posting it because I’m curious - how prevalent is this emotion? How many people experience it in the presence of scientific truths, despite not having the genius to immediately comprehend them? How is it good, and how is it bad?