Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Analytical Mind is Hard to Turn Off

Yesterday, as I watched my two-year-old daughter run along in the playground, I observed her pony-tail as it bobbed up and down.  Before I knew it, I was analyzing the motion of her hair as a function of time.  My mind raced through vibration textbooks and dynamics courses.  I decided that her pony-tail was similar to a one-degree-of-freedom system with base excitation, kind of like the chassis of a car as it drives along a bumpy road.

Considering the science behind a given situation is a regular occurrence for me, as I suppose it is for many scientists and engineers.  Once one has spent enough hours mastering a certain domain, that domain seems to find a special place in one’s brain, where it giddily awaits to be called upon.  Scientific thoughts appear in my mind at unexpected moments, and even turn up in my dreams – I can’t help it.

At a glance, this lack of control over my own thoughts can appear somewhat psychotic, but it is actually a common thing.  For example, try to hold the image of one simple thing in your mind, like for example, a grilled cheese sandwich.  Hold it there, and do not let anything else enter the picture you hold in your head.  OK, how long did you last, 5 seconds?  Less?

Total control of one’s thoughts is a tricky business, and is actually a skill that those who meditate try to develop.  I suppose it would be a necessary skill for a Jedi to master; how can one expect to control the thoughts of others if they cannot fully control those within their own minds?

Well, a Jedi master I am not.  And in any case, for the most part, the ability to see the science behind everyday occurrences is something I take pride in, and would not want to turn off. 

Sometimes, when I’m on the subway, I notice where people sit: their even distribution in the cars is reminiscent of air molecules, which position themselves uniformly in a given volume under a given pressure.  Indeed, if students in my class were to seat themselves next to one another in just one corner of the room, it would freak me out (if air did that, it would be a violation of the second law of thermodynamics, which predicts that statistically likely outcomes are the ones that occur in reality).    

So, what’s wrong with analyzing things anyway?  A close friend of mine often analyzes social situations to death, but in truth, the desire to do so is a part of who he is. 

I suppose that in a sense, breaking things down scientifically does infringe on the purity of a moment.  In The Science Class you Wish you Had, the following quotation really stands out to me: “Life [...] can now be explained in terms of physical constituents and processes, even though such explanations might seem too cold and dispassionate to account for the richness and complexity of living things and human consciousness.”  Even though we can describe life with science, it is perhaps more enjoyable to ingest it as art.

Then again, when Carl Sagan described any phenomenon with words, it was like science poetry.  His words only enhanced the marvels of life.

The struggle we face in deciding whether to analyze something or to just let it be reminds me of the saying, “Ask why you are happy and you cease to be so.”  However, when it comes to the science of life, I find that digging deeper only gives me a greater appreciation for what I see when I look out the window.  A basic understanding of the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ of life is empowering.  It allows one to ask ‘why?’ from a more solid place.

In general, I think that an analytical mind is a good thing.  It would be nice, however, when pushing my daughter on a swing, to not think of the angular impulses I am generating about the pivot point.  I will start by thinking about that sandwich.

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