A Rational Approach to Science Funding

The problem with science research today is that everyone wants to fund the next Einstein, and no one wants to fund a thousand crackpots whose ideas will lead only to dead ends—but none among us is smart enough to tell the difference.

We have to give up on the idea that we can manage research the way we manage an efficient business.

We have to give up on the idea that we have a solid foundation or understanding nature’s workings, and the job of scientists is to fill in the details.

— Josh Mitteldorf

image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/20/Nikola_Tesla%2C_with_his_equipment_Wellcome_M0014782.jpg/318px-Nikola_Tesla%2C_with_his_equipment_Wellcome_M0014782.jpg

Nikola Tesla, with his equipment

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Inquire within

Inside each of us is a fount of knowledge, an intuitive sense of what is real.  It is there when we quiet our minds’ flow of words and focus on open-ended questions.  But we are given to know only so much as we can assimilate and use in our lives. As we step into a wider scope of action and take on larger challenges, the knowledge we need will be available.

— Josh Mitteldorf

If God were a Poem

If God were a poem, she would be written in a primeval hieroglyph, indecipherable to man, but transcribed from an oral tradition every forager of seeds and berries would understand with intuitive precision.

If God were a peom, she would contain all words beauteous, which is to say all words known and unknown–all can be transfixed and transmuted by their composition to be beauty itself.

If God were a poem, she must last a lifetime of readings or a thousand lifetimes, in case we should reincarnate and forget to forget, and so must contain strophes that number as the moments of life.

If God were a poem, she would cry out against the futility of notation, until men, compelled to acknowledge the justice of her plaint, must write only a single ellipsis, denoted by a symbol not of any earthly script, and holding the place for that which cannot be spoke nor written.

If God were a poem, she would be written by numberless poets, all channeling the same verse in their own vernacular, and she would be as often lost in the library stacks as re-discovered by those few who had evolved already beyond any desire to read.

If God were a poem, you would not be reading her here.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Random Thoughts

Ideas appear in my head.
Dreams. pictures, music.
Entire poems, sometimes.
From whence do they come?

Imagine that the word “random” had
never been invented. What does it
mean,
but “there are some questions you must not

Ask.

These are the sensations to which you are to attend.
These are where you shall find your meaning.
Pay no attention to the small, still voice within.”

“Random” < Old English < German, “to gallop.
To run fast is to have no purpose or direction.

Or perhaps the speed
precludes
conscious purpose,
and we are guided by an inner/outer/manifest.

Random.

— JJM

Dreaming

But for this pillow, I might have no dreams—
I seek in vain for dream within its down
And when a nightmare rages in my crown
The pillow’s far away, or so it seems.

It’s when my heart dissolves in perfect bliss
The pillow, all too near, disturbs my joy
And inner state of rapture must alloy
As senses tug upon my consciousness.

In light of day, the dream fades like a ghost
But in the dream’s pale light the world’s forgot
So, which rich forms are real and which are not?
I’m free to choose the one I fancy most.

The world is hard, the pillow’s stuff is soft
One holds my frame, one keeps my soul aloft.

JJM, after Yuan Hong-Dao 袁宏道 (1568-1610)

dreaming

Can we decide to be happy?  Is it that simple?

Utilitarian philosophy, which is the unsung foundation of Western economics and modern culture, says that happiness is what we all seek, the summum bonum, the ne plus ultra. According to the utilitarians, we have already decided to be happy, all of us, and it is only the proper means that we contemplate, the interposition of outside circumstance that confound us. If happiness were under our personal control, the entirety of utilitarian social philosophy would be vitiated.

At the other extreme, “you create your own reality” is a mantra of New Age culture.

If you’re still reading this, you obviously think it’s not an utterly ridiculous question. Yes, we have some control. “Deciding to be happy” is not obviously useless all the time. How much do we control, and to what extent are we at the mercy of our hormones? Or of external cricumstances?

The worst depression of my life occurred in 1994-95, triggered by the collapse of a lawsuit, which was all that remained of my software business, begun so propitiously just a few years before. For a year, I answered in monosylables and behaved insufferably to my wife and, most shamefully I confess, to my young daughters. Then one day I said, “I don’t want to be like this any more,” and a corner was turned.

If being happy is as simple as deciding to be happy, why have so many of us chosen not to? Perhaps because it is not part of our culture to be happy. We risk ostracism if we are “insufferably cheery.” People around us are sub-clinically depressed, and we annoy them if we appear day after day in a good mood. What is it to “be cool” if not to blow off the world’s glorious gifts as we blow off insults and setbacks, and to hide our child-like capacity for wonder from the light of day? In our culture, “I don’t care” is the easiest thing in the world to say, and “I love you” is the most dangerous. I dare say that, given the choice most of us would choose the acceptance of a peer group over genuine happiness.

Without a doubt, there are cultures where people are much happier than 21st Century white middle-class Americans. Black middle class Americans, for a start. Most Latin and oriental cultures, many tribal cultures are happier than ours, certainly not because they have more wealth or security, but perhaps because they are situated more comfortably in family groups. How many of us dance regularly, or sing spontaneously as we go through our day?

I can’t leave this brief essay without a nod to Meher Baba, Indian master in the Zoroastrian tradition. As a young man he wrote profusely, sometimes tortured songs of incessant seeking, sometimes rapturous poems of divine love. Then, in 1925, he broke off, counseling, “Don’t worry–be happy,” and didn’t speak a word for the latter 40 years of his life. (In the 1930s, Meher Baba visited America and his particular magnetism attracted a following of movie stars and celebrities included Boris Karloff. There’s a match!)

250px-meher_baba_1945

 

Maybe free will is an illusion.  Maybe “deciding to be happy” is something that happens to us, and we only feel we have control over it.  Maybe our dispositions are dictated by outside circumstance far more than I like to admit.  Maybe deciding to be happy is not different from choosing a perspective of gratitude.  Maybe happiness is a property of cultures and families far more than individual temperaments, let alone individual choice.

But I think deciding to be happy is a worthy experiment.  Whatever your belief system, suspend it long enough to imagine that there is a buoancy in the world, a guiding hand that works in mysterious ways but for your ultimate good.  Try it! So long as it doesn’t make you sweep emotional grist under the carpet, sing out loud while chewing your cud and continuing to grow.

— Josh Mitteldorf