Night Science: Despair and quit

Night science.

Just night science: ideas that don’t see the light of day.
(“Persistence of Memory“, by tony2016 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have failed miserably in one of my unstated underlying objectives in creating this website. I wanted to tame my counter-productive way of thinking and acting towards my objectives. I reasoned that by writing from time to time I could constantly take stock of where I am heading and how much I am actually producing in any given direction. In the process, I would coalesce my thoughts and findings and be obliged to present them in a reasonably coherent way that wouldn’t, at least, embarrass me. Hopefully, these registers would amount to a sort of diary or commonplace book that, looked upon through the god-blessed filtering lenses of time, would resemble something of a path being traveled. I would be able to see patterns emerge from the chaos and respond to them by steering my life towards my goals. Yet, it seems that as soon as I make a decision and commit to it, everything begins to stumble down the road that lead to unfinished projects.

My wild (euphemism for stupid) way of doing things begins by having a glimpse of an idea1. I then become infatuated by that idea and enthusiasm fills me in an ever-consuming way. Suddenly, every other aspect of life becomes shadowed by the apparent importance of the epiphany. Bills, chores, wife, there is simply no time for these details. Instead, I surf the web looking for confirmation of the soundness of my idea. Many rounds of frantic googling reveals “brave new worlds” that I could never have imagined existed. Soon, I have dozens of tabs open in my web browser and Evernote begins to get stuffed with hyperlinks, random notes and pdfs that I’ll never look at again. I create a new Dropbox folder just in case, with a capitalised and eloquent title for my project. Countless scientific articles flood into my hard-drive and I begin wondering once more if I need a better digital reference manager. I begin anticipating the moment I’ll take my wife out to babble about my new eureka moment; I can almost see her distorted face trying to avoid yawning as I attack her with non-stopping fusillades of jargon. She always believes my words and does her best to give support even if reaching just a blurred understanding of the overall theme of what I am saying. When at home, anxiety grows in ways that makes it hard to sit still in front of the computer. I constantly get up, walk back and forth as if trying to carve a trench on the floor, and watch the time to see if it is late enough to open a bottle of wine and silently celebrate my findings. Then, just as I have nothing more to do but to start serious and diligent work, my computer screen finally reveals the terrible truth, like a bell saving me with its toll. I discover that my idea is not new. In fact, I realise it has been written about in countless papers, has already been turned into working software (possibly a commercial app) and, more often than not, is the central theme of an entire field of science I didn’t even know existed. It has websites devoted to it, with its own “fathers” and their seminal works, its own institute(s) and even one or more dedicated scientific journals whose names are almost exact transcriptions of my idea — just better phrased.

My disappointment then stalls me. I not only realise the unoriginality of my thoughts but, most importantly, that I would never pull it off on my own. Countless PhDs are right now trying to solve each and every aspect of the idea, aspects I took for granted as if easily handled by my topnotch programming abilities. I am struck by the obvious fact that while I have nothing but what I optimistically like to call “scientific imagination”, people almost half my age already begin to amass degrees by turning such insights into actual data, facts, scientific hypotheses, methods engineered to test them, and software.

I despair and quit.

Then, almost like the urge to drink that assaults an alcoholic when his emotions reach any minimal threshold, another idea appears in the horizon. It is just an amorphous cloud at first, but if I ignore the hard details and put off googling just for now, I know I can have some comfort. Yes, it can work. That’s a great idea. I doubt anyone has thought of that, wait until wife hears about it. And the cycle reinitiates.

While reading “In Search of Memory“, by the Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, I came across the terms day science and night science, which were coined by the biologist François Jacob.

Day science employs reasoning that meshes like gears, and achieve results with the force of certainty.

Night science is a sort of workshop of the possible, where are elaborated what will become the building materials of science. Where hypotheses take the form of vague presentments, of hazy sensations.

While one could argue that night science is a pre-condition for day science (or science proper), just night science is little more than day-dreaming, one’s indulgence in the warm constructs of imagination without concern for the dry-cold edges of reality. Just night science is perfect to be tasted with a nice Chardonnay during a middle-winter night, but it hardly survives to see the light of day — what to say of the heat of summer.

This website was an effort to at least keep the “building materials” of my night science musings in one place, but it is hardly working. The idea was sound, but I am not doing my part.

I guess the problem is the disparity of media. My mind receives ideas and insights in a rate much greater than I can put into words. This should be a good thing, but to the untamed mind it leads to paralysis through analysis. Ideas and insights succeed one another in such a frenzy that not even my thoughts are finished before new ones come and merge with, distort, enhance, contradict or annihilate the first-comers. How am I supposed to cope with that? When does one stop to actually peruse the existing literature and reach grounded conclusions? How to cope with the enthusiasm that these new thoughts and ideas make surface from the uninteresting soup of ordinary half-thoughts half-conditioned reflexes that affect us every day? How not to indulge in them by letting the mind freely wander through the sea of information that we can so easily access just by typing a few words in a query? There must be a discipline to it, I know. But I simply have not reached that level of self-control — I am not even close to it. Academia and my deceased 9-5 job used to force some discipline onto me. But now that I have no commitment but to my personal growth, I can’t move forward. One month has gone by and I’ve not written a single word in this blog. No musings, no conclusions, no nothing. OK, I’ve spent the month traveling, first in the mountains and then with family, but these are only excuses that even I don’t have the guts to use. No, the problem is not the disparity of media — the problem is character, or the lack thereof. “The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent”, wrote Waldo Emerson. I just wish I didn’t know that quote.

All this might sound like a tempest in a teapot — after all, this is just a blog with a handful of readers — but I don’t think so. It is not about the blog at all, it has never been. It is about writing. And about science. Writing is a process that I need to attain to if I am ever to turn night science into day science. Mnemoriam is a huge project. If I can’t establish a disciplined routine of reading and writing, I will get nowhere. This will be just one more unfinished project in my life. If I want to remember it all, I should at least do the basics: read, think and write. If the resulting text will be a perfect display of my poor English or the conclusions anything but minimally cogent, who cares? I am the first to acknowledge I am an ignorant fool. At least, I am a fool in a journey towards enlightenment. Will I ever reach it, you might ask. Hell, probably not! But at least I need to put up a decent fight.

All right, so I haven’t been writing, but have I been thinking? Oh yes. I am way behind in most of my commitments, but I have been faithful to “the idea”. I am not in my “despair-and-quit” modus operandi. Not this time. The problem is that I’ve spent so long trying to find the impossible idea that would save the dying company I used to work for, that I seem to have forgotten it is my soul I want to save now. I don’t need an original idea that others will like and pay for. I need something that works for me, original or not, and that I can use to remember it all. And that “something” is slowly assuming a shape in my mind.

(You might be interested in Musings about books >>)

  1. This post originally encompassed this other post, but I’ve decided to split them for ease of future referencing. 

2 thoughts on “Night Science: Despair and quit

  1. reading this piece tripped me out. it felt like i was reading my own journal, though in more elegant prose. know (no pun intended) you’re not the only one seeking answers to these questions.

    you bring up an interesting question, and one I, fortunately, have no answer to. the only thing i know about character is that either you have it, or you don’t, and that it is not an intellectual process that builds it, but an experiential one kinda like the difference between memorizing a book on how to ride a motorcycle versus actual practice.

    so in essence, anyone can do it, but will everyone? unlikely. social conditioning is powerful, and it takes someone with character to overcome this kind of social control. take a look at cultural mindsets, which are essentially belief systems consisting of useful knowledge and useless or outdated traditions.

    i am making a huge assumption here, but when you were in the police forces, did you notice (and maybe participate) in the us versus them mentality? if so, think about that. how could such a mindset ever breed anything but conflict? i know i’m oversimplifying alot of this, but this us versus them mindset is prevalent in every war and conflict fought in the name of religion, country etc. even the same faith fight against each other (sunni and shia in the middle east). anyways i’m ranting now.

    thanks for a great thought-provoking piece!


  2. Hello 2meta,

    (One slight but important correction before you read below: I am still a Special Operations policeman; it’s only my scientific job that I’ve dumped)

    Thanks for your comment and forgive my delay in responding (I have been out in the mountains for almost a month). I agree with most of what you said and I’ll begin by answering your question and only then stating where I disagree.

    Yes, I have certainly participated in the “us versus them” mentality. I still do. How not to? I’ve had friends executed on their knees or shot multiple times on their backs by criminals during Christmas morning — I live in a city where more than 5,000 people are killed every year! Here, if you don’t numb your mind enough, you simply can’t do your job. You can’t run in the middle of rifle shots before breakfast, do what you gotta do, and expect you’ll still allow yourself to come back to work the next day if you don’t simplify things in your mind: they are the bad guys and you are the good guy; kill them or die — or worse, watch yours being killed.

    Yet do I think such mentality is the right one? There is no right or wrong in life, so I should rephrase the question: Do I think it will help solve the problem? Hell, no! But while I don’t find the right answers, it keeps me going.

    I don’t think Philosophy is an armchair effort, something to give us an air of intellectuality or to put nice snippets of wisdom in the tip of our tongue to make us look smart. I think Philosophy is a practical business. Either we do it or we should spend our time more wisely and go have a beer. And here is where I disagree with you. I think character can be built in a person. You might have genetic predispositions that might help it grow inside you, but it is not a “have it or don’t have it” thing. Leave a child grow up alone in the woods and it will be more akin to an animal than to a Man — what to say of a Man with character?

    I believe character is carved in our souls. No doubt, as you say, the “experiential” side of it might surpass the intellectual one, but we can, to an extent, evolve our morals by reading, thinking, learning. At least, this is my motivation in pursuing the path outlined in this website. At least, this is what I hope when I look at the poor kids in the slums of my city, who have never had a decent father or mother figure to teach them any rudiment of character, but who, one day, might have a book in their hands.

    I hope one day my own character will be strong enough to leave the “us versus them” mentality for good and, instead of shooting these kids when they grow up to become criminals, I’ll be the one handing them that book.

    I thank you again for commenting and urge you to keep writing in your blog.

    All my best!


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