Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Grad Student

(This is a short story I wrote in February of 2007, mostly as an attempt to deal with my own graduate school experience. I was stuck in a program that really emphasized the "scientific" aspect of social science, in particular quantitative (read: statistical) studies. I had a hard time then and now believing such studies are of any value. This was my way of venting. I'm putting it up because I'm currently reading Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and there's a similar chord in both stories. Fiction writing can be escapist, but I've always felt the best works have a strong foundation in philosophy, whatever that philosophy may be. The philosophy need not be political, though most fields of philosophy intersect; that is a discussion for another day. This story was written at about the time I took my first real hard look at epistemology, which would down the road influence my political beliefs towards libertarianism.

Anyway, I like this story. Hopefully someone else will, too. I may take up writing fiction again, but only if I can avoid sounding like an angst ridden teenager.)

He slowly closed the door behind him, shutting out the cold, wintry night, and flicked on the light to reveal the familiar apartment that Paul had called home since he began graduate school two years earlier. It was hard for him to comprehend the enthusiasm he had possessed for the study of physics back then. Paul was exhausted of a world described in numbers and would quit his studies if he had any prospect of a decent career, but in this economy he knew that wasn't in the cards. He was too far along to quit; that advanced degree would be worth the suffering. Well, financially it would be, anyway.

After taking care of his winter gear, Paul plopped down at his dining room table with a notebook he had bought that afternoon. He stared at the notebook. It was a red one subject notebook, indistinguishable from a dozen other notebooks around the apartment except that it was still blank. Paul flipped through the pages, picturing what it would look like in a month. He could see numbers and signs, hundreds of them, and the occasional illegible shorthand that would hopefully translate these hieroglyphs into something intelligible when comps came around in another year.

Paul burped, loudly. There was nobody around, so an apology wasn't forthcoming. He looked back at the notebook. Given enough time and thought, somebody could probably translate that burp into a mathematical formula. Paul chuckled as he thought of some frantic student writing that paper. It wouldn't be all that less pointless than describing the trajectory of some far off (and maybe nonexistent) planet. Which is what Paul bought the notebook for.

The thought made Paul a little sick to his stomach. Physics is a way of studying the world around us. He thought about his other notebooks, full of numbers and Greek letters. Did those equations explain why his classmates had said "God bless you" when he sneezed? Could they explain his parents divorce? They might explain why he was still single, though.

Those equations didn't seem to explain much to Paul. They could explain movement, combustion, and the mysteries of the atom. Hell, those formulas could explain anything that didn't have a touch of humanity to them. It would be remarkably hard to come up with an equation for love and hate and poverty and war, but Paul knew that there were poor bastards in the social sciences trying to do just that.

Academics, apparently, was the conversion of life into a regression model. A world of cold logic and predictability, without a hint of mystery or morality. A world where beauty would be labeled Y, and every characteristic of beauty would be beta coefficients X1, X2...Xn, and Poof!, instant Shakespeare! Instant da Vinci. Instant Vivaldi. Every erroneous idea would not only be corrected but would be predicted. The academic would become the perfect prophet.

Except that he would be a prophet without a message to deliver. When love can be scientifically explained, will it still have value to us? When life is explained in its totality, will it still be worth living?

Paul opened his notebook, picked up a pen, and wrote "In the beginning, there was mystery, and God saw that it was good."

No comments:

Post a Comment