Tuesday, April 15, 2008


We were in Congee Village on Allen Street, eating porridge, Dungeness crab, and stir-fried frog legs. Viola said that the food reminded her of the movie The Wedding Banquet. All four of us at the table had seen movies of An Lee, so we talked about them, going through each one. Yang questioned whether there was a unifying theme in An Lee's movies. What did "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman", and "Brokeback Mountain" have in common?

"Tolerance", I said. In his movies, An Lee showed the audience how much grief intolerance could afflict.

All agreed. Amelie lamented that today people were no more tolerant than they were two hundred years ago. We might seem a bit more accommodating toward our neighbors, but we remained hostile toward foreign regimes with different ideologies. Half of the people still detested homosexuality.

"Why can't all the people in the world be like us?" one of us asked. We were all liberals educated in Columbia University. Then we laughed. We had found the source of all intolerance.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Santa Fe

I haven’t been to any scientific conference for a year, so attending one in Santa Fe is refreshing. I have been in this field so long that going to a conference is like attending a family union: lots of familiar faces, with a few new additions. There are a few people whose presence can be depended upon. There is one man who has indefatigably come to every conference that I recall going to, and he asks the same set of questions and makes the same set of comments in the sessions that his attendance can be accurately reproduced from recordings.

In conferences, the audience often pretend that they understand the speaker. In one lecture, the speaker opened with a mathematical problem. He went over the problem so quickly that I did not understand it. Seeing no confusion in the audience, I assumed that I was the dumb one. After the session, I asked around for a clarification of the problem. Yet no one understood the problem enough to explain it. In a conference, none of us is as dumb as all of us.

Someone spoke about the state of the field. It was essentially a summary of the unsolved research problems. It was depressing to hear the list because I had heard the same list years ago. It upset me also to observe that most people, who could all eloquently critique the status quo of the field, were attempting nothing to change it. Moreover, there were skeptics who outright reject any possibility of significant advance in the field. They arouse in me a sense of pity. Why keep doing something that you don’t even believe in? Inertia is the source of all misery.


I am not fond of contemporary art – most of it, at least. Nevertheless, I went to see Cai Guoqiang’s exhibition “I Want to Believe” in Guggenheim. I went because I had corporate membership so I did not have to pay. I went because Chinese modern art had been fetching skyrocketing prices in art auctions, so I felt that I should be more in the know. I went also because I liked novelties, and creating art using the violent means of burning gunpowder, the technique that Cai pioneered, sounded convincingly novel.

I still entertain the old-fashioned thought that art should serve life. Art for art’s own sake offends me. I feel sorry for contemporary pieces that exist only to question the definition of art, as much as I feel sorry for an amnesiac person questioning “who am I?” I am appalled when art tries to include every triviality in its domain: a shark suspended in formaldehyde, castrated human figurines, a plume of black smoke in the air, an array of jars labeled as a variety of fluids including human urine. Are they art or just children’s mischief? Some argue that abolishing all rules of art makes the possibility of artistic creativity boundless. But does creativity without bound even make sense?

Scientific creativity, for example, is creativity with constraints. A creative theory explains experimental mysteries; a creative experiment tests a theoretical hypothesis. We regard Einstein’s theory of relativity as the culmination of scientific creativity as much for its completely new view of space-time as for its success in explaining many astronomical observations that were previously inexplicable. Only with constraints can we separate true creativity from lunacy.

Architecture and fashion also call for creativity with constraints. No matter how twisted a building is – take a look at Turning Torso in Sweden – a building has to be above all functional. The architect at no time can forget that he is creating a shape and space for human use, as an office, a store, or a home. No one, upon seeing the most outlandish building, will mistake it for something else. The same is true for fashion. The most outrageous design still has to fit a human body for willing customers to pay for and wear.

I enjoyed Cai’s exhibit, that is, I liked a few pieces, hated a few, and was indifferent to most others. I liked the pieces that Cai created for specific commissions, in which he used gunpowder to burn in identifiable images. There was an image of two barely visible wolves in a black forest. In another was a rainbow of fireworks over a historical town. In memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Cai created an image of many mushroom clouds, aligned in rows and columns, by controlled burning of powder under cutouts and arranged grass.

But when Cai was given a free reign to express his artistic ideal, things can go really wrong. The installation of nine cars flying through air – an attempt to capture the dynamic sequence of an exploding car bomb in frozen motion – was confusing, childish, and almost laughable. There was also the film showing the burning down of a house with exploding fireworks, a dumb and pointless show. Cai also went around the world to make rainbows of fireworks: exploding gunpowder in midair in a rainbow shape. But nothing tops, in absurdity, Cai’s Extension of the Great Wall by Ten Thousand Meters, in which he ignited a belt of gunpowder of ten thousand meters outside Jiayu Guan, the western end of the Great Wall. There is no lamer form of art than obvious and trivial symbolism.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


She got on the train at Princeton Junction. It was seven and already dark. She looked twenty seven. She smiled friendly and sat down next to me. There was a man asleep in the opposite seat. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. The train departed, leaving behind the light of the station. Outside the window it was but emptiness. Except for the lamp posts that threw periodic patches of rolling brightness. The light rolled over her face, illuminating a transient and soft profile against the darkness all round us. Then it went away, and came again, and was gone. I dozed off.

When I woke up, she was reading. I knew then that she, like me, was a scientist, for she was reading the latest issue of Nature, the preeminent science weekly. I just read the same issue. I said to her that there was an amazing report in that issue that some people had managed to turn adult human cells into pluripotent stem cells. She paused her reading and looked at me for a second, without saying anything. Then she said yes, it was a real breakthrough. The ice was broken.

She was a Ph.D. student in the University of Pennsylvania, in the department of chemical engineering. She was writing her thesis on computer simulation of amyloid formation, and was visiting her collaborator in Princeton. She said it was quite boring. She felt that she was wasting her life doing things that she didn't believe in, while other people were doing great things like making stem cells out of human skin. She said that she went into science with illusions of grandeur, but all there seemed to be for her was mediocrity.

I assured her that it was fine. I told her that it could be mathematically proven that at least 90% of people wouldn't make it into the top 10%. I told her that research was just another profession, above all one should find a high-paying employer.

The train stopped, a few people at the far end of the car got off. But no one stirred near us.

She said that she had dreams of doing great science. She had ideas of unifying biology into a theoretical framework like physics. She had hoped to invent cure for a disease. But that was before graduate school. Now she only wanted to publish as many papers as she could, so that she could eventually find a faculty position in a decent school.

She said that these days the number of publications alone does not count. Nor does the quality of the science. What matters is where one publishes. You are nobody if you haven't published in Science or Nature. She had just submitted a paper to Science, after it was first rejected by Nature. If Science would reject it, she was going to try Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Plos Biology, Physical Review Letters, Biophysical Journal, in that order.

"Last time my paper ended up in PRL. It is like a dumpster and pretty much publishes any biological paper written by physicists." She said. "This time I hope I can at least get into Plos Biology."

I told her that I had a paper initially submitted to Science but it ended up in American Journal of Physics. She laughed. She thought that I made up the name of the journal. I didn't.

We both felt that bitter irony. We doubt the scientific merit of our own work, therefore we seek vindication by trying to publish it in high-profile journals. We are content with the illusion of doing great science as long as others get the same illusion about us. We are happy fooling ourselves as long as we can fool others. There is no need for true greatness as long as we put up a great front.

We griped more about the status quo of science. We felt trapped.

Then for a minute we were both silent. We looked into each other's eyes and knew that we shared the same sadness, that we were tormented by the same self-pity of unfulfilled lives. Suddenly it was unbearable. Our sadness reflected in each other's eyes began to multiply, like a tortured soul standing between two mirrors. We both looked away. Then she turned to me and took my hand into hers. It should have surprised me but it didn't. It was company in shared misery. Our eyes met again, but in them lust had taken place of sadness. She kept her eyes open until our lips touched. She lead my hand onto her breasts and then let it go. I slided my hand underneath the bra and felt her flesh, pulsating with the movement of the train. Then her hand sought me. When she touched it, it answered. She leaned against me so that her body covered both our hands. My hand glided down her body and found her wetness. A moan. We breathed heavily. Crushing every sound of ours was the noise of the train. All around the train was emptiness. Except for the lamp posts that threw fleeting patches of light over us. Sometimes her hand halted, withdrew, hesitated, afraid, expectant. Then it came back. Her grip tightened as I tapped her intensifying wetness. Then the train stopped. More people got off the train. The conductor walked through the aisle. Her body left mine. We knew it was over. The sorrow had returned to us, the sorrow of feeling cheated by our circumstances, the sorrow of missed lives that could have been. More stops in endless emptiness. We pretended to sleep. When the train arrived in Philadelphia we parted like strangers.