Tag Archives: NOVA

Single Minded Dedication

I watched a NOVA program last night on the Easter Island statues. You know, those big rock fellows with the stern expressions. The information was new to me, although at the end of the show I saw “2012” in the credits.

Scientists have been trying to figure out for a long time how in the world primitive peoples moved the statues, some 30 feet tall and weighing buko tons, to their ultimate destinations. Twasn’t easy. Seems there are fifty of said statues still laying either on their backs or face-planted along the ancient roads, having keeled over enroute. (No explanation was offered for why the earlier people didn’t try to rastle them back up and keep on going.)

One theory suggested that a system of rolling logs was used to move the big boys horizontally. Some years back scientists attempted to replicate the rolling log method which a few snippets of film footage showed.

A more recent theory said no, the statues were moved standing upright and essentially walked to their resting spots. This is what the NOVA program explored in detail. The scientists who did the work were obsessive. They were going to prove those statues were moved standing up come hell, high water, or, I assume grant-funding expirations.

With the aid of a computer they made absolutely precise 3D measurements of a statue, including such information as its center of gravity. Then they made a doll-sized replica. Next they made a child-sized wooden contraption tied to ropes which they used to “walk” the figure and move it forward. Only then did they proceed to build their own exact replica of an Easter Island statue, scaled down to a third of the original size so that their statue would be 10 feet tall and a bit under 6 tons. This involved making a mold, mixing a specific kind of concrete, and finally, using a crane to get the statue on its “feet” and outside.

Once outside the statue was tied with ropes and teams of people attempted to walk it. A safety harness attached to the crane was initially left in place as I imagine crushing volunteers or low-paid grad students in the course of research probably wouldn’t do much for one’s credibility or future employment prospects.

So. It was all hit and miss for quite awhile – ropes were tied and re-tied repeatedly – and things weren’t looking good. The statue could be rocked but he wasn’t going anywhere. Now, had I been one of the dozens of people on site, I probably would have had enough of this endeavor by lunch time the first day. These folks, driven by the two lead scientists, pressed on. A third team of rope pullers was brought on-board and damned if that didn’t do the trick. At least until they dropped the statue in the dirt. But they weren’t done; with the assist of the crane, the statue was righted and set back to “walking” again with the 3 rope-pulling teams. The only concession was that instead of the earlier goal of hauling this concrete behemoth 50 yards, the plan was now ten yards. Which they did, to much rejoicing. I was awfully tickled myself to see them succeed.

Then one of the jubilant scientists was saying he was certain if they had a to-scale, 30-foot replica, why, it could be walked as far as they wanted! You could just see his wheels turning. Given all the trouble and missteps in just getting this far, his optimism seemed a tad unreasonable. (On the heels of this comment, I would have loved to have seen a shot of the many volunteers, particularly the rope-pullers whose arms probably felt about yanked out of their sockets at this point, scattering like frightened rabbits.)

Watching the show and observing these scientists, I felt, as I often have when faced with such obsessive single-mindedness, mostly perplexed. I know it’s good that there are people who are driven this way, but I don’t understand them. I don’t know what it is to dedicate your life, or your working career to such narrow, specific concerns. It isn’t only guys obsessed with making Easter Island statues walk that I’m referencing, but anybody so single-minded. There are lots of such people spread across many disciplines. Look at the artists who spend their lives painting essentially the same thing over and over. I recently read a quote by one such artist in his eighties, still painting, who felt he hadn’t quite reached his potential or accomplished whatever it was he thought he should. 80?! I hit 80 and I’m done obsessing over things I haven’t accomplished. I should hope.

While I have my interests, things that excite me, areas I feel compelled to learn about, there isn’t one very specific concern which rules my world. In fact, something in me always guarded against becoming too narrow or specific – that inclination goes way back. I didn’t even want my college degree to be too defined. I’m not sure if this makes me a generalist. I don’t think of myself that way. I’m more specific-resistant.

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this and I’m certain it won’t be the last. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t think one way (of being) is right and the other wrong. It’s more an area I’m curious about and puzzled by, namely that trait some people have – whether they are born with it or develop it along the way – that makes them so compelled, so dedicated, to one thing.

I think I need a high school education

I want to go back to high school. Not to relive “glory days” or hang out with friends or in order to be 16 again. No. It’s the taking classes part that is on my mind. I think I might appreciate a high school education now. I’m wondering what did I learn in high school? I’m drawing a bit of a blank. When I look back, it’s my friends, relationships, and various moments outside the class room that stand out. Not history. Or math. Or geez, what DID I take in high school? And why don’t I remember it?

Graphic Arts. I took Graphic Arts. That was pretty cool. Prior to that class, I’d had no exposure to the subject. We made pinhole cameras and took and developed b&w photos I have to this day. I had Child Development (or rather was stuck in it after “Single Living” for which I’d signed up, was filled). We made lesson plans for little kids who were brought in by their parents for half days. Spanish. Two years of Spanish. But I didn’t use it and it fell away quickly. Pablo esta en la casa. No hablo Espanol. That’s about it.

Would I be bored in the average high school curriculum today? Or would a modern education be more suited to my learning style than the one I actually had? I.e., sitting quietly in standardized rows for hours on end. Would the teachers’ personal biases and opinions and personality quirks bother me even more than they did when I was a teenager? Would I find the environment stifling? Would I learn?

I’m reminded of Cameron Crowe’s memoir about going undercover posing as a high school student, which was the precursor to his film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but remember that Crowe, in his twenties but passing for a teenager, wrote of misinformation being taught by high school teachers. If I recall, he said the gym teacher was also teaching another subject – History? – and clearly getting facts wrong. Does that still happen? (In 9th grade, I had a gym teacher for Health class and I remember very clearly that he decided to entirely skip the text chapters on sex. Just flat out said we wouldn’t be covering them.)

Why is this on my mind? I think it’s because I’ve been away from formal education for so long. I’m starting to wonder what I know – and don’t know – any more. So much of what I studied in college even, is just very hazy. I actually went to college with the desire to learn. Yep, that was my overarching plan. That didn’t entirely work out. College was undeniably better than high school but it still left a lot to be desired. I was frequently bored in my classes. Too many instructors used their class time to pontificate and hold forth on their pet topics to a captive audience, often about subjects that weren’t on their syllabus. I didn’t have a slew of great teachers, but many average ones, including poor planners who farted around all semester and then tried to cram 3 months of lessons into a week or two before finals.

So that kind of messed up my plan of going to college to learn. And, the intensity of the experience rather quickly became about surviving it, more than about broadening my horizons. Yes, I was exposed to a lot of information, but all crammed in at once. That’s not how I retain stuff. And — to pay for school, I depended on, in addition to part-time jobs, grants and scholarships. For that I needed good grades, and grades became my focus; A’s meant cash. I’d do it no differently now.

One of the things I did really like about college – outside the classroom – was all the free lectures that were available on campus. I was – and am – a consummate bulletin board reader and I’d find interesting, or potentially interesting topics, familiar and not, advertised on flyers. They were held right there at the school and often during the day, which was great – I’d go to my classes and if I hung around awhile, I could attend an open lecture, perhaps by a guest speaker or one of the school’s professors. Or a panel forum. Talks and lectures would be attended by students and instructors alike, which raised the level of interaction and discussion. It kept me engaged and up-to-date. I really miss that, and I started missing it as soon as I graduated.

Both before and after my college years, I had jobs on other college campuses, but it wasn’t the same. When you work somewhere, usually the last thing you want to do is hang around longer after your work day is over or worse, come back to attend this or that. No, you want the hell out of there.

I don’t go to classes of any kind now. I have little interest in pursuing more formal education, like a Master’s. Instead, I read books and spend time online. Online I don’t learn who was the 15th President of the United States or what’s in the Bill of Rights or where Madagascar is located or how to conjugate verbs or anything whatsoever about Sartre. No, I learn trivia and gossip and innuendo and scandal and what’s been linked to cancer and who’s died and what sports figure is drugging and all about the latest shooting spree and terrorist bombing. All that without even trying. The dopey path of least resistance. I bet there’s a study out there that correlates point drops in I.Q. to time spent online.

I don’t mean to denigrate the internet. I love the internet. And it’s brought me a lot of good things. But lordy, does it need to be managed. It requires so little of you. That’s the problem. I’m a critical thinker. I don’t tweet. I don’t even WANT to try to think in 140 characters. Not ever. I don’t have a Facebook status. I don’t haves inane arguments or flame people. I require more of myself. It’s too easy for it to become your world. Suddenly you find yourself caring about things you don’t care about. Your head is full of rubbish and you wonder how it happened. Didn’t you used to think bright thoughts and contemplate important things?

I don’t know what I know any more. I think the things I’ve learned or studied on my own, since my formal education, have been relatively narrow. I think about doing it, but I’m not learning Italian on CD or online. I’m not trying to teach myself Algebra or god forbid, Calculus. I don’t try to understand the current state of the Middle East. Nutrition. Psychology. A bit of Literature. Gardening. Some American History. These are the things I’ve been interested in and studied on my own. Not a broad selection. I don’t have cable so I’m limited there, but I used to watch NOVA and other science programs – they’re SO much more interesting than any science I was ever taught in school – but I’ve gotten away from that. Is the internet and the culture ruining my attention span for anything else or is my restlessness stemming from elsewhere? A combination ? One thing now – I’m intentionally quite active – and I neither want to sit around for hours on end or can. Further, when I do stop and relax, I usually want to be entertained. Documentaries are about as scholarly as I get.

There is a particular saving grace. I like crossword puzzles and in doing them, I realize I know more than I would have thought. That is, I can retrieve information I didn’t know I knew. I could never offer it up voluntarily, but when prompted by the puzzle and given a little time, information evidently buried away, finds its way to the surface. How did I know that?? I have no recollection of learning it and yet I know it. This is encouraging.

Sometimes I’ve attended public lectures, but I often lose patience. So few people are good teachers and I’ve grown so particular about that – maybe by all the years of having to sit through what was at hand, like it or lump it. The other thing – the problematic thing – is the other attendees. A lot of adults feel pretty free and easy when attending a class or lecture. They hold forth, dominate class time, talk to their neighbor, and even – in some lectures I’ve attended – get up and wander around the room. This makes me want to knock heads together. It’s so distracting and annoying. The way I feel is this: I’ve come to hear the lecturer or teacher, not to listen to other adults carry on. But that is too bad, yes?

I’ve taken IQ tests online and done respectably. But it’s been several years since I’ve even done that. I’ve never taken a practice SAT but I’m wondering if that would be a good idea. I imagine I’d find one online or in a book. (I recently read an essay by a columnist in his sixties who took the SAT and was pleased to receive the same score he had in high school – although I believe he noted that the way they’re scored has changed.) The thing is I’m not sure I want to know what areas I’ve fallen way behind in, maybe because I’m not certain I’d do anything about it. How much do I care? Enough to do anything?

I do know this. I’m thinking about what I know and don’t know for a reason.