My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Wed, 01 Jun, 2005

Science face to face

Now back to whining.
Let me state this bluntly (I know no other way). I am socially inept. In this I follow the temperament of many artists and many scientists. I can put up a good front of being socially adept, charming, and witty, as I do when dealing with customers at work or with art clients, but there is a time limit on this and the longer the social exposure goes on, the more chance there is of my committing ineptitude, sometimes of gross proportions. I estimate that I have a five-minute limit of social competence, and then after that, there is no telling what I might say, even inadvertently. And if alcohol is involved, then there is no grace period at all. If I have some wine in me, then I haven't got a chance.

This social ineptitude was a problem all through my youth. It was only in my adulthood that I learned to get along at all. Like many of you readers, I spent my teen years hidden in my room, listening to records, playing with tape recorders, reading, and making up imaginary worlds.

I was, and am, inclined to be taken up with an all-consuming interest in one subject or another, spending months or even years in exhaustive study of it, boring everyone in my presence with my talk about it. In my younger days, this was simply thought of as annoying. Now it is identified as a symptom of mild autism, or Asperger's Syndrome. It has been discovered in the last decades or so that this syndrome appears in what are sometimes called "shadow syndromes," which are even milder versions of the condition. So what was merely eccentric or uncouth in my own younger years has now become pathological.

I was not unsocial, though. I really wanted to talk to people whom I respected, whose knowledge or skills or achievements I admired. But I didn't know how to approach them skillfully, whether in my youth or young adulthood. So I was constantly reprimanded for my forward or aggressive intellectual (not physical) behavior. I was "buttonholing" people. I "wore out my welcome." I "came on too strong." I "pestered" people and took up their precious time. I "imposed myself" on them. I bothered them. I talked too loudly. I was a bore, with my various interests, which were demoted to whims or "kicks" rather than legitimate self-initiated study programs.

Why couldn't I just "play it cool," I was often told. Be quieter, more of a listener and less of a talker, more empathetic, more aware of other people's feelings, more restrained and less intense. I should stop stomping on other people's tender opinions with "hobnailed boots." Stand back and let others have a chance. Be a good listener, and don't criticize, and don't ask questions in a leading and arrogant way. Don't be so abrupt. Don't be so abrasive. I had an obtrusive personality. In a young man, especially a young physicist, this might be considered merely brash, perhaps the sign of an ambitious brilliant intelligence… but in a female it was intolerable.

Over the years I have struggled against this. I have attempted time after time to stuff the big ungainly foot of my personality into the glass slipper of appropriate behavior. And every time, I have failed, at least in longer encounters. Some people, whom I am proud to count as friends, don't mind me the way I am. They even give me wine because they like to hear me sound off when the restraints are absent. But most of the time, I must continually be on guard, lest the old uncouth self take over again.

I have learned my lesson, then. If there is someone whose work I admire, I will not approach them. I will just "play it cool" and enjoy their work without inflicting myself on them, even by the neutral and indirect method of e-mail. I can learn from books, from websites, from articles, from videos or other impersonal methods. I know that scientists, perhaps more than other people, have incredibly busy and full schedules, and they don't have time for someone who is not in a formal, official study program, let alone someone who is older and not headed for a career in the field. They don't need to hear from me. Sometimes I don't contact possible mentors simply because I am scared of getting rejected.

Even so, I have sometimes broken my rule and contacted someone, usually by e-mail. Some of the time I will get a single answer back, with no follow-up. One physicist answered my e-mail query a year after I had sent it! Once or twice I have gotten luckier, and have actually established a helpful correspondence. These are my Friendly Scientists by remote presence.

At science fiction conventions, though, social rules and years of self-restraint evaporate. At least three of my Friendly Scientists or Mathematicians come regularly to the recent convention I just attended. There I meet them face to face. I can actually talk to them and they will show me calculations, written on my sketchbook pages or on convention flyers or paper placemats. In some cases, this Baltimore convention is the only time I meet them the entire year. In the case of the World Science Fiction Convention last year in Boston, I may never meet the friendly scientists I met there ever again. I can use up their time with impunity, because they have made themselves available by coming to the convention. I suppose this is why professional scientists are constantly jetting around the globe to meet with each other in conferences.

But most of the time I am not at a conference, and the non-interference policy remains. I am not willing, so far, to buy a specialist's attention by taking formal courses, though I would consider paying a tutor for sessions. At this point in my study, four and a half years into mathematics and physics, it is not a whim or a "kick." It is a life direction, even though I will not do it professionally. I need to know just where I have been, what I know, where I am in the progression of the subject, and what I need to do next. And more indirectly, what might I do with what I am learning, especially in creative work? This is nearly impossible to find from books or websites. But I do not want to impose myself, don't want to get into the old pattern of my blundering youth. Yet how will I learn what I need, if face to face contact will help me? The experts in the field are better off without me, but I am not better off without them.

Posted at 4:06 am | link

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