Spent the last few days at Caltech, selling my wares – a colloquium that covered both UKIDSS science highlights and and AstroGrid tools, another talk on why I don’t believe in donuts, and various bits of VO technicalia for my CACR chums. The UKIDSS-VO update can be found here, but you don’t get the full flavour as you miss my live demo. People seemed impressed that someone over thirty-five could type SQL in real time into a box, so I was mildly chuffed.
Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure – will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard ?
The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom. Its very hard to believe now. The whole area is so run down, tacky, decayed, and even boarded up. Further along Hollywood Boulevard it eventually smartens up, but even the famous Chinese Theatre with the handprints of the stars seems small and tawdry. Can this really be the source, the spring, of our twentieth century dreams ?
Hitting success in astrophysics is at least a mixture of talent and luck. Hitting the big time in the dream factory was almost all luck, because talent was oversupplied. And yet … the great movie actors – Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant would be my list – seem so magical, surely their destiny was manifest ?
Reminds me of my take on determinism in philosophy: yes, the universe is deterministic, but only in retrospect. Looking backwards it is easy to show exactly why something happened – why Hepburn, Stewart, Bogart, Grant became so successful – but looking forwards it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen. The universe could not contain a computer powerful enough to predict exactly who would be on Andy’s youngest’s list of top ten actors in thirty years time.
[…] visited Caltech last week, but I missed his talks since I was traveling myself. He posits an interesting comparison between young hopefuls in academia and The Industry — hanging around, trying to get noticed […]
Tony – I was expecting responses about careers and the cruel world, but I can take a brief determinist tour. You are taking a pre-quantum viewpoint there : the the world is microscopically predictable but in practice random because (a) the forward calculation is too big, and (b) you don’t know where all the atoms started. However quantum physics takes almost the opposite viewpoint : the microscopic universe is random, but it follows rules; then statistics guarantees that the large scale world is in practice predictable.
I would like to have been around when Katherine Hepburn’s wave function collapsed.
As an actress myself (among other things), I believe that talent is lacking in Hollywood today rather than “oversupplied.” The so-called “stars” today are nothing like Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart; they’re mostly all packaging and marketing and very little substance. Especially today in the Internet age, being successful as an actor is not “almost all luck.” If someone really wants to be a good actor, there are many places to develop the talent and skills. Instead of sitting around drinking coffee, actors can put ourselves out there on the Internet and play a more active role in our careers. Personally, I completely reject the so-called “star” system. Acting is a craft. As my former college roommate, now a PhD in neuroscience, often said, the only stars she recognizes are the ones in the sky. The same goes for me. Even though I’m an actress, I’d rather read about the real stars up there than about some person who is probably less talented than I am. If an actor is doing what he or she loves, he or she is successful. By that definition, I’m in, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.
Well, I can’t comment without mentioning my favorite subject, so here goes. As both a writer and actress, I recently finished writing my first full length play, which I want to see produced and act in. The subject: the demotion and reinstatement of Pluto. 🙂
Good luck with the production, Laurel – my daughter had her translation of Spring’s Awakening performed at the Edinburgh Fringe by her uni drama group and is now working on a musical with some friends. Luck does play a part I guess but nowhere near as much as talent and, above all, persistence! So keep at it and dragoon as many friends as possible 🙂
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