The World’s First Absent-Minded Scientist?
Archimedes was an ancient scientist and mathematician who achieved a lot. However, he may be as well known for his absent-mindedness as for his inventions. He would be so absorbed with his projects that he’d completely lose track of all else. For instance, take the following account from (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eureka_(word)#Archimedes):
He reportedly proclaimed “Eureka!” when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose—he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. […] He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. He is said to have been so eager to share his discovery that he leapt [sic] out of his bathtub and ran through the streets of Syracuse naked.
Or take this account of his death (from http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Death/Histories.html)
[Archimedes] was then, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through.
These tales may be exaggerated or even fabrications, but they point to something I want to explore: the meaning of a successful life.
Despite his absent-mindedness, I think many would regard Archimedes as a success. He achieved a lot, was successful in his own time, and is remembered by many today. However, this is beside the point; when I read about Archimedes, I can’t help but imagine that he took tremendous, passionate, obsessive, driven joy in what he did, and it’s on those terms alone that I think he was a success — a far greater success than many people will ever be.
I’d like to explore this further with a thought experiment.
Archimedes’ Imaginary Brother
Imagine Archimedes had a twin named Ralph, who led a very similar life. Ralph was also joyfully obsessed by his projects, was absent-minded and was killed early for his absent-mindedness. However unlike Archimedes, Ralph was obscure in his own time (and forgotten today), lived in poverty, and worked on asinine stuff. See, Ralph’s great obsession was to find out how much wood a wood chuck would chuck if a wood chuck chucked wood. This project consumed him for his life and got him killed.
Was Ralph a success? Yes, and a greater success than most people will ever be! Sure, Ralph may not have achieved things many care for, like status, relationships and money, but he had a greater source of happiness within. Sure, he could have tried to balance his mental pursuits with traditional ones, but could he have been as passionate without it? Besides, think of the things he never had to suffer: a broken heart, stress, frustration. All Ralph needed for joy was within, and very little fazed him, for very little could take his joy from him.
True, Ralph’s contemplations got him killed, and he could have lived longer had he not been so absorbed, but there’s a trade-off here. What got him killed is what also enabled him to live fully and passionately. If intensity of life matters, then Ralph lived far more than most people ever would. Take the stereotype of the average person who works at an unfulfilling job, worries about bills, what others think, the economy and so on. S/he desperately seeks distractions, can’t be alone in a quiet room without some noise, yet dreams of a retirement when s/he would have an abundance of the very thing s/he fears: true liesure time! Granted, it’s a caricature, but one with more than a grain of truth in it for many/most people.
Was Ralph a little bit off his rocker? No, he was far more mentally healthy than most people will ever be. After all, he put his desires in his head, which was his domain. Contrast this with others, who invest their hopes in things outside their control. They are like people who give their keys to a belligerent stranger, then spend their time begging for their keys back. Besides, what is more healthy than using the mind for what it’s best at – creating and choosing to maximize one’s bliss? Not doing this is like buying an expensive sports car, then pushing it everywhere instead of driving it!
His passion was silly, but there is something noble in that. After all, what is “important”? Often it’s what life demands, or what society proclaims worthwhile. To knowingly pursue the silly is to live on one’s own terms. Of course one must maintain ethical obligations, and a certain concern for things like food can ensure that one can pursue one’s bliss longer. However, at a certain point, there’s a decision to be made between life’s demands and one’s passions. For instance, does one choose a profitable career or a fulfilling one? The approval of others, or one’s inner compass?
When I think of Ralph, I think of Existentialism. Existentialism starts from the standpoint of one who finds life meaningless and absurd, and uses this realization to build a more joyful, meaningful life. After all, one of the great barriers to freedom of choice is the belief that some choices are inferior to others, so this is a case of tearing down the old to build the new. After all, if the world is meaningless, then no pursuit is too stupid or absurd. Indeed, the only stupid, absurd pursuits are those that do not give joy or are not personally meaningful. Build that Homer Simpson statue out of bottle caps. Try to square the circle, even though you know it’s impossible. If it engages you, then pursue it!
The best existentialist work I can think of is an inspiring, yet grim affair. It’s Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a concentration camp survivor, who credited his survival with his desire to complete his manuscript, a project he found meaningful. Frankl stated that people can deal with any HOW provided they had a WHY; it was the loss of a WHY that was often fatal. Frankl walked the walk; he lived through something the vast majority of us will never have to go through and his philosophy is informed by that. If PERSONAL MEANING can keep people going, through such horrific situations, imagine what it can do for the far less challenging average life: