Thursday, April 10, 2014

As remarkable as science, and as unremarkable as most science

Last Saturday we went to the opera---well, to the Met's live broadcast to local movie theaters.  It was Puccini's La Boheme, an amazing, remarkable feat, the match of anything in science.  But there was even more.

With something like 4 hours' notice, Kristine Opolais, an up and coming Latvian singer, who had sung the lead in Puccini's Madama Buttefly the night before, and got no sleep, got a message early in the morning asking if she'd sing the lead role, Mimi, in La Boheme at that day's matinee, because the expected lead was ill with the flu.  For some insane reason, she agreed.  In front of a full Met House and estimated 300,000 worldwide viewers, with closeup camera scrutiny, she delivered an essentially flawless, gorgeously moving performance.  It was doubly or trebly moving because of the feat of switching roles, remembering all the musical words and cues and notes, and learning the staging with almost no notice.

Ms. Opolais and Vittorio Grigolo in the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Puccini's “La Bohème” on Saturday. CreditMarty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera .

Whatever might be mitigating circumstances (she's sung Mimi in other houses in recent years), this tour de force reinforced our respect for the nonSTEM aspects of human life.  Nothing we have seen in decades of science matched what we saw, for skill, technique, and all the learned aspects of high levels of human achievement.  This reflects the reasons we think universities should stop backing away from training anyone but scientists.

And then….  We are in Washington this week for a science meeting, but had some spare time and went to the National Art Gallery.  A big ad boasted that a new Van Gogh painting had been acquired and was on display.  Naturally, we went to see it, rushing past some other magnificent French impressionist paintings.  And what did we see?  Well, art is subjective, but this was under-whelming.  A blob of typical Van Gogh slap-dash.  We are sure the Gallery paid more for that than most of us earn in a lifetime.

Van Gogh, "Green Wheat Fields," Auvers, 1890

Yes, an investment in 'art', and maybe relevant to understanding a major artist's life.  But to us, as we quipped to each other, like a famous scientist's papers in a grade-B journal.  Not a masterpiece.  Yet, the worship of the Established leads to that purchase, much as too many journals and too many 'science' reporters, tout the every work of someone with a prominent reputation or job in a university near to Big City.

We, personally, have the utmost respect, or even awe, for any great human achievement, and the work and skill that are responsible.  The same is true for an art performance, a novel, a historical analysis, or, yes, even a scientific discovery.  But it is also true that most work in most fields is ordinary, yet we give it bloated treatment if it may show that we hob-nob with the famous.

Inspired works of human endeavor are deeply moving, in any field.  Science is among them, but brilliance is not restricted to science, and the experience of brilliance is something that should be open to everyone; the more who are educated to appreciate it, the more whose lives will be edified by the experience.


Manoj Samanta said...

One of my favorite blog nakedcapitalism ( calls the progression of events in USA 'crapification'. We recently experienced crapification in our house, when our 18-month old GE microwave stopped functioning. Checked online and found the same thing happening to many others. We brought GE for being a good brand and the microwave looked good on the outside, but the company decided to crapify its internal parts to reduce longevity of products.

Universities, businesses, hospitals and almost all established parts of this country are going through the same process. They are taking insane amounts of debt and lowering quality - only to pay off some sociopath administrators or bankers. When I read papers from 1980s, I still find value in them. The same is not true for papers from 2010, even though the cost has gone up with high-throughput sequencing.

Supporting those opera singers is expensive and the society is giving up on them, because quality is the opposite of crapification.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree with your general assessment and it's no secret what's happening. It may be that any non-elite society will be this way and it may be better than living in a formally and rigid elite society where quality may be better--but only for the few who can afford it. I'll have more to say about this subject, I think probably tomorrow, after my participation in a relative science meeting from which I just returned.