08 May 2013
Last night I watched two episodes of the excellent TV series The West Wing on DVD. I'm partial to dramas which feature intelligent writing, challenging issues, and a talented ensemble cast (above) whose characters are compelling and fallible. The West Wing had all that, in spades. During seven seasons it won a total of 3 Golden Globe Awards, 26 Emmy Awards, and high praise from critics, political science professors, and former White House staffers.
Quite often among the characters, there is an exchange or a remark which deeply resonates with one's intellect or emotions. There came a moment during the episode "Dead Irish Writers" in which a nuclear physicist (played by Hector Elizondo) is making the case for funding his project, a particle accelerator (more specifically a super-collider). Time is of the essence, for reasons of legislative deadlines and also because the physicist has developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A White House staffer (a former student of the physicist) and a balking senator argue over the monetary costs of such an endeavor, and then stall over the practical benefits or applications.
The physicist interrupts, exclaiming that there are none. But he goes on ~
"Great achievement has no road map. But the X-ray is pretty good. So is penicillin. And neither was discovered with any practical objective in mind. When the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless; and now we have a whole world run on electronics. Hayden and Mozart never studied the classics ~ they couldn't. They invented them."
A light goes on in the staffer's eyes, and he declares, "Discovery."
Too often in this world of budget cuts and sequesters, we lose sight of that vision. It is the same vision which propelled us into space, which fuels creativity in the arts and sciences, and which attracts the curiosity of a child. Discovery. We must never allow only the perceived need to predict a material advantage to be the sole guide to our lives. Value and practical benefits occur spontaneously, in the rich soil of our imaginations.
Ask any scientist, any musician or artist, any engineer or designer. Ask Mozart.