by Tommaso Bellini
I recently had the chance to talk in public about that time we understood where the specific heat peak of liquid crystals in aerogel is located, and how it is connected with the crossing of the two correlation lengths. In organizing my thoughts I realized one striking aspect of that experience: how many times we have been together at the university cafeteria for lunch? Probably more than 50. I couldn’t describe most of them, but of that day I remember the exact location of the table we were at, I remember how it happened, the paper napkins we were drawing on, I remember it was a nice sunny day. Because something happened. For me, the experience of understanding is something that happens, even if you prepare it for years, even if it is a logical consequence of what you were doing, it is still an event.
Noel Clark: Yes, it is very emotional. I remember we worked on this “Chevron layer structure”. For five years since the first ferroelectric liquid crystal observation. We were observing a lot of very different behavior of these materials. So it was clear that if our understanding of ferroelectrics was going to work, all these phenomena had to be explained. And they couldn’t be explained! It was fairly easy to figure out half of the problem, the structure of some defect lines when they were coming together, but the other ones they were quite mysterious. There was something missing in between. I couldn’t figure this out at all.
Pauline, my wife, was president of a nursery school in a low income housing project. Every year they had this fund raising dinner. So we were at this dinner and there were speeches, and I was at this table with people I didn’t know. I still can remember all of this very well. We talked and it was after dinner and the speeches were starting, and my mind started sort of drifting off toward these defects and kind of navigating this sort of fields of possible structures, and finally just coming on the answer. I still have the napkin with the drawings of the solution pinned up on my board at the office. That is a very fine memory. It didn’t feel I was doing my job or anything like that. I felt like really good. I have been to a lot of dinners I forgot about but I could reconstruct the entire atmosphere around this event. When I see the napkin at my office this all comes back.
Bellini: In my experience, the event of understanding is something that brings light to everything that is present at the moment. It makes the person united, or, better, it reveals the unity of the person. In contrast to the idea that life is made of independent segments. One of which is being a “professionist”. The event of a scientific understanding, although it is a detail, explodes inside the person, because it is an event in which what happens is that you are having a positive relationship with reality. You are connecting, it corresponds. I think that, somehow, in the event of knowledge, the whole man encounters the whole reality. It is not about a detail. I mean, it is about a detail but it tells a good news about life: that it is not a crazy game played by a drunk man. Through a particular activity (research) the scientist learns the possibility of a correspondence between man and reality. Our reaction of remembering details reveals that we are intimately certain that the event of a specific discovery tells brings a good for the whole of our life.
Clark: One thing about these events is surprise. Is being surprised. Another part of it is your investment in the process. But there is more than just this, more than even the success. After having these guys here of the University of Colorado received the Nobel prize, they all said that seeing the Bose-Einstein condensation was more fun than receiving the Nobel prize.
All the culture is built on this kind of positive experience. Right now it is kind of complex. At some point in the early history of mankind it was probably simpler. It was just understanding that the world responds in some kind of systematic way. The basic theme of kids learning is that nature responds in a systematic way. Continuity of existence must be the earliest thing to be expected. Kids are very delighted if you play those tricks by which things disappear and than come back. But if they would just disappear, there would be definitely something wrong! They believe disappeared objects have to come back. And yet, when they do, they are really delighted.
Another very basic learning is that things happen. There are two classes of happenings: the expected and the unexpected. Once the kids are of a certain age they are delighted by the unexpected. But if something unexpected happens, kids want to have control on it, to make it happen again. So, even if something is unexpected, they have the expectation that, when circumstances are reproduced, the same thing would happen again. And when this happens there is definitely a strong emotional response to it. Same for a discovery: the best experience a scientist can have is discovering something. It is really the very best that could happen to him.
This connection to reality –surprise of the unexpected, delight for the understanding- must be extremely fundamental, for humans. Somehow, nature had to devise something even more powerful than being successful in surviving. Being successful and feeling joyful about it is indeed more powerful, more effective for the core of our being, than just benefiting from the consequences of being successful.
Joy of discovery enlightens this very basic structure of the relationship between man and nature.