by Eva Amsen

I’m sitting cross-legged on my chair at my desk. Partly because it’s comfortable, partly because the cat just sailed across the living room on a rug and landed right at my feet, where she left the rug in a crumpled pile. The desk itself was cleaned up a few days ago, but has somehow become a collection space for wrappers and papers and leftover coffee in the short time since I came home from a trip to Montreal at 4 AM on Saturday morning. My time off was supposed to be spent reading the fifteen books I recently acquired, but I’ve only managed to finish two-and-a-half of them.

Tomorrow, or perhaps today if it’s Monday where you are, I start a temporary job. It’s science-related (I accept no substitutes!) but not research-related, which is a bit of a change. I’m going to be redeveloping the website for an undergraduate department at UofT, and do some other jobs for them while I’m there, mostly information dissemination and some teaching. It’s a day job while I figure out what I want to do when I grow up. In the evenings I’m going to fight crime do some freelance writing again, but my first assigned piece for the year is not science-related. (Okay, so maybe I do accept substitutes.)

I also still need to contact someone regarding a medical writing job for which I was pegged as being suitable based on the writing in my thesis. Speaking of which, I still need to have my thesis bound as well, and rewrite two chapters into something that can be read on its own and dump that into Nature Precedings. And I’m supposed to be keeping tabs on a project for which I’m second or third author, and discuss some other data I collected for another lab. And I am going to join a new orchestra, but I have no clue yet when the first rehearsal is. It might be this Tuesday. I should find out before then.
I’m not ready to get back to work. The laundry is clean, but piled up on the bedroom floor. The kitchen counter is somewhere beneath a pile of empty food containers and dishes. I still have a giant archival box full of scientific papers in my living room. I wanted to clean and start afresh, but it’ll just have to be this way. At least I’ll be forced into a nine-to-five schedule, so maybe I’ll actually get out of my spiral of chaos.

I was thinking about chaos and order earlier this week, but not in relation to my upcoming schedule. Rather, it was inspired by this (very funny) TED video I watched on my iPod on the train to Ottawa:

(If this doesn’t work, the link is here )

I actually have Ursus Wehrli’s book about cleaning up art. I have a smaller version than the one he’s holding in the video, but mine comes with fridge magnets of masterpieces (the coloured squares are one of them) of which you can rearrange the magnetic components to “clean it up”. I have the magnets of a Matisse on the magnet board above my desk, but I didn’t order the pieces as Wehrli would have liked – I just recreated the original painting from the magnets.

The video got me thinking about art styles and movements. Take painting. Paintings from a certain era are as realistic as they could possibly manage with paint and canvas. Some look like photographs. The paintings were meant to accurately depict a person, or were recreations of famous events of the past. While the paintings often had underlying meanings, they were obviously skilled works of art, and meant to be beautiful. Then things changed, and art was no longer beautiful per se. In fact, some artists don’t want to use the word “beautiful” at all. If you paint as skillfully as Rembrandt in this day and age, you won’t end up in a museum. If you glue a bunch of pennies to a McDonalds arch as a comment on consumerism, you will. (I have seen this somewhere a couple of years ago.) I do like modern art, but it does look like it’s something that anyone can do if they feel inspired, and not necessarily very difficult in terms of skill. A high school friend of mine went to art college, and was only accepted on probation with the most beautiful sculpture ever, but changed that to a definite admission with a tangle of wood chips that she frantically glued together in 30 minutes the day after her almost-rejection, and which she called “Anger”.

In a way, science seems to have gone in the other direction. At the time when painting was a respected and tedious art, science was at the stage where there was still so much left to be discovered that anyone could do it if they felt like it. Beatrix Potter, to keep with the art/science connection, drew accurate pictures of lichens that were not “officially” discovered until 50 years later. Elgar, in between composing, played around in his home chemistry lab and patented a machine to make hydrogen sulfide. But now you need to have credentials and degrees and an institution to do science, and yet this is an age where you can be discovered as a singer or comedian if you upload your cell phone videos to YouTube, or become a famous graffiti artist.

How did I get from chaos to art? And why is the rug bunched up under the desk? Oh, right.
Here’s to chaos and order in art and science, and in your respective lives, in 2009 and beyond!


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Heather Etchevers January 5, 2009 - 7:19 AM

Thank you, Eva, for yet another thoughtful post – and congratulations on already lining up another job!
Both art and scientific lines of inquiry are subject to influence from fashion. However, it’s usually possible to separate the dreck from the rest over time. Conversely, some things that are rejected initially stand the test and appear fresh and innovative long afterward.
You don’t sound so chaotic to me. I just took nearly two weeks’ vacation, and feel much less put-together than what you described.

Eva Amsen January 6, 2009 - 4:33 PM

I didn’t deliberately line up a job. I actually tried not to, or just find a part-time teaching job, but then this was offered and I took it just to have something to do. (They know I did, I can safely put that online.)
I just need time to think about jobs and countries and careers.

steffi suhr January 6, 2009 - 8:19 PM

_this was offered and I took it just to have something to do_
That is exactly how trouble starts, Eva. The last time I did that, I did the job for 5 years. (Ok – they did pay well, too, and the job had perks).
_I just need time to think about jobs and countries and careers._
Come back to Europe 🙂

Eva Amsen January 6, 2009 - 8:46 PM

It’s a possibility. I just panic when I think about the enormous amount of stuff I have accumulated over the past 7 years…

steffi suhr January 7, 2009 - 5:49 PM

I hear you. Even though we’d stripped things waaaay down, we still paid way too much for shipping last year (shipping right when the fuel prices were highest, too…).
But of course the correct answer would be: you would let _things_ tie you down?? 😉

Glendon Mellow January 11, 2009 - 4:25 PM

Thanks for sending me this link, Eva!
I’ve incorporated some of your thoughts into the discussion program for “ScienceOnline09”: later this week. I’ll see ya there!

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