Sunday, July 20, 2008

Inspiration and The West

Is the western United States uniquely inspirational for science and art? That old hypothesis of mine came back to me last week as I looked down over the Rio Grande river valley from 10,000 feet up on the Sandia Tramway.

The vast stillness of the valley, the faint X of airport runways, the thin green ribbon of the river and its fragile accompaniment of cottonwoods and salt cedar, the layering of atmosphere as the monsoonal cumulonimbus began to darken—all inspirational in the same way that they were when I was growing up in New Mexico.

But how does that translate into a crossover of science and art? My other data points were that Jaron Lanier grew up about a mile from me (I would later get to know his dad, Ellery, when Ellery was working on his doctorate in psychology), and that Alvy Ray Smith was also a southwesterner who, in turn, grew up just across the New Mexico/Texas border from Jim Clark of Silicon Graphics and Netscape fame. Then there is Robert R. Wilson who was a Manhattan Project physicist, sculptor and Fermilab architect. And recently, when visiting Southern New Mexico, I saw paintings by a bio-informatics professor and former member of The Institute for Genetic Research (J. Craig Ventner’s original effort) hanging in the lobby of a grocery store.

The tramway ride, it turned out, was part of a mini vacation within a vacation combined with work for DOD in the previous several days. It was my first time monitoring an experiment being conducted on live test subjects and it was fascinating, although somewhat tedious. Bookending the work phase with beautiful scenery, meals under evening thunderheads, historical markers along the Jornado del Muerto, and a quick flight back to the Bay Area, was invigorating and inspirational.