Week 8: Week of the Regnant Solemnity

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Friday, July 26, 2013


Caleb Heath

There is a meditative quality unique to mechanical labor. The fingers move and the mind goes away; when it returns, it finds the products of the body strewn all about it. Time disappears, and then only the creation remains.

I can’t think of future occasions where I’d be cutting fiber optic cable on the train, but perhaps I lack sufficient imagination.

The morning commute is a good time for these activities. With a book in my ear and a snip in my hand, I can spread a spool of wire across the seat and fill bags with segments and casings. It’s simple labor, but it needs doing. I’m two weeks away from going home. All that can be done, must be done.

As much as we in the sciences work with our minds, we also work with our hands. Some of you are probably familiar with the Avogadro Project. It’s one of many efforts to define the kilogram using universal constants rather than the artifact standard of the International Prototype Kilogram, which also goes by the delightful appellation of Le Grand K. The Avogadro Project has the rather modest goal of counting every atom within a sphere of pure silicon-28. What I find remarkable about this are the spheres, the most perfectly round objects in the world. The crude beginning work (within 10 micrometers of sphericity) is done by machines, but the final shaping has been done by the hands of a master lensmaker,  Achim Leistner, who wags claim can feel atomic structures with his fingertips.

The Forms exist, and we have made them.

If you ever have the chance to go the Library of Congress (by which I mean the Jefferson building-how could such a library ever be confined to one structure?), do so. If you have additional time, acquire a researcher’s card. Leave your belongings in the cloak room. Bring with you only a pen and a notebook. Silence your phone. You are about to enter a temple.

Enter the main reading room.

Look up.

If this is not a transcendental experience for you, I question how deeply we could ever understand each other.

It is immense, majestic. The great dome covers a microcosm of the world, built of books, like the firmament of old. Knowledge filters in from the outside, comes to rest in the volumes.

Walk among the alcoves. Step silently through this world. Find a subject of interest to you. Take a tome and be seated. The desks are slightly canted, covered in glass, and they are the most perfect surface for reading you will ever encounter. Look around once more. Listen to the rustle of pages.

Open your own.

Drink deeply.

I will miss that place most of all. It is too early yet to mourn my leaving, but I can anticipate the longings like I would the phantom of a pain considered.

Still, that time is not yet come, and there are so many possibilities from which to choose, and so many deeds left to do. Only a few items remain on my DC bucket list.

I’ll report to you anything of interest.

Caleb Heath