Week Six: Carefully Cluttered

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Sunday, July 7, 2019


Joseph Tibbs

Some would say my desk is a mess.  It has objects strewn across it, seemingly at random.  Well, not just seemingly—I’ll admit that their placement is actually random.  But they all have a meaning, a significance, a reason for being.  Well, except that toothbrush.  I have no emotional connection with my toothbrush.


 First is my notebook.  It’s gotten a few more notes in it this week, as measurements continued in earnest on the buried line structures.  I did some rearranging of connections on the microscope to let it take more data, and the results have been coming in faster than I can analyze them.  I’m working on writing a formal, theoretical treatment of why the simulations are matching the experimental data, and why my methods of analysis are working, but it got delayed a bit after I spent about a day spinning my wheels on a side project.  The problem was that I was trying to solve what I thought was a linear algebra problem, but which turned out to be a non-linear problem with no solution.  Or, rather, an infinite number of equally-plausible solutions.  Hopefully this setback doesn’t turn out to be a dead-end, and we can still learn something from these results.

 On the notebook sits the purple mechanical pencil I’ve carried with me for three years.  It’s the pencil I’ve used to write in a leather-bound journal given to me by a certain inspiring English teacher upon my high school graduation.  Believe me when I say that the journal has gotten a lot of use since my arrival in Washington D.C.  I don’t record our adventures in it nearly as often as I should, but it, and these blog posts, will help me to recapture the feeling of being blissfully adrift in our nation’s capital. 

 Speaking of the capital—or perhaps the capitol—most of the objects on my desk currently are there because of what we did on July 4th.  Gia, our resident “hilltern”, got access to the staff seating to watch what has, for me and my family, always been an Independence Day tradition: the Capitol Fourth.  This concert always airs on PBS sometime before the evening fireworks start back in Iowa, and we usually tried to catch at least part of it at home.  This year, I didn’t just watch it; we lived it.  From the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, I and nine other interns watched such artists as Carole King, Lindsey Stirling, and Elmo (yes, the Muppet) perform for the entire nation in a star-spangled spectacle.  And oh, how much better it was in real life.  The Yankee Doodles were Dandier; the purple mountains were more majestic; the cannons fired during the 1812 Overture vibrated me to my core.  It was a wonderful day, notwithstanding the rainy wait we had before the concert started (hence, on my desk, the deformed paperboard box holding granola bars, the water-damaged copy of The Wind in the Willows, and the poncho drying out on my dresser). 

 Another object within the clutter is the small, rigid plastic figurine of the my second-favorite animal-themed superhero: Spider-Man.  I got “Lil Spidey” (as he is affectionately called) on Tuesday at the opening night showing of Spider-Man: Far From Home.  It was fully worth the watch, even if it did end up being a long night (not least because the movie started at 11:30).  But it was for good reason we chose such a late showtime: if you recall from last week, the Tuesday Science Trivia theme was going to be Quantum Mechanics, and we couldn’t miss that!  Although that particular section of questions didn’t go as well as we physicists thought it might, and even though the engineering challenge (to make ice cream) resulted largely in the production of sweet soup, a good time was had by all—and the first place prize that night was taken by one of our intern teams!  After leaving The Big Board (excellent tacos again, by the way), some of us took a more scenic route home.  Along the way, we helped a lost driver, got up close and personal with the Supreme Court building, and witnessed a proposal on the East plaza of the Capitol building. 

 As that sentence demonstrates, this week was a good example of the way I follow the advice of someone who, as anyone who knows me for long will tell you, I admire greatly.  Randall Munroe said, in part: “Take wrong turns.  Talk to strangers.  Open unmarked doors.  Do things without always knowing how they’ll turn out.”  He’s saying that not everything has to be planned; for the curious, discoveries are everywhere.  Those are the journeys that don’t need a map to the dragon’s cave, the adventures that don’t need a cape and mask, the stories that are told rather than read about.  Seeking out the unknown, and planning not to participate in things but to do stuff, is my idea of an interesting life.

 Maybe that’s also why my blog posts always end up coming out so disorganized.  Like my desk, and perhaps my mind, they contain a clutter of different things.  All of them are important—not urgent, necessarily, or weighty—but significant.  And here I am trying to sort through the mess to give you a picture of what has happened here each week.  But it’s impossible, like trying to fit this desk’s worth of stuff into a pencil case (or even a duffle bag).  The best I can do is pick through and share a few of my favorite pieces of bric-a-brac as my eye alights on them.  Maybe the rest of it will eventually get swept away into the dustbin of half-forgotten memory.  Or, perhaps, I’ll commit it to the attic and cardboard boxes of my journal, to be pulled out and rummaged through on a rainy evening long in the future.

 But no matter what happens to it eventually, for now the clutter remains, to remind me of what has been, and what is.  And if my life can remain as carefully cluttered as my desk, I have no doubt there are many further adventures in store. 


Here’s to making up the future as we go,

 Joseph Tibbs


P.S. For those of you keeping track, we’ve managed to have one community meal each week.  This week’s was a little more spontaneous but much appreciated: on Thursday, Nolan came up with the idea of a cookout, and two hours later we had a spread prepared which would make any American proud: burgers, hot dogs, macaroni salad, chips and dip, corn on the cob, beans, and watermelon.

The Spider-Man crew in front of the movie poster
This is a picture of my Lil Spidey figurine, but his pose always made me think he'd look cooler hanging on a wall.  So, a little photoshop later, here he is on the Eiffel Tower.
Here's the view of the stage we had on the Fourth
This deadly umbrella is an exhibit at the International Spy Museum, which I visited on Saturday
You can read Sammi's blog for more details on this pop-up shower--Meg and I were coming back from the Spy Museum and got caught in it, but luckily found shelter to weather the worst of it.

Joseph Tibbs