People often think of scientists as men in lab coats and wire rim glasses living lives of quiet desperation. While the quiet desperation is true in most cases, the idea of scientists as nerdy milquetoasts has remained pretty well embedded in our cultural consciousness (see, for instance, the execrable TV show "Big Bang Theory" for countless examples), in spite of a plethora of counterexamples. Richard Feynman was of course famous for his womanizing, lock picking, adventure seeking, and numerous practical jokes. The late great David Schramm was a 240 pound red haired demon who climbed mountains and tragically died at the fairly young age of 52 while flying his own single engine airplane. But, even apart from the famous and infamous, scientists that I know are generally a sensitive, artistic, and adventurous lot. They play piano, banjo, and rugby, they dance the salsa, they climb mountains, and that's just counting the people in my lab.
On the other hand, scientists are, by and large, a careful lot. They calculate, they consider, they assess risk, and they eschew it in most cases. I grew up in a Jewish household in the suburbs, where danger seemed to be all around, where taking the bus to the mall seemed fraught with opportunities for death and dismemberment, and where even a jungle gym presented terrifying, murderous possibilities.
But, lately, I've definitely taken a turn for the more dangerous. For starters, as bland as it seems, moving to California was an adventure for me in a lot of ways. I was moving far from my family, far from any of my friends, to a place I had never lived, with a lot of distinct cultural differences, and with very little context to guide me. And, in a lot of ways, my Grand California Adventure has been a fantastic success. I've taken all sorts of risks and experienced all sorts of new things (some of which are not really appropriate for discussion here.) But, I have also definitely started to incorporate danger into my life in more tangible ways.
About six months after moving here, for instance, I finally went and bought my first motorcycle, a 1997 Harley 883 Sportster (which you will find pictured to the right.) Hardly the most dangerous motorcycle in the world (it has trouble getting above 80 miles an hour), but a significant departure for me. Of course, I didn't just go out and buy it: I started even before I moved by taking a course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and simultaneously studying up on motorcycles, riding, and what kind of bike I should get as a beginner bike. (Motorcycles for Dummies suggested the Sportster as a good intro bike, and I've been happy with it in that respect, although I'm starting to feel like it may be time to get something with a bit more oomph, that handles a bit more solidly.) Which is to say, I didn't plunge into it with abandon: I carefully selected and pursued my choice of danger, and mitigated the unecessary risk.
Not long after that, I was driving up to San Francisco, and passed by Fort Funston. All of a suddent, I realized that hang gliding was not just something that people did in movies: I was in California! There were mountains! If you had the desire (and the money!), you could fly. And so I got myself a block of lessons, and, well, the rest is history:
So, the question I ask myself is: why? Why live dangerously? My parents certainly ask me that. Is it just to impress the babes? (I hope not.) Is it because I'm some sort of thrill junkie? Honestly, I don't feel like the risks I'm taking are that unreasonable in a visceral sense, even if they are statistically more likely to result in me dying in a horrible accident than if I were to not pursue them. Therein, though, lies the answer, I think. William Gurstelle, and author and recent guest poster on BoingBoing, was discussing his new book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. He hypothesizes that "the golden third", living in ways that are more dangerous than average, but still short of making pipe bombs out of match heads, is correlated with overall happiness and contentment. Fair enough, it seems like I'm toeing that line. But, still: why? Why does it make me happy? Why do it?
I don't really know the answer, but I suspect that there is an element of control involved, or, more precisely, lack of control. Most of us spend a lot of time exercising control over our lives, and, as discussed above, scientists want to control everything. (Even our experiments are sometimes called "controls"!) But sometimes, it pays to let go of that. It pays to intentionally step out over the ledge and look over. Because, not everything in life can be controlled. And if you spend all of your time in your bubble of control, in your circumscribed safe space, then what the hell are you going to do when the shit hits the fan? How are you going to cope? How are you going to deal when you're not in control? I've gotten into near accidents on my motorcycle; I've had the wind shove my glider around and nearly lost control; and it's pretty damn scary. But, your blood gets pumping, and your heart takes over, and you learn a little lesson about yourself, and how you react, and you internalize that. Flying is fun! But sometimes you crash, and in life, the decisions with the most importance almost never happen when you're in control, they happen when things are flying off the handle, and you don't have the time for sober reflection.