My father is a physicist. He has a master’s degree in Physics, a PhD in Engineering, and an abiding trust in the ability of science, logic, and measurement to explain the world. At the same time, he has a deep fascination with European history and culture, often manifested in a love of the continent’s cathedrals, those embodiments of religious fervor, of all that is not scientific, logical, or measurable. His unshakeable faith in the life of the rational mind is matched by his profound wonder at the power of the ineffable, the territory of religious belief and cultural experience, that which is beyond the intellect.
I grew up in the space between these worlds. This gave me an instinctive understanding that two things that appear paradoxical, like these beliefs, can be both totally opposed and utterly intertwined. From my father I learned that at the outmost limits of science, where the world and its phenomena can be understood and categorized with equations and with right and wrong answers, there flits the existence of something more intangible, less distinct, discernible. The finite and the infinite are not as distinct as we might think, and the way they bleed together enriches them both.
My Dad, who has a three-ring binder full of mathematical derivations he has done for fun (in fountain pen), has also stood next to me in cathedrals in Italy, looking up at stained glass rose windows with frank reverence on his face. For all of his stubborn rationality and fierce belief that everything can be explained, he has also always suspected, I think, that some things could not. In fact I think for my father, despite how trained and steeped he is in the language of equations, proofs and derivations, the parts of the human experience – often expressed and experienced (for him) through great cultural gestures – that cannot be captured in by the empirical are the most meaningful.
He introduced me – never explicitly, but through the example of his passions – to the fact that something can be true and its opposite can also be true. Dad was the one who taught me about life’s ability to hold two poles in one hand; in fact, he taught me about the way life insisted on that. His deep but deeply buried spirituality underlies all of his adamant belief in the concrete and scientific, and from him I learned that these two ways of being in the world could – even, should – coexist. This is what I was expressing when I called him an engineer with the heart of a poet.
This contradiction exists in how he thinks about sailing, too, I think. He adores sailing, and always has. For him it is in many ways an exercise of careful navigation, of measurement, of the angles between the water, the sail, the wind. There is so much about sailing that is precise and careful. And yet at the same time it is about something far less tangible, a fleeting and effervescent way of being in nature, an ability to sense and feel the boat and to make infinitessimal adjustments that make everything smoother and faster. There is precision, and physics, and then there is something greater, finer, deeper guiding my Dad’s hand on the tiller.
I am still sifting through the ways that this lesson has informed my choices and echoed through me. I sense that it has contributed enormously to the contours of my life, and believe that this is my father’s greatest gift to me: the belief that there is meaning beyond that which we can prove, and that a life of celebrating that can be a rich one indeed. Thank you, Dad. I love you.