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the universe always knew

People sometimes ask "what motivates you?" I attempted to give one answer to that question with my piece Drivewhich arguably was a failure. At least it felt that way. Here, I was asked "when did you know you wanted to be a scientist?" This could be an answer. Or maybe an answer to a different question. 

Enjoy.

~ S

“If you wish to [become a scientist] from scratch, you must first invent the universe."
~ Carl Sagan(ish)

The spice of cosmic irony is sprinkled on all of us. As wishes, wants, and needs, all gifted to us by a (semi)-bygone era of natural selection. The spice comes with questions; a question: “When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?” 

Perhaps the answer from a neuroscientist-in-training [1] would be: “It was when my consciousness woke.” What a ridiculous answer! I have no memory of becoming conscious [2] and know of no one who does. My earliest memories could be confabulations, warped and distorted from countless recollections. Stories I wish to tell about myself, for myself, to myself [3]. Besides, I loathe the question ‘what is consciousness? [4]’, a cheap solipsistic branch birthed from ‘How does the brain work? [5].

It might have been when I found myself enjoying The Magic School Bus or Bill Nye the Science Guy. But who didn’t enjoy television shows as a child. “A magical bus that shrinks and grows to bring you to the inaccessible scales of reality!” What child wouldn’t find that enthralling? Then again, most children don’t put “a microscope” on their Christmas wishlist, or bring their biology textbook to Sunday mass [6].

Maybe it was when my musical compositions repeatedly took inspiration from bits of knowledge we’ve gained from science. It seemed like the only material that could spark my creative engine was the macro- and micro- scopic grandeur of scientific discovery: the slow-changing motifs of evolution, the electric action potentials coursing through neurons, the infinitesimal size of our home planet. But plenty of artists romanticize about life, space, and time.

Or - embarrassingly - it may have been that moment I finally sat down and wrote my Statement of Purpose essay for graduate school applications. It suddenly occurred to me: not only did I not know when I knew I wanted to be a scientist, I did not know why I wanted to be a scientist. No one ever asked. 

I found myself in a strange loop: 

I asked: “Why are you a scientist?” 
I answered: “I know I am a scientist.” 
I argued: “How do you know you’re a scientist?”
I acknowledged: “I know I am a scientist because I am a scientist.”

Then, clarity.

I attempted: “If physics is the universe trying to figure itself out, neuroscience is the universe trying to figure out how it is trying to figure itself out.” [7]. I need to know how the universe works. I need to know how I work.

The universe needs me be a scientist. 
The universe knows me to be a scientist. 
I need to be and know I am, a scientist. 

There is nothing else to be


  1. Cursed by unquenchable romance, mind you… A question worth asking: How long will it take for the artist to be hammered out of this scientist’s mind? Place your bets. I am, after all, in a PhD program.

  2. Not unlike my complete inability to recall when I fall asleep, even when I’m trying my damnedest.

  3. But I still like to tell them: One of my first “memories?” Sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she sat at her piano bench, listening to my cacophonous exploration of the black and white space in front of us. I have absolutely no idea if this memory is true; it certainly feels true.

  4. Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone try to answer that question who didn’t sound like they were engaging in philosophical masturbation?

  5. Alright, add opinionated to that list of curses.

  6. Campbell & Reese’s seventh edition of Biology was one of two books I ever brought to church. The other was a beige-colored hardcover book titled Astronomy, with a beautiful painted image of the Voyager II spacecraft. There were plenty of bibles already lying around. I guess I wanted to bring my own.

  7. Apologies to Nietzsche and Sagan for the partially borrowed thesis of my graduate application essay.