Jul 31, 2013
THEME: Point of View

The Meaning of Life: A True Story

Children of devout atheists are often doomed to spend their lifetimes searching for The Meaning of Life. The lack of an institutionalized belief system creates a vacuum that can be filled by many methods. As a young adult, my personal favorite included the diligent application of copious quantities of alcohol. By stepping outside of the doors of perception, could one not see the hidden structures that tie the universe together into a neat package? I abused my college years “studying” philosophy and religion, with an end product for my troubles being a large headache, a cumulative grade point average of passing and several lengthy and embarrassing theses weighted down by words like teleology and exegesis.

Writing about teleology and exegesis rarely results in clarity.

After considering my options for career choices (a life of the mind at divinity school, waiting on tables in assorted restaurants and bars), in a random act born out of boredom and frustration, I applied to business school and architecture school (why not?). I retired from chemical exploration, took a refresher course in calculus and my first course in physics and was stunned by the purity and beauty of twentieth century science. The elegant, yet simple, equations of the Special Theory of Relativity created a new order of no order, or of many orders. I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to find that we are always telling stories; stories that explain the way things work, stories that are always true at the time until proven otherwise. The book summarized a modern way of thinking that had roots in the parallel universes of science and philosophy; beauty lies in the stories humans tell about the world as they perceive it. Hallelujah, I was saved!

Calculus and physics lead to a new order of no order, or of many orders.

Around the same time, someone gave me a book by Richard Feynman. (Some of you may remember him as the scientist who unraveled the problem of the frozen O rings in the demise of the Challenger space shuttle.) I found within his writings and work the parable of a life well lived. He was the closest thing I could imagine to a modern hero, a brilliant physicist with a sharp, wicked and well-grounded world view, a bongo playing funnyman and story teller. He wrote Nobel Prize-winning books like Classical Electrodynamics in Terms of Direct Interparticle Action and his lectures to undergraduates, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”, were so lucid and transparent in explaining very complex concepts that they became the gold standard for teaching physics worldwide. He also wrote books with more prosaic titles like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! illustrating his fascination with endeavors like safe-cracking, topless bars and samba music that easily paired with his more serious participation in ventures like the Manhattan Project. Best of all, in a very small book called The Meaning of it All, Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, he articulated something that came as close to describing the very large subject of the title, the Meaning of Life, as I have ever encountered.

Richard Feynman at his pulpit.

What does this have to do with architecture and design? Forgive me if it is not clear. It really all does come back together. When we practice architecture or pursue a career in science, the process of design, whether of a theory or of a space or building, is our search for the true story. We start with what seems to be a set of random circumstances and try to hear the music of the spheres hidden within the chaos of white noise. Does it matter if the story is at least partially a fabrication cobbled together from bits and pieces? Through the strange and difficult alchemy of the design process, we create something that contains an order and a meaning that is an amalgam of what was before, that is better than what was before and that is unique. It is in the beauty of that story that we can find a personal truth.

Feynman struck a balance between scientific wonder and exactitude that proves inspiring for generations

 This in itself is a story that I have created for my own amusement and I hope that you find it useful.

  1. Shawn
    3:13 pm on September 17, 2013 | Reply

    Wonderful post! I’m glad I found it. I found the philosophical approach to the subject of design, in its many forms, to be inspiring.

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