Monday, 24 February 2014

The classical solution

Last time I talked about that essential scientist's skill of appearing to be as extreme an embodiment as possible of the eccentric genius. That skill is not taught. It's not even acknowledged. When incoming students speak to the admissions advisor on university enrolment day, they are never told, "Oh, you want to be a research scientist? Then I suggest you drop that extra mathematics module and sign up for either Eccentricity 101 or Intro to Arrogance." It's a shame. The innocent novices still believe that all scientists are geniuses, and therefore the only way to succeed is to actually, really and truly become one themselves, and many years of desperate foolishness lie ahead before they discover the truth.

I went through all that. I was seduced by the popular claim, "The average person uses only 10% of their brain", unaware that the accompanying statement should be, "If you believe that, then it's true." I was a sucker for any technique advertised to improve brain power. Speed reading: "Read a novel in 30 minutes, and absorb a physics textbook in one hour." Meditation: "Clear your mind of all distractions, and let your creativity flow." Whacky diets: actually, the one thing I never tried were strange diets. They were against my basic criteria that any instant genius scheme worthy of the name would require no effort and no discipline. It should also require no money, which ruled out extensive drug experimentation; I shudder to think what sort of gibbering cabbage I'd have become if serious funds had been at my disposal. And it could have been even worse than drugs -- it could have been Scientology.

When I was at high school, back in the late 80s, the cheap and simple miracle brain enhancer that was coming to prominence was listening to classical music. The abilities of classical music to unleash the hidden potential of your brain were seemingly endless.

As instant genius plans went, classical music was particularly easy to try out. It was no problem at all to go to the public library once a week and take out a few classical albums. Well, there was one problem. It was essential that I keep this most un-cool of activities hidden from my adolescent peers. I'm not entirely sure why. There was already a serious risk that I had been identified as a nerd. I wore hand-me-down clothes from my brother, who attended high school in the 70s. I went to the same hairdresser as my mother. When my exam marks were high I was visibly ecstatic, and I threw loud tantrums when they were low. I was a vocal proselytiser of my religious devotion to Doctor Who. On balance, my fear that a bit of Vivaldi on vinyl would shatter my trendsetter image now seems a tad irrational.

Nonetheless, secrecy was essential. This was not entirely trivial in the days before the complete takeover of the compact disc, when a stack of Tchaikovsky LPs were difficult to hide up your jumper. I could have easily bookended them with some U2 and REM, but this simply wouldn't have occurred to me; after all, I was so ignorant of music that I was starting from scratch 300 years earlier. I didn't know the difference between Bono and Barry Manilow, or Billy Idol and Billy Joel; all I knew for certain was that getting it wrong could end my unofficial role as School King of Kool. It was only later, perhaps armed with the increased brain power provided by a regular intellectual bathing in Bach, that I would learn that asocial nerd awkwardness posing as brave individuality is the perfect dress rehearsal for any budding scientist's genius act.

It was even beginning to dawn on me before the end of high school. I could note with approval the stunned reaction of a fellow student when he asked me what I was listening to on my walkman. "Mozart," I told him. "Bullshit!" he snorted. I took out the earbud and handed it to him. He contemptuously stuck it in his ear. And immediately his expression changed to pure amazement. "You weren't fucking kidding," he said, and indicated his newfound respect by handing it back, generously encased in earwax.

I have no idea if the classical music helped. I can provide anecdotal evidence of wonderful insights during the frenetic conclusion of many a Beethoven symphony (invariably after having jumped out of my chair to assist the conductor), but that proves nothing, because I also once solved an especially thorny coding problem somewhere in the middle of the Sex Pistols cover of My Way. All I can say for sure is that I consider myself lucky that the pop-science fad of my youth provided a rewarding minimal education in classical music, because in my innocence I would, if instructed, have just as avidly devoted myself to Elizabethan folk songs, barbershop quartets, or Broadway musicals.

A few years later record companies began to make a killing with classical compilation albums to help you think: "Mozart for your Mind", "Brahms for your Brain", "Saint-Saƫns for your Psyche". This quickly expanded into classics to assist with every task. "Mendelssohn for the Morning", "Bach for Bath-time", "Debussey for Doing the Dishes"; "Rachmaninov for Ranting" and "Wagner for Wanking". Fortunately by that time I was already snobby enough to listen only to complete works, the essentials of which I had already copied from public library records onto a bank of cassettes. And anyway, I was beyond such childish mind tricks. Having observed how rarely a crowd flooded out of an opera house and went home to quantise gravity, and that Fermat's Last Theorem had now been solved without the aid of The Ring Cycle on continuous repeat, it was time to move on. Something far more serious was required.

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