I'm writing this now in a plane, flying back from England, where I just gave a keynote on Engineered Self-Organization and spent a couple of days after the conference working out possible collaborations with colleagues. I'll talk about all that sometime in the near future---right now, though, what I want to talk about is the joy of scientific air travel.
I never really flew much as a kid---my family tended to drive into the nearby wilderness for our vacations, so I never got exposed enough to become comfortable with flying. When I started flying professionally in dribs and drabs during grad school, I was always completely afraid on takeoff and landing, willing the plane up into the air or safely down to the ground as I stared intensely out the window. It didn't help either that I was coming from Boston, since all the landing paths at Logan Airport come in over the water, and you never have land below you until just moments before the wheels touch the ground.
These days, though, I rather look forward to it. Somehow, flying transformed from a frightening necessity into a comfortable routine. Now I sit by the window just because I enjoy the view, and also because it gives me minimal interference from my fellow passengers. Once we're airborne, out comes my laptop or the papers I need to read, and there I am with nowhere to run and no Internet to find me (no, I have never paid for Gogo, and I pretend it doesn't exist). It's a calm, focused time, tapping away getting things done, and with my MacBook Air these days, I can eke out around eight hours of battery if I'm just writing papers with my screen brightness turned down.
Sometimes I've got something in particular I need to do, other times I just open up my machine and take stock of the state of my intellectual world. Some of my best thinking gets done while doing that (and you get some quality blog posts too). It just seems rather ironic to me that one of the places I am most grounded is when I am 10,000 meters in the air.
I still sit by the window, whenever I can, so that I can look out at the world going by, see the intricacy of the land and the settlements of people upon it. Clouds too, though I'll admit I find them boring after a while. When it's clear down below, I love to watch my progress against the map and try to identify the landmarks as they go by. Chicago is one of my favorite cities from the air, as is New York, and on a good day flying into Boston from the West, I can mark every major city, river, and highway from Utica on in. Once, flying out of San Francisco, we passed right by Half-Dome in Yosemite, and it practically hovered there right outside my window, turning in three dimensions.
But why am I just talking about it? This is a blog, and I can show you pictures just as easily. Here are a few of my favorite memories from the air: flat and two dimensional, faded compared to how they looked in person, but maybe still enough to give you a feel.
If I ever stop caring to look out the airplane window, I'll know that I've lost an important part of my soul.