Embracing life, and letting (it) go

Mauri Favaron
Posted February 19, 2016 from Italy

This is a lenghty, but small, story: you're advised. But, it's so deeply mine, and I'd love to share. As tiny as it may be, my experience might resonate with other tiny stories - and many small stories always make a big plot.

From time to time it happens me involving in some life balance. The first I remember occurred when sixteen (ok, it was quite short a life balance, although in that time it stroke me as dramatic). Then another, two day long, when I was 22, and I tried to make sense of me and the world around of me.

Many more followed, sometimes looked for intentionally, some other times stirred after some major event, as the loss of some beloved, or a new birth. So many they were I actually lost trace of their number.

Until the very last one, just four months ago. There was no specific reason, but some undescribable sadness. I went to bed and began to cry silently, chewing once more in my mind how senseless my life was, how irreversibly stupid I am (which is indeed true, but not that tragic as it seemed), and how little I was given back after so much giving. You know, that kind of rimuginations going nowhere, but whose final effect is you feel somewhat relieved the next day, just to fall into the same mindset one month later.

While crying in the darkness, a thought of different kind suddenly came from apparently nowhere: "Mauri,whoyou are?" And almost in the same time, a long theory of memories went back, far past to few days before. These memories were all well known to me, but took no space in my nocturnal rimuginations. They told a story quite different than the usual I almost obsessively replayed - a story made of difficulties in adapting to a world I sometimes did not feel mine, of glass ceilings, of mismatches. These episodes told a story of strength (although not in the stereotypically "masculine" sense I embraced acritically), resilience, even bravery. "OK, Mauri, go on, and try saying something positive of you", she told me, "And if it may help you, consider you arenotso important as your ego may pretend: you are one of the many." This "she" was a voice inside of me; in my normal thinkng process it is very common a plurality of "voices inside" discuss about something, pondering it from many view points. But as it happens, I'm not completely able to fully characterize them: they have something immaterial, without a pitch, or a tone; may be voices of women, men, or angels, and I cannot say.

Butthisvoice was different. It was well characterized, a mature woman's. With a playful, smiling tint, and an ancient, immense wisdom perceivably behind.

"Do you remember", she continued implacably, "when ms. ... " (a retired research psychologist who lived one floor above mine, who wanted to see me) "intrviewed you?" Yes, of course, I remember very well. I was twelve, then. "Do you remember her words, exactly? She told you 'You are like an open book for me. I can read you, sweetheart. You are reflexive, thoughtful, and sensitive.' This she told. Have you ever pondered what she meant?" Oh, many, many times. I remembered howscaredI was. And, how sad I felt when I was told that lady left her home to the hospital, to come never back. "That was a declaration of alikeness. She told you were actually readable to her. Unless some other people. You were similar, to some extent."


And I felt scared. True. How many teachers, friends, mentors told me I was "sensitive"? Very many. I remember I did notwantto be "sensitive". I rather preferred being a strongly rational, logical person.

"Why do you think professor .... spent so moch of her time helping you? She did something more than just teaching: she was your first mentor. May you imagine why?"

Oh, yes! Mrs ..., my sciences professor on high school. Because I had a passion with sciences? Biology, first and foremost?

"There were plenty of passionate peple in your same class. Do you remember something she said youspecifically, as an individual?"

Sure, vividly. You are a mess. You'd better to sort yourself out.

"You may avoid being so cryptic, dear. That was what she said literally. Sure you know better the actual meaning. Articulate it."

Accepting myself.

"Do you see you have understood? Since the beginning?"

One thing is understanding rationally. Another is accepting it.

"You are remembering, and now you are in the fifth, last high school year. So, you sure also remember ms ..., your Italian teacher, and what she did once."

Yes! She lent me a book.

"Not a normal book. A rare, maybe unique remaining sample of an Italian 'scapigliatura' author. Something infinitely precious to her."

And that, too, was sure. That lady, in my inner voice, knew me even too much. That book had a story. My teacher, an aged authoritative and a bit frightening lady of noble Piemontese descent when I knew her, in her young years was the family rebel, and involved herself in the study of Baudelaire, and the Italian Scapigliati - something alike a scandal. She read these forbidden books in secret. Then many years later, she gave me one of them.

"Can you name the why?"

Feel so. Alikeness.

"You received many gifts, my dear."

I glanced somewhere else.

I felt all around me were trying to confine me in some type of female role. I did not want. I did not accept that. I felt it was a limitation. I resented the constriction.

"And, if I'm right, you played the part of the hyper-rational. Did it work?"

It was good, to get my math degree, and to find a job as an engineer.

"I see. But did it gain you the respect of others? Of boys in your class, to begin with? Of mr ..., your math professor? Be sincere."

No. It gained admiration, by some of them. A little minority. But not real respect. By some, real fear.

"And you got surprised."

I felt that was unjust. A sad, heartbreaking thing.

"You was not one of them. Not even alike. You acted a part, with much involvement. With some passion?"


"Half your mid-school mates were girls. What about them? You did say nothing about."

Oh, the gals. Cannot name them just 'gals', to me they were individuals, each with their own markedly unique personality and attitude.

"In all sincerity, how can you say they acted towards of you?"

As if I was ahead, on a path.

"On a possible path. You were admired, and in the same time not envied. I know, you had some wonderful friendships with some of them - without any trace of competition. And in their view, you occupied a sort of top rank in popularity among them."

There came the novel. I do not remember what its title was, but the subject was a travel, in a hostile wooden dark land.

"And the main character was not alone. There were other characters, bounded by a connection, all moving together. You permitted your schoolmates reading it. The boys' reaction?"

Neither good nor bad. Indifference, I'd say.

"The girls?"

Enormous success.

"Maybe you've touched a deep vibe? Something not so your-own-only as you pretended it to be? Why had you not noticed that striking asymmetry, on that time? Weren't you the hyper-rational?"

Alikeness. I did not want to notice it.

"Why? Why did you resist so much? It seems to me, you made your best to not understand what was going on. Or, maybe more precisely, pretending to not understand. What did you not accept? But before you try answering, let me say you did not know. You had no way to. You missed much critical information."

And then, what I've felt were images. Of tiny cells, roaming in some primordial ocean, thriving and dividing. Of other beings, larger, more complex. Life.

"I know well you took measurements for many years of our own nocturnal mean heart rate, then your basal temperature. You were not trying to have a child, of course - you can't. You measured to almost second the duration of all your periods, and got a nice, long and interesting time series. You had seen duration changing gradually from almost-exact-twenty-nine to random noise, on your menopause. You took many more measurements. Quite a tour de force in human phenology. Unfortunately, these data are from you only: an anecdote, not a statistics. But I dare you to tell me that was really useless. Was it? Useless?"

No. It related with dry eye symptoms on one year, then to onset of cystitis.

"But I wasn't imagining practicalities. I know, you did all this undocumented work knowing very well it would have not had been useable as, say, evidence to craft an academic paper. You, honey, were curious."

I admit. I was.

"And it was in a sense a great discovery: according to it, you qualify as a member of human species. Would someone question about, you'd may exhibit some quantitative proof. Not all people can. Besides, this all was personally yours on a side. On another, it was something above and beyond of you."

I admit I was curious of the mechanisms of life. Of its infinite redundancies, thank to which we are here despite the second principle of thermodynamics. Of its stubbornness, so inhumanly definitive. Of its miracle.

That voice never went back - but I can easily perceive her lurking just behind, and smiling. It was three o'clock in the morning, when it all finished and I cried once more. But this time, my tears was of relief, not rage.

The "biological imperative". Before of that experience, I would have named it that way. A sort of pre-written destiny you have no control of. A heavy load against your will to fly. But that inner revelation changed my view entirely from then on. It is not some constriction: it's a rule. As a sort of grammar: I can write and read because I do not align letters at random, but rather follow some rules shared with others. When reading or writing we give up the freedom to use symbols at random, but in exchange we get the wondrous possibility to communicate. And life, too, on this planet, has rules.

From that epiphany, I realized resisting against myself (a part of me in fact way larger and stronger than my conscious side) had no purpose, nor meaning.

And now, to begin with, I found the power to name things their crudest way. I'm human, and female. This is accidental. It also is a wonder, containing wonders in immense number, and many paths. Is so terrible being female? Is it so terrible having a given eye color, or height, or foot length? Maybe not? And, it contains some specific meanings which will be revealed to you - and others alike you.

What's more important, but until that epiphany was hidden behind layers and layers of expectations and pretended rebellions, is that we are human, and not something else. As humans, we are in the mean time vulnerable and responsible. We have a lot of power, in fact possibly too much: we are the most lethal predator ever appeared on Earth, and who knows whether some other will come after we'll be all gone. But we can feel, think, act wisely.

And now... I am still learning the art of letting go. In the past, I would have been mad when something or someone did differently than I expected. Now, I'm realizing more and more these differences, this unpredictability, is something inherently good and productive. And, I am learning to accept the parts of myself which surprise me.

In the process, I found I'm turning in a better engineer. I always craved doing things 'for people', instead of technology as many of my colleagues prefer to. But now, I'm in a sense extending my view. Things must not be only useful to someone: they also must be not harmful, and I'm not saying here and now, but also on the next decade, when my now product will become garbage. Doing things means automatically to inflict a damage, maybe small, yet never negligible, to the biosphere and the planet: the benefit it will give must be much more, to repay this sort of original sin.

I feel also free to say anyone that what I did, I do for love, not petty personal advantage. This is quite heretical in our society, and often dismissed as a just like a woman's concern. This touch me not at all, now. Maybe it 'is' a just-like-a-woman-concern. But it is right, and that's all I need to know.

It is for love, that I spend a not-that-little part of my time in the Physics department of Milan University, doing unpaid teaching work: it is a way to attribute a sense to my life. I may not have children personally because of some genetic accident, but I still may be part of the village which, as a wise African proverb say, raise children. And contribute to future.

After the interview I had with myself on that day, some creative energy I did not suspect having did unleash. All of a sudden. Mysteriously. Some years ago I almost accidentally felt on a new kind of atmospheric dispersion models, wrote a prototype of it, and immediately involved some of our "cub-of-physicists" (students, but now I have no refrain calling them "cubs" - they are, after all) in further development and testing. But start apart, from me the contributions were quite scant. Now, lots of ideas, and even actual code, are adding. Easily, as if some major block has gone.

In my relations, I have become less intolerant. That's good: I may now understand better the others' standpoints. Quite surely, that my usually acid personality has sweetened somewhat has been noticed: things go easily now, with people I once acted adversarially. The World is in desperate need of repairs and cleaning-out, and sure something this large is way beyond the possibilities of one human only. We all need help, and this can happen only if we are able to tell our reasons and share our concerns. Letting go allows you to see clearly that healthy influencing is always reciprocal, and never one-way. That there is no need for a unique leader, co-leadership being much more natural.

Now one major thing to accept remains: death. My beloved, and eventually mine. The adventure get on.

A short note about the 'data driven dispersion model', the most important project I'm working on. Anything, let it be a pollutant, or a swarm of spores, or whatever, once released in the atmosphere spreads and shifts. The spread is mostly due to turbulence, naturally present in the atmosphere, and is named 'diffusion'. Shift, that is long-range transport, is due to mean wind instead. The combined effect of spread and shift is called 'dispersion'. Of course, dispersion can be predicted - at least to see extent - by taking into account many physical factors including emission geometry and thermodynamics; and also of course, these predictions are of paramount importance in many fields, like for example air quality, or the control of accidental toxic releases. To date, a very popular predictive scheme is based on a simulation in which the (continuous) emission is partitioned in a giant number of 'particles', then released and let adrift with mean wind and turbulence. After some simulated time, particles are counted at some 'receptor point' and translated into a concentration at ground. (Concentration may then be used to assess or predict the occurrence of certain diseases, or crop / forest damage.)

In old-style particle models, the effect of mean wind is simulated directly using a three-dimensional wind field. Turbulence, on the other side, is simulated by imparting any particle a random displacement drawn from a distribution whose characteristics are estimated from current meteorological conditions.

In our data driven model, we do not estimate turbulence distribution, but we rather measure it by means of an ultrasonic anemometer. Intuitively, measurements are always better than estimates. But more precisely, a measure is something of which you may say to know both the value and the error band; estimates sometimes yield just a value, with no indication of the error band.

What makes data driven models a nice candidate for computing pollutant dispersion is, on the other side, its behavior. A plume simulated using a data driven model resembles a lot real plumes you may see in nature. Conventional particle models, in comparison, yield simulated concentration fields which are smoother, much larger, and on average more diluted: you can say no plume. That's not lightheartedly acceptable in applications, like odor or toxic chemical release management, where knowing exactly where the highly concentrated plume is: for some toxic gases a single inspiration is enough to kill or atrociously invalidate.

Just in these days, data driven model validation is in course by one thesis and a laboratory. Preliminary results are promising, and induce us to go on. A real-time implementation on a tiny multicore computer is on way, so quite soon we'll have the possibility to deploy data driven models close to incident points to get more to-the-point and timely data: a very important thing, in crisis management.

I said the data-driven model is now developed and tested (in addition to me) by some "cubs-of-physicist". No need to tell their names now: something says me, you will soon know of them, and their work.

Transforming the World from the Inside Out

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