It is March Madness time, with the Final Four in sight. Fear not. Despite the ominous connotations, the United States is not in the throes of an epidemic of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or another prion-based dementia, nor do we tremble in the apocalyptic shadow of Four Horsemen. Rather, we are collectively enthralled by the unscripted athletic performance art that defines the NCAA basketball tournaments.
They're On Fire!
As I have watched bits of the basketball games and felt the faint spark of yearning for my long faded and oh so limited athletic prowess, I cannot help but think about what athletes of all levels in diverse sports call The Zone. It's that all too ephemeral interval when time seems to slow down, when the basket looks as big as a lake each time the ball touches your hands, when the baseball drifts slowly up to the plate like a candy-filled piñata, when a magnet seems to draw the golf ball toward the cup.
Yes, it's an endorphin high, but it is also a psychological state. Truth be told, this is why we practice and why we play the games. Yes, we are competitive and we want to win, but our deeper motivation is the love of the game – and if we are really lucky – the hope of entering The Zone.
An entire sports vernacular has evolved to describe this experience: "Putting on a clinic." "He/she is on fire." "He/she is scoring at will." "They're playing a different game." Every sport has phrases that capture some element of our vicarious joy, and the most iconic performances assume near mythic status in our collective sports memories.
In scientific circles, we speak in more antiseptic and officious terms. The rhetoric concerns the joy of discovery, a passion for research, or a boundless curiosity. It is more personal, though, than we often are willing to admit. Doing so would suggest unseemly emotion in domains where we pretend to be dispassionate Diogenesians, seeking only truth. Our intellectual subterfuge belies reality – The Zone has an analog in research.
Over the past thirty years, I have asked scientists of varying distinction and age and across cultures and disciplines to explain the rationale for their intellectual passions. After some prodding and embarrassment, most tell a variant of the same story. It's the shared tale of The Magic. I suspect you know it too.
The Magic is an experience that comes unbidden and without warning, touching each in different ways. It is the wide eyed wonder in a child when insight burns bright, inspiring a lifetime yearning for another discovery fix. It is the theorist who creates a proof to illuminate connections among the heretofore unrelated. It is the experimentalist astonished at seeing for the first time what nature has hidden in plain view. It is the computer scientist who incarnates logic as software, with results that surprise and amaze.
The Magic first touched me when I was eight, as I spent hours in the garage conducting simple optics and electricity and magnetism experiments. As a college and graduate student, and later as a young professor, The Magic would come back to me in the quiet of the night. It was when jumbled facts suddenly fused and I knew – truly knew – something for the first time. The lemmas and theorems glistened with beauty; the code took life and danced; and the words flowed like water.
For me, it was a Zen state, achievable only after long hours of focused thought. I hoped it would last forever, but I knew it would fade, as it always did. At best, I could hold it for a few hours, sleepless and enthralled.
The Magic, scientists yearn for it with the lingering hunger of memory and thee dreams of future insights.
The Human Condition
Perhaps in another brane where the quantum foam bubbles in different ways, an announcer is exclaiming, "She's on fire! That's the fifth longstanding conjecture proved this year!" Or in another, we hear the color commentator say, "He's putting on a clinic! Look at the elegance of that API specification. That's a Hall of Fame move!"
Though we can dream, scientists are unlikely to experience the adrenalin rush that comes when thousands of screaming fans chant their name. Yet The Zone and The Magic, though different, are fundamentally the same. Both are essential elements of the human condition. Each is the progeny of long hours of human endeavor, with the power to inspire and amaze.
As March Madness unfolds, watch the players in The Zone, think of The Magic, and share your own story.