Shape Memory, and Home!

By cjohnson | August 21, 2005 12:14 am

I’d like to share with you a theory that I formulated some years back. I kept wondering why Aspen, (despite some of the things that I’ve mentioned in previous posts), is a place where I love spending time. Well, I’ve shown you (here and here) some photos of things I’ve seen on excellent hikes in the area, and that would be enough evidence for most people. The fact that the physics atmosphere at the Aspen Center for Physics is fantastic, and that I get a lot of good work done there every year, (facts I’ve mentioned before) and that the administrative staff there are so welcoming, friendly and helpful, all adds to one’s feeling of warmth to the place.

However, I recall feeling rapidly comfortable in Aspen, immediately I first arrived several years ago. After a bit of thought, it struck me back then that it was because of this view, which dominates the town, roughly from the North:

an aspen view

So what? You ask, and rightly so. Well, it turns out that I spent ten of my formative years (ages 4 to 14) as a child on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, and the main town there, Plymouth (where I went to school, church, play, and pretty much everything else) has its North view inland dominated by St. George’s Hill and that view looks like this:

st georges hill
Sorry, I surfed the web just now looking for a photo, and this is the best I could find. The likeness is actually better than this (the shot is rather oblique). But here you can see the similar shape and scale, and note that these are both North-looking views.

Not so dissimilar, eh? My theory is that this is part of the reason I feel at home in Aspen. I find this sort of thing fascinating. I imagine there are all kinds of research on this sort of “shape” memory, and how it informs our sense of place, but I wonder how much and how often this sort of thing might influence our daily feelings and actions? Maybe your favourite part of town is your favourite not because of that bookshop or coffee shop that you frequent, but because of the way that bridge swings over the river in just the way that it did in your home town, and you crossed it every day on your way to school…..

Just a thought.

I should mention that ten years ago, due to the appearance of a live volcano:
montserrats volcano

the entire town of Plymouth -a huge chunk of my entire childhood- was buried under tens of feet of ash:

destroyed downtown

The good news is that they’ve rebuilt island life in the North of the island, and it is still one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Caribbean. (I borrowed photos from this page, which has lots of interesting Montserrat photos, by the way.)

Speaking of “Home” – I’m Home! I was scheduled to stay in Aspen until Sunday, and had planned to do another big hike and just “hang out”, it being the last couple of days before semester starts at USC. You may even have been expected me to be on the “Society” beat, and report on the (highly unusual) funeral of Hunter S. Thompson, which took place in the Aspen region this weekend, but I have to disappoint you there.

The truth be told, as much as I love Aspen, I just felt that I had to get home. Rather than spend the weekend in Aspen, I thought I’d change my flight and get home. I’ve been on the road for too long. Do you know that feeling? You’ve been travelling a lot and as great as those places are (never mind the fact that it’s business travel too!), you just want to sit at home?

Maybe I’m getting old…..

So I’m on the sofa again, and I’m stuck here, just like last week. Why? Same reasons as last week. I did an even more strenuous (but still exhilarating) hike than last week, here in the vicinity of home, and the reasons and the journey were so interesting that I’ll save it for my next post. There’ll be physics involved, with a relation to our ongoing and wonderful conversation about The Greatest Physics Paper!


  • Ashton

    Hey I’m no expert physicist, but why not egress from the inhibitions of established intuition by reading up on the geophysics of volcanic eruption? Bulk flow, vorticity, & the usual implications of thermodynamics–seems there should be some analogous analysis…

    But Clifford: within a few weeks ago you posted a link to a conference (or directly the video) of a seminar you gave; I can’t find it but your explanations are astoundingly clear. The only clue I have to which one it is, is you had started it by saying “I was supposed to talk about this—but instead I thought I’d spend the time and define the language string theory uses so we’re all on the same page…” (or something with such meaning).

    If do you know which one I mean, could you repost the link?

  • Garrett

    Since you’re in LA and love hiking, you may want to check this out:

    They’re a good time.

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  • Clifford

    Thanks Garrett. Sounds great , but probably not for me, to be honest. I’m not one for big hiking groups, generally. Several reasons: People feel the urge to chatter all the time, for example, and hiking -or any sort of long walk- is usually my way of getting away from that, allowing me to listen to my own thoughts, and Nature. Also I get to go at my own pace, change my mind about how far I want to go, etc.

    (But I have been known to do some from time to time, so who knows? I appreciate the tip.)


  • Richard

    Are you sure that it is memory of shape in particular that gives comfort, or just mountains in general? Have you been to other mountainous areas with similar vegetation and not felt the same?

    Many people, myself included, who have been in mountainous areas feel that something is missing when their eyes don’t see mountains on the horizon. Is it merely missing visual reference points, or the presence of large, ancient, nearby masses, supporting vast living flora and fauna, that humble you in time and space?

    I haven’t been to the beautiful, lush mountains of the Olympic National Park for a long time, and must return soon.

  • Clifford

    Hi Richard. No, I’m not sure. Hardly sure of anything, sometimes. But I found it an intriguing conversation point. Thanks for sharing.



  • Plato

    The similarities are apparent, and since both locations were “disconected” you unconciously percieved them at a somewhat more subtle level, “as connected”, and anomalistically brought them forward from that observation.

    A good intuitive venture would have nagged the first time you saw, while you quickly noticed how comfortable you are?

    Reminded you of “Home Sweet Home.:)

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