Skiing Chutes and Thinking Physics
Or, how a novel-research trip made me contemplate risk and inertia
In early April, I spent a week in New Mexico, mostly for research into my current novel project, but also for a couple of days of skiing. Since I would be going to Los Alamos for the novel, it was easy to start off with two days in Taos, a ski mountain I’ve been entranced with ever since I went there in the ‘80s (the first of only two times I’d been).
My memory of Taos was that it was vast and truly mountainous (the base of the resort is at 9,000 feet and the top is over 12,000). I knew that I would want to ski the same runs I’d skied as a twenty-something, and that I’d even want to try the runs I’d deemed back then as beyond me in some way. Knowing the risks I wanted to take on, I also feared them. Leading up to the trip, I worried I would be so alone on the terrain I wanted to ski that if I got into trouble, I’d have no help. I considered hiring a guide, or joining up with an instructor.
But as the trip approached, I forgot all thoughts of planning for guidance or company. As I packed my ski stuff along with my notebooks for novel research and my lists of places to visit, any worries I might have had were erased by the fundamental (dare I say existential) familiarity of the skiing. Even stuffing my gear into my bag was a reminder that, for me, skiing is like breathing. Over the last couple decades, It has become probably the one thing in the world that I do with utter self-confidence and lack of insecurity. (OK that’s something to ponder.)
But the point of this newsletter is not to say look at me I’m awesome I can do this thing. The point is that during that trip, I kept thinking about physics.
Because I was in New Mexico, in the first place, to research the making of the first nuclear bomb, I had physics very much on my mind. Which is not, I must add, a particularly science-adept mind. I took Physics for Poets in college. Granted, I loved that class (it remains one of my favorites) but I have come by my physics understanding not through labs but through prose. Still, I had to connect my two endeavors: skiing challenging stuff + learning about physics. I couldn’t not think of all of it as part of one larger whole.
Skiing is obviously a gravity sport. You can cruise down a low-angle slope, or you can plummet down something that feels nearly vertical. Either way, you’re controlling the effect of gravity on your speed by adding friction through the frequence and nature of your turns. Turn sharper, you’ll scrub off speed. Turn more often, that’s another good way to slow yourself down. (I should point out that there are ways that even turning can speed you up, though, if you use the torque of your skis against the snow a certain way.) If I want to challenge myself as a skier, I can do that in two ways: how fast do I want to go, and how steep a trail do I want to go down?
As with so many things in life, I’m finding, it’s all about how you begin. The second run I took at Taos, I took my skis off at the top of the chair and hiked up through the gate onto a ridge (part of the ski area) so I could reach a bowl. I put my skis on and waited half a minute at the top of the bowl as a group of three guys approached, and I said something to them like “I’ll let you show me how it’s done”. Because the lip into the bowl was about a four-foot drop of a winter’s full of snow. And then in my head, I said why am I waiting? and I slid in ahead of them. And kept going down in lovely New Mexico powder.
I’m so glad I began that way, overcoming any chance of inertia (standing at the top, hesitating, staring at the steep, getting nervous) and letting gravity present itself as a force I could enjoy. The rest of that day and all of the next, I picked fantastic chutes and glades with a decent range of pitch. I skied the stuff I’d skied in my twenties, and I went without hesitation to steep chutes I’d been too nervous to ski back then. There too, I just got on with it, not allowing time for inertia to become too overwhelming, trusting to my ability to use gravity to play.
With so much of what we do, we balance risk and self-preservation, motivation and inertia. If we want to learn something new or create something new, we have to overcome some amount of inertia, some amount of risk. How do we do it? Do we do it all at once, like a skier hurling themselves off a lip into an impossibly steep chute? Or is it more of an incremental process? I think of the physicists of the Manhattan Project who spent two years trying to figure out how to do something horrible, yes, but groundbreaking. (Groundbreaking isn’t even close to the right word, for what they were doing was going to change the way we understand the very ground we live on.) I’m guessing it’s a combination of both the sudden and the gradual. There are the moments when it feels (in writing, at least) like you’re chipping away little by little, and then the moments when, boom, you discover something huge and your project comes into sharp new focus.
The Entropy Hotel is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In an interview from last October with New Scientist magazine, physicist Carlo Rovelli says that there is no “ultimate” knowledge or meaning. That it’s wrong to think about the process as an arrival at an end. Instead, we keep going with smaller discoveries, solving smaller (but still significant) problems. There is no meaning that resides outside of us like some goal we’re aiming towards. Instead, we make our own meaning, derived from our understanding and perception, which, in turn, continue to change.
This is quantum. And it’s beautiful. Now, I’m going to create a sort of crime against science here as I turn this into creative wisdom, but bear with me. Because what I get from Rovelli and from my two days of skiing and my four days of visiting such places as the Trinity Test Site and Los Alamos and the National Museum of Nuclear Science is this:
We’re always in a process. We’re never done. We create our own meaning. And we can use these facts to our benefit. We don’t have to stand at the lip of the bowl and wait for someone else to show us how. We can send ourselves over the edge into one challenge after the other, one question or project after the next.
So much of the creative experience has to do with waiting. We wait for feedback, we wait for representation by an agent, we wait for contracts, for edits, for reviews. And we control none of that. I think we have to find ways to tell ourselves that we can find the movement within the waiting. That we are not completely forced to stand at the lip of the bowl until someone shows us how it’s done (pshaw!). That we can identify the specific puzzle or project or question that’s ours to work on. Not because it’s the ultimate thing, but because it’s how we make our own meaning.
How do you cope with waiting?
What approaches have you taken to begin with new energy?
How have you overcome inertia?
I just published my first note on Substack Notes, and would love for you to join me there!
Notes is a new space on Substack for us to share links, short posts, quotes, photos, and more. I plan to use it for things that don’t fit in the newsletter, like work-in-progress or quick questions.
How to join
Head to substack.com/notes or find the “Notes” tab in the Substack app. As a subscriber to The Entropy Hotel, you’ll automatically see my notes. Feel free to like, reply, or share them around!
You can also share notes of your own. I hope this becomes a space where every reader of The Entropy Hotel can share thoughts, ideas, and interesting quotes from the things we're reading on Substack and beyond.
‘The one thing I do with utter self confidence’ - I’m not a great skier, but something ‘clicked’ for me a while back when I realised that to do it well I had to TAKE UP SPACE. And feel confident to occupy space.