Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

Orbital Mechanics of the Heart

Microcosmographia lxxiv: Orbital Mechanics of the Heart

Microcosmographia is a newsletter thing about honestly trying to understand design and humanity.

Do you think I can complete this letter in one sitting? Let’s find out. I have absolutely dozens of half-finished letters sitting here, several of which I’m iterating piecemeal from time to time, in cracks of time amidst the four quests that define the main efforts of life right now. (Three quests about shifting the states of work, well-being, and parenting; circling around the big quest about moving to a different country.)

And it’s the idea of quests that I hope to capture something about right now: since starting to write the Anatomy I’ve been ambivalent about the word “quest”, which I’ve used to label goals that take weeks to a year to complete, and which I think people should only have a handful of at a time. It gets the idea across of an extended effort to change something about your life, especially if you’re familiar with fantasy tropes. But I’ve never been entirely happy with how gamelike it feels, especially as the word “quest” is increasingly attached to banal tasks like “gather 12 hurgromblin pelts” in video games.

But since rereading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and discovering that it’s almost as significant to me as his Anathem, I’ve been thinking about such things in terms of orbital mechanics. “Quest” suggests going to some dungeon or another; acquiring or slaying something; and returning home to some stronghold. I like that it captures the idea that the effort has an end, and that things should be meaningfully different afterwards. But I think an even better metaphor may be orbital maneuvers:

This, I think, much better captures what it feels like to make the sort of change in one’s life that I consider central to my own system. What I thought of as my “Work quest” is actually a transfer to a higher altitude from last year’s stable state to a new stable state that makes sense in context of changes in our organization and in my role. “Be the Parent” quest is a plane change. “Be well” is a correction of rotation. And “Live in Tokyo” is actually a long journey from a low geosynchronous orbit through a Lagrange point gateway to orbiting a completely different body.

Thank you and be well

I did it! Time to hit publish before it’s too late.