Graduation Fluff

June 22, 2009

Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:

  • Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
  • You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
  • If I can succeed, so can you.
  • We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
  • We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.
  • I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.

    – Robin Hanson


    Okay, that’s a pretty suggestive title. I don’t mean to say that Einstein and Newton didn’t accomplish amazing work. Or that all of us can be a Newton or an Einstein.

    What I do mean to express is that these gentleman (and Nobel Prize winners, Fields Metal recipients, etc.) are not necessarily gods among men.

    The first individual that pointed me in this direction (at least, to the point of feeling it necessary to write a post about this) was my graduate student assistant. We were discussing solving a linear first order differential equation (you may recall that perhaps the simplest method for solving such an equation is by using an integrating factor). I said something to the effect of, “How did these guys some up with that stuff?” And the graduate student responded by saying, “Well, actually, if you just think about it for a little while, it makes complete sense.”

    Later that same day, I mentioned how impressed I was with Newton that he had developed the calculus. The grad student again responded by saying, “Yeah, actually, it’s not as impressive as what you would think. They (ie mathematicians at the time) knew about derivatives and integrals. I mean, slopes and areas under a curve are kind of intuitive. What Newton managed to do, his great accomplishment, was combining these two concepts through a form of the fundamental theorem of calculus.”

    Deflated again. But he has a point. Discoveries do not happen in a vacuum. In fact, they happen a pretty big, complicated network. This is evident from the fact that calculus was developed independently by both Newton and Leibniz. Both men had available to them all the mathematics at the time. And both managed to come up with basically the same idea independently. (Newton gets all the credit, whereas most of the notation we use stems from Leibniz).

    Similarly, Einstein didn’t just sit down one day and think really hard about space-time and then come up with his theories of relativity. I’m reading the book Einstein: His Life and Universe right now. As a biography, it traces the genesis of his ideas about relativity. Basically, he completely surrounded himself with the theories of the luminaries of his time: Boltzmann, Mach, Helmholtz, Planck, etc. He read and studied their textbooks and papers studiously. And only THEN, after reading through their works, grappling with their ideas, did he manage to make the next logical step and develop his theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and brownian motion.

    In other words, it wasn’t magic. He wasn’t somehow independently brilliant. If you stripped him away of his education, he would have been a really bright, hard working kid. But he wouldn’t have come up with relativity.

    I write all this because it gives me a sort of hope. Because I know that I’m not ‘Einstein brilliant.’ That is, I know that I couldn’t possibly ever stand up to the popular conception of Einstein. But I’m a decently hard worker that shows a decent aptitude for mathematics and physics. If I want to follow in Einstein’s footsteps, that is, the real Einstein, then the next logical step is to start engrossing myself in the works of the masters of this day. That might take a while, because there are notably more masters now then there were in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But still, it is easy enough to pick a speciality and stick to. Read everything there is to read in that speciality. And then start trying to build on it. Not quantum leaps. Baby steps.

    I should mention that a decent amount of my thinking on this topic originated from the book The Talent Code and the article Einstein’s Superpowers. Both are exceptionally good reads, both entertaining and informative.

    I had an epiphany this past Friday about why I don’t really enjoy participating in sports all that much.

    I went out golfing with the grad student assisting my research group and another REU-er. The grad student brought his friends, and all of them had golfed before. Both I and the other undergraduate had never golfed before. I actually didn’t end up golfing (I came up with some lame excuse involving the fact that there were five of us and they really only wanted groups of four). Instead, I tagged along and acted as the caddy to the other undergrad. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed myself much more than I would have had I golfed.

    Listening to the other undergrads experience helped crystallize in my mind why I never really enjoyed sports. Throughout the night, he got more and more excited as he improved (and he did improve considerably from the first hole to the eighteenth hole). He told me that he gets pretty competitive and always wants to improve whenever he plays a sport.

    And there it was: I’m not really all that competitive. At least, I don’t think I am. That is, I’m not consciously all that competitive. So, when I walk on a sporting field, having spent very little time honing my skills, I’m already below average in terms of general athleticism (catching / throwing objects, blocking people, running and avoiding obstacles, etc.). Add to that below average athleticism that fact that I also (a) don’t really care to get batter and (b) don’t like looking like an idiot in front of other people, it’s really no wonder that I dislike sports. They’re basically a giant incubator for (potentially) looking like an idiot in front of tons of people (mainly because they’re meant to NOT look like an idiot and thus signal your fitness, skills, etc.) and are meant TO allow for improvement and competitiveness. That second trait is almost the definition of a sport.

    I don’t know what that says about me. Probably nothing good. But it does say that if I ever want to improve on my sporting skills and actually make playing recreational sports fun, I will have to drastically rework the way I think about sports in general. And I don’t really know if I think it’s worth it. I’ve learned how to ride a bike (thanks Dave!), and I can swim passably well. Those are survival skills if nothing else. Throwing and catching a ball only becomes a survival inasmuch as it is a great way to socialize. So by not participating in such activities out of apathy, I’m closing down a viable source of group bonding.

    Yeah, that’s probably not good.

    In a side note, I wonder why I enjoy martial arts? I started that at a young age (maybe around 2nd grade… I don’t really remember). I never ever disliked it, through the 10+ years that I participated in it a group program. And yet martial arts displays all the same indicators of things that I don’t enjoy: performing in front of a group, progressively becoming better via feedback and competition, etc. It’s kind of weird that I would like that and not like other sports. Maybe the very basic, mechanical level of martial arts interests me more? And now, it probably has more to do with the Eastern philosophy aspect and the general necessity of keeping in shape (the same reason that I enjoy running).

    There you have it. After all that speculation, we have ended where we started: I suck at games involving balls. :P

    This is priceless. The name of the ‘show’ is Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. It tracks the descent of a teenager into drug culture. But that worse-than-laughable anti-drug cliches aren’t even the best part. No, that honor has to go to seeing all of my favorite childhood cartoon characters telling the kid to ‘just say no.’

    The sad thing is that the anti-drug campaign hasn’t progressed much in 20+ years. They’re still making the same hackneyed, counterfactual claims to defend their twisted worldview. We can only hope that someday they’ll grow up and join the rest of us in a place called reality.