Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Aha! moment

Waiting for the next Aha!
 Charles Jordan

 Aha! or I get it! could be the moment when you commit to a new understanding, or the larger idea of a new direction in life, a different paradigm of seeing the world, or a redefinition of what’s important.

Sometimes the discovery leads you into a stable worldview which you hang on to for the rest of your life, a self-identity which you are happy to dig into and make as much out of it as you can manage. But there is another possibility, that you get hooked on Aha! moments and seek to have more and more of these exhilarating experiences as you go through life. Such a tendency leads to a somewhat fractured personality, or, in a more positive vein, a broadly attentive and flexible worldview more capable of handling rapid cultural changes which are typical of today’s lifestyle, be it technological, religious, musical, gastronomical, or physical.

In my case, growing up has involved many Aha!s due to the cultural and educational distance I had to travel to get where I am today. In the beginning you just absorb from your parents whose DNA you inherit and whose culture you emulate. Your world is their world, your worldview is theirs. As your education is taken over mainly by school teachers, choices must be made of what you study, since a teacher’s time is limited.

In high school I eliminated biology from my list as well as others like home economics, debate, and extemporaneous speech, but at this phase geographically and culturally everything was South Texas. However, some choices had been made and my worldview was narrowed a bit.

The University of Texas is located in Austin, 220 miles away and attending school there was a geographical Aha!  I remember thinking that, for the first time, my parents can’t come and get me easily any more as they drove away. Then there was the Aha! of choosing a major course of study which seriously limits your education. The arts and sports, even though they require a lot of time, are considered not to be academic but a rounding of your interaction with the world. Academic classes can be redesigned so that a broader range of subjects could be addressed to round out your “academic” understanding as well, and there are attempts to do just that around the world and at Texas when I was there. This type of curriculum was called a liberal arts education in Texas and something similar around the US.  All the English and other language areas, government and civics, philosophy and history are covered broadly, but science was hardly covered at all and math superficially. 
I tried to put together a liberal/science education on my own by taking many hours of courses, but still ended up undereducated in history, philosophy and the classics. I did take Russian and German to understand some of the groundbreaking new directions in physics.  Where is the education program which enables a recovery when the economy takes a right turn away from your chosen channel of learning?  Where is the realization that the discovery of the J/ψ meson may not have any memorable or effective consequence even though it earned my thesis advisor the Nobel Prize?  Due to this event, he is now the leader of two groups of young graduate students and bandwagon professors numbering around 1000 souls, mostly very intelligent and extremely motivated to understand what the world is about. 

Lately I have mentored a young man attending UC San Diego who is taking what might be called a liberal science curriculum covering a little of everything in addition to a broad arts agenda. Maybe others are starting to appreciate the blind alleys so many people go down and the worthlessness of so many PhDs, especially in physics.  It is not that they got a bad education, but there are no jobs from these people and they are not prepared to be flexible in their world view.

Generating a competency in one particular field after a personal Aha! moment has been seen as a prerequisite to getting a job and settling down into a career. As time has gone on, colleges haven’t focused hard enough to provide a education sufficient to actually function in many jobs with success so graduate school is necessary.  Even after graduate school  some lines of study are are limited to the specific expertise of one professor, and he could be the only one doing anything like that.

Most of the preceding comments about graduate school refer to a science career. A doctorate in English, for example, has similar problems, but with an even more inflexible result. The curriculum is narrowly English, limiting severely any science or mathematics and most broad-based areas like business, government, finance, and management making it difficult to establish anything like a career.

In my world after high school, the school of arts and sciences (remember when they used to be together?) required the definition of a major. For me it came down to what I didn’t want to do.  Biology was basically memorizing and chemistry stank! So I chose physics. I said my reason was simply because it  was the hardest course available, but essentially it was the only science left–engineering was never an option.

At the same time I was plowing through more detailed physics courses,  I was singing in the Men’s Glee Club and the Longhorn Singers, a mixed choir.  I was spending many hours lifting weights, throwing the shot put which I had done well in high school, and learning to throw the javelin without the direction of a coach. Throwing the javelin was a lot like throwing a baseball which I had done well, but with no coach to teach me best technique, I was beaten in the Southwest Conference Meet by Ed Red who threw for Rice after attending high school in Louisiana where they had javelin coaches. Texas had outlawed javelin in high school after a couple of people got skewered.

Taking 21+ hours of courses during the day, starting track workouts about 3 PM and walking a mile back to my boarding house afterwards, I was able to get to my studies bout 10pm after eating dinner and socializing about the day’s news and Texas politics. Studying lasted until about 2 AM listening to Jorge Morel playing guitar on Lady Bird Johnson’s radio station now called KLBJ. As a freshman I also signed up for the Air Forces Reserved Officer Training Corp (ROTC) which involved a special officer’s speech class at 7 AM. Getting to sleep at 2 a.m. was not conducive to a coherent speech at 7 AM, so ROTC slid off my schedule the second semester, another Aha! moment.

Complications compounded with track-and-field meets on Saturdays somewhere around Texas and the Men’s Glee Club singing special gigs and touring to Mexico, so physics, while important, was not an obsession at this point.   But it continued to be up front as I became a junior when an opportunity arose to earn some money grading freshman and sophomore exams.  Getting together with guys of such similar interests led to a social organization for beer drinking purposes which we named the Grand, Royal, and Exalted Association of Texas physics graders,or which continues to associate even today, at least in theory. My fellow graders have had successful careers in physics following specialties not far from mine in elementary particle physics, but with much less emphasis on sports or the arts.  However, some of them ended up at some administrative job in science, mainly at the federal level.

At the next level, graduate school, athletics and music took a hit due to the fact that they didn’t generate financial support, at least not much. The only track at Columbia, where I attended graduate school, was indoors and elevated over the basketball court in Lowe Library which sits behind the statue of Alma Mater in the middle of the Columbia campus. I ran around the track, but sports is difficult to support in New York City. The sports fields for the undergraduates are on 242nd St. while the university is at 116th St.

My wife and I did manage to stay involved in music, singing in the paid choir at Riverside Church on Morningside Drive where we sang major works every Sunday afternoon and where major organ composers and players from all over the world gave concerts.  Connections with this choir led to the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic in the very first concerts in the park in 1965 which are still a big deal in New York.  We attended the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic concerts at Lincoln Center, theater on Broadway and around Times Square, an amazing series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, and various eclectic performances in Greenwich Village. I studied opera acting with Gunda Mordan and took voice lessons from Richard Weagly, the conductor of the Riverside choir and partner of one of the most famous organists of the time, Virgil Fox.  Music was very attractive, but a career?  Could I make money singing?  Did I want to do just that?  Performance is exciting, but one dimensional, and you’re only as good as your last performance.

Physics activity was beginning to be more personal–not just studying, but performing real research. Even then somehow the research activity seemed to be like a performance to me, much like studying had been in college. Obviously part of the problem was the fact that my wife was a musician and did not relate well to science. She loved talking to interesting scientists, but she didn’t talk about science.  And whenever we had time off, we tended to go to something musical.

As my graduate school experience moved into the thesis stage presumably requiring new  experiments instigated by me–original research, it turned out they they were accomplished at a German accelerator. My advisor, Sam Ting, advised me to get my degree is a soon as possible so that I could take charge of my own future, as he did. I did get out pretty quickly, taking only three years for  graduate school, but there were no thoughts of personal control running around in my head. I would just as well have developed a reliable high C as become leader  of a research group. The physics was still enjoyable, but it was more like an experience rather than a career. Due to the developments at that time in science in the US, accelerators, detectors, and software, researchers all around me were doing Nobel prize work, but I was happy to take responsibility without taking credit. Maybe taking credit and getting awards  not a reasonable expectation, I don’t know, but I felt like physics research was about learning for my own pleasure, not achieving control.

I still teach a little physics now and then and look for more Aha! moments, for instance by finding weaknesses in politically correct, but scientifically bogus media driven brainwashing, in things like climate change, holes in the ozone layer, radiation and  cancer, and cold-fusion. Music still inspires. Directing a men’s chorus, writing poetry, arranging songs, dabbling with drawing, composing original music, acting ,directing, and writing plays have been satisfying. And I have been teased lately by the thought that the next Aha! may be imminent requiring a real commitment by me to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Maybe I can finally throw all caution to the wind and try to make a difference.

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