Archive for February, 2010

Being ignorant

Feb 26 2010 Published by under Life

I feel completely stupid and ignorant. The more I live these days, the more I appreciate and yearn to become ignorant. Bring me back to an article I read sometime ago, on The importance of stupidity.

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Article Credit: Journal of Cell Science

5 responses so far

Snow storms and public transport

Feb 23 2010 Published by under Life

The trains break down these days, with the increasing snowstorms. Bosses said it’s the worst (in term of snow amount) and coldest winter for the past 30 years or so.

I shall think that I am lucky.

Outside my window

The following morning

All the trains' schedules are unreliable

4 responses so far

Random shots

Feb 22 2010 Published by under Life

Some random shots taken today after work.

Stockhome

Bra deal anyone?

I suddenly have the idea of making a series ‘Things you only see in Sweden’

3 responses so far

What university is about

Feb 18 2010 Published by under Life

I realize what university is really about, at least to me.

First, University is about networking. It’s not the kind of networking event where you come, exchange namecards and send a follow-up email afterwards (though I’m not against this, just that this is not the ‘netwokring’ I’m mentioning).

It’s the network of people you hang out and work together during your university life. Or it’s the people who know you due to your reputation on some work that you did the other day.
Think about it, where else could you have the chances to try out working with different people to find the best people that you can do serious stuff with? If you get that, I think you’ll get why business courses tend to have more group-projects as compared to other courses.
I think ‘trust’ is a nice word for that ‘networking’.

While some of the people on the same program with me (NOC) are very keen on organizing events (like seminar, conferences), mainly to get contacts and network, I’m just against that mentality.

Second, university is about finding out what you want by trying out different things.
Not many people are certain about what they want to do. Even if they’re keen on what they want to do at the moment, that might change anytime. Things that you thought that you don’t like, but you never know, until you try it.
The fact is, asking an 18-year old kid to choose which career to go to (by filling out the college application form) is just as same as closing his/her ‘exploration’ door (that is exactly what I felt when choosing my college).
That’s why, university is the time for you to try things out. How? By taking various courses that are out of your major. By joining different ECAs (extra-curriculum activities). Or just by listening to stories of people around you.
That’s how I come to appreciate the concept of ‘liberal art colleges’.

I have a couple of other realizations wanted to pen down, but I guess I’d leave that to some other day then.

For those who ever undertook a Vietnamese education, think about the above in the context of Vietnam Education. Some questions to ponder would be: How does Vietnamese education currently enable students to have that ‘try things out’ mentality? Or does it? Why is it so and what can we do to make it better?

4 responses so far

Gia đình

Feb 14 2010 Published by under Life

Tết, nhớ nhà.

No responses yet

Feb 13 2010 Published by under Life

For those who think they’re important and deserve attention, I am sick of pleasing you around while you keep saying such bad words just to make yourself feel good, because I know you’re insecure.
Can’t I just have a Tet holiday for myself?

2 responses so far

gần tết

Feb 11 2010 Published by under Life

Dạo này bận kinh dị đến nỗi mình ngộp luôn. Nhưng ko phải là cái bận về bài vở như hồi ở NUS, mà vì có quá nhiều thứ để suy nghĩ.

Sắp tới lại có 1 show hay để chứng kiến rồi. Tiếc là mình không kể ra đây được.

Tết sắp đến rồi, nhưng chả cảm thấy gì.

Bên này càng lúc càng thú vị.

No responses yet

Sense of belongings

Feb 02 2010 Published by under Life

I guess 4 months is enough for one to get used to and get some sense of belongings to a place. It happens to me and Sweden. I’m not surprised anymore to go to a local groceries store to collect my mail, nor forgetting myself to keep to the right of the elevator lane.

Travelling around Europe during the end of 2009 even made that sense more apparent to me. The more you travel, the more you realize ‘Stockholm is the best’, ranging from people, scenery to the little convenient things the government has carefully planned and executed for you. It is that same home-sick feeling when I left Vietnam for Singapore, or left Singapore for Sweden. And you realize, you miss the place because you miss the people.

3 months ago, I woke up looked outside the window and said: “wow, it’s snowing!” Now it has become “My god, it’s snowing, again!”

Life is kind of a cycle. You born. Meet people. Get fucked (sorry don’t take it literally). Feels down and something don’t want to live anymore. Then you think through, learn the lesson, and become wiser. That’s how you grow up.

5 months into Stockholm, a handful of ups and downs, unforgettable moments of joys and laughers. People become a bit wiser.

3 responses so far