Joie d’Aprendre

There’s a kid standing in front of my table. He’s maybe nine or ten—has longish hair falling over his forehead, is skinny and slightly awkward with his body, has big eyes. His dad’s standing next to him; they’ve just rotated from the table over. We’re demonstrators at CHaOS—Cambridge Hands-On Science Roadshow, demonstrating science experiments to kids at schools and public events throughout England, and today we’re in a community center near Southampton.

“So I’ve got an experiment for you,” I greet him, gauging his age and determining how many of my experiments I can show him. Both, I conclude, and I pick up the prism goggles for experiment one and hand them to him. They’re ratty-looking diving goggles: painted green, they have two clear triangular prisms duct-taped to the front to change the angle of light reaching the eye. When worn the prism goggles make it seem like someone who’s sitting in front of you is sitting about a foot to the right. Kids and adults alike are astonished by them.

“Ooh,” he says delightedly, flipping and tilting them. “Ooh look they’re going to bend the light,” he adds, and I blink and reevaluate. No one has that response—my first, second, and third times, I glanced at them and then just put them on, not willing to invest the energy to try to figure out their effect before trying them on. No one else has understood them at a glance either. He’s just jumped straight to the punchline.

“Wait,” I tell him with a smile when he goes to try them. “So what’s going to happen when you put them on?” It’s no fun when kids already know everything.

“I’ll think you’re over there,” he says, pointing about thirty degrees to my right. He is correct.

“Nice. What about if I decreased the angle of the prisms so that they were like this?”

“Then it’ll look like you’re there,” he says, pointing about ten degrees to the right. He is again correct.

“And if I make them solid blocks?”

“I don’t know, behind me?”

“Nope, actually it’d be 90 degrees, to your right.” I actually don’t know if this is the case, but it seems a valid inference. (Upon further reflection, I concluded that it’d actually look like I was in front of him: normal vision. No one calls you out on this stuff, and I made plenty of mistakes on the tour. I always tell myself that at least we’re spreading the spirit of the science. We can be wrong, as long as we’re showing how to think about problems, and how to show that we’re wrong.)

“Excellent; try them out.”

He laughs, and I run him through the “now touch your finger to mine, fast”. He compensates for me appearing 30 degrees to the right appropriately, manages to do the physical task almost right on the first try. This test was done to me on my graduate school interviews, and even though I knew what was happening I wasn’t able to compensate appropriately on the first shot. “Very good, no one’s done that before,” I tell him, happy.

“Am I the closest then? The closest you’ve seen?” He probes.


I tell him about the brain next. He knows the basics of how neurons communicate by passing electricity along and also some of the neurochemical interactions. (None of the adults I talked to knew this.) I ask him how many neurons he thinks are in the brain.

“Millions,” he says. I say 100 billion. “I thought it was a lot,” he says, rolling his eyes at himself. “I almost said thousands, and then I thought to myself, ‘Really, Devon? Thousands?'” He shakes his head again, exasperated.

I don’t want to bore him; I’m reconfiguring my usual script, reorganizing and adding information. I end up telling him about how artificial neural networks were originally devised based on the structure of biological neural networks. For the first time he doesn’t contribute anything, just stares at me closely, rapt.

“Wow,” he says at the end. “I don’t know how I’m going to remember everything from this!”

“Well, it’s good to learn it the first time,” I tell him, privately thinking he’s probably going to remember the structure of everything I’ve told him. I’m proud that I’ve overwhelmed him; explained something completely novel. I had to describe an artificial intelligence algorithm to do so, but hey, that’s what college educations are for.

His father’s knelt down besides the table at some point, and Devon’s crouched down as well, not tall enough to kneel. His father stands up now, asks if he wants anything to drink. Devon looks way up; his father’s tall.

“Water’s good,” Devon replies. “Orange juice if they have it?”

It’s startling; contradictory like this whole conversation has been. The polite, adult phrasing of the response, contrasted with the reliance on an adult and the child-like way he holds the cup. He wanders over to one of the math table and I see he has a shark t-shirt on, sweatpants and two differently-colored sneakers. He’s even more awkward with himself from across the room, but is just as brilliant a critical thinker in other domains (“And then this boy said, ‘because of the conservation of angular momentum!'” another demonstrator tells me later, delighted.)

He’s got devoted parents and enough confidence to talk everyone’s head off and is so, so amazing at critical reasoning. He’s obviously looked enough stuff up on his own to have a basic understanding of introductory-level college science and math. And my foremost thought when looking at him is: I really wish you didn’t have to go through school.

Because this sort of science demonstration fair is obviously where Devon shines. His father was scoping all of us—the demonstrators—out as they went along, checking which schools we went to and what our research is. But Devon is… I can see how he’d just be constantly bored. I could keep up with him because I’ve built up many more years of knowledge, could think of plenty of stuff to throw his way. My fellow demonstrators each have a disproportionate amount of knowledge and enthusiasm for learning, even for Cambridge students. We could challenge him, and since we’re all in different areas, he could collect a lot of in-depth knowledge from each of us.

We’re also not threatened by him. The unanimous emotion from all the demonstrators who talked to him was delight. He got things, and he got them quickly, so we could talk about more things—I upped my vocabulary while I was talking to him, to the point where I was speaking to him like a scientist not in my field by the end. And he was just so interested in everything. I don’t know if other people would be threatened by him—I don’t even know where the thought came from—but it just felt like a worry, immediately upon meeting him. I know that I thought initially he seemed a bit obnoxious because he was narrating paragraphs to my neighbor in a kind of “I know what I’m talking about” voice when I first saw him. And then I listened to the content, and it was clear that he did actually know what he was talking about, and the didactic way he was speaking was almost a self-directed internal dialogue, working through his thinking process and describing it orally so that it could be corrected if necessary.

I love kids like him, and felt an overwhelming affection and need to protect him; I almost feel like minds like his belong in a vacuum, like he shouldn’t have to deal with all of the hormonal and social nonsense that comes in that long period before knowing yourself as an adult. I wanted his father to be there with him forever; that he should just continue learning and absorbing for the sheer joy of it and not need to focus on anything else. I’m sure he will; he’s got good parents, a good support system. It just seems like there will be a lot of unnecessary angst, because the people who can teach him are adults, and his intelligence is extraordinary.

The demonstrators and I were discussing it as we were leaving for the day. Kim was telling us that she was bullied a lot in middle school; Natalie agreed. Kim said it was bad enough that she had to switch schools. “I wonder if all people at Cambridge were bullied,” she mused.

“Why?” I asked, frowning. I’d been bullied intermittently, but not over this kind of thing.

“It’s being different, the genuine enthusiasm for learning. People say it’s the glasses, but it’s never actually the glasses,” she said, a slight smile on her face, looking off into the distance.

This puzzles me. By all accounts, I definitely should have been bullied in school. I wasn’t though. Not in middle school, and not in high school. In fact, I enjoyed some special status in high school for being smart. Academic achievements were posted publically and widely acknowledged with school ceremonies; the smart kids were well-known and respected. It was cool to be smart in my high school.

… I’ve never seen this as uncommon, but I wonder if it’s not as widespread as I believe. Because I can see how easily it could have gone the other way, and how much work my school district put into keeping the status quo the way it was.

(That’s a funny thing about achievements, isn’t it? You don’t realize how much work they are and what a feat they were until you see what could-have-been.)

I met up with two of my favorite people in Cambridge a bit ago. I adore Stephanie and Vasili, and pretty much wish I could permanently live across from them. They’re naturally curious people—they watch Ted talks for fun, think deeply about the world, are working to change it, have varied interests. (I’ve summarized traits from each of them as if they’re one unit, but they share a lot of traits and mesh beautifully otherwise. They obviously love each other and it’s a joy to be around them.)

I love talking with them for a lot of reasons. First, I always learn things when I’m talking with them. They make connections I don’t make, they are interested in many things and know a lot, and they challenge me to think things through. They also work together well and have different approaches, so I can sit back and listen to them discuss if I don’t have anything to add and they’ll do the same for me. They’re also just straight-up interested, which is something that cannot be underestimated. They’ll listen to what I say and think about it, and I’ll do the same for them, and it’s not artificial, it’s genuine respect and curiosity. And everyone obviously likes each other and it’s always a very positive interaction, and that underlying affection runs throughout.

We talked about why we liked each other this time, and Stephanie mentioned an interesting concept: I was one of her and Vasili’s “geeky” friends. They define “geeky” as someone who has external interests—in my case that’s usually my interest in machine learning and quantifying social interaction, upon why I can expand at length and have done with Vasili especially. The concept of “geekiness” also seems to capture a general curiosity with how the world works.

And that pretty much pinpoints what I enjoy about Stephanie and Vasili. Stephanie hosted a birthday party a few weeks back, and it was definitely one of the most enjoyable parties I’ve been to. Stephanie just knows good people. It feels kind of terrible to rank people, but there are definitely different kinds of people in the world, and there are some we personally enjoy talking to more than others, and I really like the kind of people that Stephanie’s friends with. (Also, we all brought hummus, carrots, and fruit. Like, there was an overwhelming amount of this type of food because we all brought duplicates.) They’re inclusive, they have passions and intellectual interests that they’re happy to speak about, and they’re curious about what others do as well. I just generally feel so lucky to be in this group of people she’s collected.

She also introduced me to someone as “the smartest person I know”.

…which was weird and I’m still working through that.

I cannot be the smartest person she knows—that couple is very smart, and even if she didn’t credit herself Stephanie’s husband is on top of it. Plus, have you seen me learn? I have, and I am slow. I introduced Steph to a coworker very early on who didn’t even have to take the class to ace a test—he just had to read the syllabus and go to the last lecture. I’ve always managed to make it through classes by asking for a lot of help from professors and TAs and by devoting large amounts of time to difficult subjects.

Plus, it kind of seems like everyone’s the same intelligence these days. Some of us know more than others, but mostly in our fields; we can all pretty much figure things out, it’s just a matter of how much time we’ve spent in an area. On the other hand, I’ve heard these charges of my being intelligent before—several friends and their parents and other adults have said so, which means it must be true. Perhaps… they are referring to my unwavering belief that I can learn anything if I devote enough time to it. Because that has been true in the past and I continue to believe it wholeheartedly, though some things take a lot more time and it wouldn’t work without the unlimited resources of the internet. (I have finally, after a year and a half, figured out what support vector machine kernels are. Professor Andrew Ng is a godsend, his online learning course is amazing, and couldn’t any of my other instructors have explained it that way?)

I think in the end it’s probably a combination of ability, interest, and persistence—motivation is likely the most important, and that I’ve got, along with almost everyone around me. I wonder why this isn’t used as a compliment? “She’s very motivated?” It’s not often that I hear the word “ambition” used either, and I feel that’s a trait that I exhibit far more than intelligence. Then again, how did I describe Devon earlier? Intelligent. And he is truly intelligent—both in critical reasoning and base knowledge—but a strong defining trait for him was intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual curiosity. My favorite.

I loved the CHaOS tour. I was only on tour from Friday to Monday; most members stayed on for a week or more. But I adored the people. It was so… safe. Middle school, space camp, child-like nerdy safe—I can’t even describe the feeling properly.

I’m an adult now in an adult lab, which means that at lunch breaks at work we discuss what we did over the weekend and how our experiments are going and politics. We discuss a lot of politics and the news; I’m now confident in my ability to handle that sort of discussion.

At Stephanie’s party I had a great time, and talked about my research and heard about other people’s research and heard a lot about Positive Investment Cambridge, which is working to change the world through sustainable environmental practices. It was lovely, and there were many stimulating and challenging discussions. I felt I should ask intelligent questions and give intelligent responses in these conversations, and I also participated in the witty back-and-forth in more light-hearted discussions.

CHaOS people… were kind of like that, but not demanding about it. The most popular game was a verbal vocabulary game. People periodically pulled out fantasy books to read, and would do so in quiet periods between discussions. No one drank or mentioned alcohol and there was a total of one sexual innuendo over four days. No one played music; no one mentioned current events except in passing or sophisticated forms of entertainment. People readily mentioned young adult books they were reading, and showed each other card tricks and explained the math behind it. Five different people asked me what I’d learned from the non-fiction book I was reading. Five. The environment encouraged us to ask questions if we didn’t know something rather than nod along. I learned about what a math major wanted to achieve from her PhD, I was asked about why I wanted to achieve with my PhD twice. People laughed at everyone’s jokes, and people listened patiently to people who talked slowly. Individuals were encouraged to participate if they’d be quiet for a while, and obscure references and any and all scientific knowledge was lauded. Everyone delighted in explaining science to the public (that’s why we were here), accepted new solutions to problems readily, and oh, the intellectual curiosity.

A safe haven, as it were.

I’ve noticed whenever it happens that I want to surround myself with people like this. People who learn for the sake of learning and enjoy it throughout, and who are in environments where it’s comfortable and good to enjoy it. Places where the love of reading (why do they seem so linked?) and other obsessive past-times are embraced and shared. I feel like I slot into these environments and yet can be a bit distant, because I motivate my learning with the accomplishment of goals and usually have set time restrictions on what I can learn. It is the worst to disappoint a TA because you want to know the answer to a question rather than why it is true: a phenomenon that occurs all too frequently in school despite curiosity in normal circumstances.

But it’s summer vacation and these students had time to be themselves, spending time on stupid things and spending them learning things and rejoicing throughout. Being around people like this—Alejandro two years ago, Tyler last year, Stephanie and Vasili this year, all the CHaOS people—it reminds me of who I want to be, and why I do what I do. It’s acceptance and reassurance and relief together.

I loved this moment:

“We’re doing the speed of light experiment,” Mithuna called out, and I backtracked to the laundry room / multipurpose room which I had just vacated. More than half of the CHaOS volunteers were there: Mithuna and Tom were trying to make custard for after-dinner dessert in the microwave, and almost everyone else was either washing or drying dishes in three sinks. It was mostly dark outside, and warm and crowded in the small room. I found a spot to lean against a washing machine.

“The custard’s not congealed properly,” Tom said, frowning at the bowl as he pulled it out of the microwave. Kim took a look and asked about ratios of ingredients. It was decided that we’d do the speed of light experiment now and try the custard again later. “Milk chocolate or plain chocolate?” Tom asked the room next. Milk chocolate was decided.

“So how does this work again?” Lars asked, because this demonstration had been mentioned in passing, but it hadn’t been explained.

“We can get the speed of light using the wave equation—the speed of light equals wavelength times frequency,” Mithuna announced once the chocolate bar had been appropriately situated on an upside down plate. “Microwaves have specific frequencies—you can look them up— and if you heat up a chocolate bar it’ll melt in the peaks of the microwaves. So then we measure the distance between the peaks times two to get the wavelength, and we can calculate the speed of light.”

“So the only value we measure is the wavelength, right?” Someone reiterated from the back, not having heard.

“Yeah, we look up frequency,” Mithuna clarified, and then we watched as the entire chocolate bar melted because the upside-down plate had been too hot after being used to heat the custard. There was a bit of discussion over how to cool it down—we figured out that we’d put it under cold water and dry it off and try again. People swiped their fingers through the melted milk chocolate, and discussed how pure chocolate was and if it’d be a waste to put it in the custard.

I just remember laughing to myself during this one moment, watching people problem-solve and laugh and wait patiently and participate, saying “how many Cambridge students does it take to figure out the speed of light from chocolate in a microwave in a laundry room,” and everyone laughing at that, me/us laughing at the absurdity of it, of being in England and living in the year we are and enjoying this one situation and how crazily, wonderfully absurd my life is, our lives are, these people, these lives, ours.

(The second chocolate bar worked—we calculated 3.14 x 10^8 m/s. The microwave produced a diagonal pattern rather than the straight line people were expecting in the plain chocolate, and we debated why that might be on the way back. They weren’t cynical, these CHaOS kids. They were joyful.)

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