an open letter to Pyracantha of Electron Blue

Attention conservation notice: Mummy, two people who are a bit old to be students are talking about math and science again. Scroll down to the last few paragraphs to get to the good stuff.

In reponse to Pyracantha, whose calculus is becalmed:

> It hasn’t been just technical difficulties that have
> limited my blogification this last month. I am
> ashamed to admit that I have done hardly any mathematics in January.
> There are all sorts of excuses, but in the
> realm of Physicsworld, there is no excuse. Remember
> that Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann, as well as
> others, taught themselves calculus in less than a
> year when they were just teenagers.

If you are expecting to do work on the level of Dyson and Gell-Mann, that is something to worry about. Otherwise, I think you’re off the hook.

> So what’s wrong with
> me? Well, one of the reasons is my failure of nerve.
> After six years, I have lost some of the fervor that
> drove me to rush out of Fermilab and into the world
> of learning mathematics and physics.

I woudn’t call it a failure of nerve. A failure of nerve implies that you fear something. And you don’t seem afraid. You just seem to be confronting the reality that your studies no longer interest you.

I have a secret to confess. There’s no fire in my eyes anymore, either. When I started my own journey into math and science, the delight lasted for years. Every day was exciting. It honestly felt like being in love. It was not only exciting, it was exhilarating. I was in love with my studies and my future.

Lately things are very different. Science has lost all its spark for me and my fiery eyes have gone dim. The days are gray and dull, my science classes uninteresting. I am going through the motions, attending class, doing homework, going nowhere.

> That wintry
> slowness
> tells me: What is the point of it? I will never be a
> scientist, never go through the twenty years’ ordeal
> that it takes to really become a True Scientist,
> never struggle for the Ultimate Totally Admirable Goal of
> tenure at an academic institution, never really work
> at Fermilab. Why do I, a commercial artist
> specializing in architecture and vegetables, need to
> do any of this?

That’s close to question that another friend and I are asking ourselves. My friend wants to be an M.D., and just dropped her Calc III class because she realized that there was no bloody point in taking it. She will never understand it with depth, never do more than collect unrelated bits of information and use them to pass tests.

As for me, when I turned to science at age 34 I wanted two things very badly, with the focus of a person who has long been aimless and found a vital aim at last. I wanted to understand the world around me, and I wanted to really do science in some way, as a scientist (even a lab drone!) or a science writer. But now my desire is gone. And it feels really gone, not just asleep. And here we come to a piece of background information about me that is very, very relevant.

Every few years I change. I don’t think I do it from fear of committment or anything pat and obvious like that. I just tend to reinvent myself every few years. I thought that writing was the cure for that, that it was one of the few professions that would let me change and yet stay the same — do a different kind of writing, yet still remain a writer. And I think I thought right. I still want to be a writer.

I just find now that my science studies turn me away from science. They no longer fill me with wonder and delight, and believe me, they used to. Now they sicken me with boredom. I feel I am being made to hate the thing I loved. And I have learned so little.

> It’s not just for making pretty
> pictures with exponential or catenary curves in
> them.

If it were, though, I think that’d be a perfectly good reason for learning math. You could learn math only for you, for having the knowledge inside you, and never really applying it much beyond your art and the way you see the world. Understanding could be its own reward.

> As the anniversary of the third year of this
> Electron Blog approaches, what have I got to show for it? Am
> I launching rockets yet? No, but my friends gave me a
> lava lamp which reminds me of the processes of
> convection and cooling. Have I discovered new
> particles? No, but I like to read the articles on
> particles in New Scientist Magazine. Have I learned
> to unravel string theory? No, but I have good friends
> who blog about knitting and even knitting and calculus.
> So why is the Electron losing energy? Is there some
> unseen winter field slowing me down? Am I about to
> emit a photon and put on the brakes as I turn some
> graphic curve?
> I can point to two main reasons why my calculus
> study is going so slow. The first is that I don’t have a
> lot of personal contact with anyone who knows that I am
> doing this or can help if I get into perplexity. The
> closest of my Friendly Mathematicians are in
> Baltimore (an hour’s drive away even in normal traffic), and
> they are so incredibly and legitimately busy in
> their lives that I am not able to reserve enough time with
> them. They want to help, but some of my questions
> are just not things that can be answered over the
> internet. My entire life, at least since I can
> remember it, consists of trying to find time to work
> on whatever with people whose lives are so full and
> overscheduled that I am hardly more than another
> demand on their time, in essence, a nuisance. I can
> remember with vivid fondness the few times when one
> or another of these people has sat with me for more
> than an hour or two, just helping me clear up the
> problems of various sorts that were hindering me. (Thanks,
> Electron readers…you know who you are.) “Don’t
> bother them,” has been my refrain, yet how could I learn
> something without that vital contact? As I’ve said
> before, I will not subject myself to the nightmare
> of a formal classroom again if I can help it. And
> tutors are very expensive. That is one reason for the
> slowdown.

Tutors are expensive, and I understand your desire not to pester your friends. But why do you say a classroom is a nightmare?

Perhaps our experiences are very different. My experiences of community college and university have been utterly delightful, full of helpful people and other students who try hard to do well. There are not many dumbasses in a calculus class — those that didn’t get weeded out by trig don’t last long. Community college in particular is an affordable and fulfilling way to learn math. My Calc I professor is one of the best teachers I ever had in any subject, an incredibly wise, funny, and intelligent man. I loved community college. Not all profs are good, but a little research goes a long way towards pointing out the good ones.

> Another reason is the material itself. I was OK with
> looking at graphs and finding where the limits were.
> I was even OK with figuring out where the limits were
> from the equations, and I’m trying to review that
> right now. And I could even crank out derivatives,
> either from a graph or algebraically or from one
> rule or another. But here’s the mathematical obstacle.
> The book (Anton’s calculus text) offers proofs of each
> derivative rule. I have tried to work through them,
> but the book doesn’t give all the steps or explain
> what’s going on. For mathematicians, proof is the
> essential criterion for legitimacy. If it isn’t
> proved, it doesn’t work. But I don’t get these
> proofs.
> Without understanding and working through the
> proofs, I am not entitled to work with the derivative rules.
> And without the derivative rules, I can’t go ahead
> and derive. That’s why I am stuck on the learning curve.
> So I guess I’ll emit these photons of synchrotron
> blog radiation and hope that I’ll find some way to gain
> back the energy to continue on beam and on course.

My friend, I am an inveterate advice-giver. It took me years to learn not to try to corral people into doing what I thought was right for them. But it seems so clear to me that you are taking on too much alone. Only you know how truly worthwhile the math is to you. But I know, from years of experience, that I could never, ever have progressed as far as I did without the help of the many kind mathematician-teachers who guided me with fairness, compassion, respect, generosity, and even affection.

And! Colleges have wonderful things called MATH LABS where people who are lost get all the help they ever dreamed of having and more from kind people who are paid to offer ego-free one-on-one help and attention. Math labs attract kind and helpful people to work in them.  Without allies like these, I don’t know that I could have passed even Calc I, much less Calc II.

And yes, most students in college math classes are very young, but not all. Especially at a community college, people in middle age abound. Community colleges are where displaced workers are retrained for new jobs, and, at least at my local community college, the classroooms all had people in their 50s and 60s.  One woman in her 70s, taking Linear Algebra, of all things.

I don’t know what my solution is. But for you, maybe it’s seeking and finding help and support from others in a classroom situation. Maybe Gell-Mann and Dyson could learn math in a vacuum, but we mere mortals need help.

It’s one thing to have a windy dream that blows around in your heart. It’s another to act with real bravery to follow that dream wherever it takes you, no matter how unexpected your destinations are. I don’t want a windy dream. I want something real. I want to translate my windy dreams up out of the ether of the mindscape into something I can get my hands on and do with pride and love, no matter how humble it is, no matter how far from my dream it ends up being. The shabbiest reality is better than the grandest dream. Dreams are air, and reality, while sometimes cold, is solid earth you can stand upon.

Running your dreams through the meat grinder of reality is cruel sometimes. But in the end you get a life that’s as close to your dreams as you had the strength and courage to push it. In the end you were brave, and you went after something and you put real effort into your own happiness, into exploring how to be as happy here on Earth as you could possibly make yourself.

Maybe what I am saying is, when your dreams don’t work out, stay brave and stay curious and keep after your happiness. And maybe what I am saying is when you don’t have a dream anymore, fake it until something better comes along. Better to be always moving forward. Change direction if you must, but keep moving forward. Giving up on a dream is, I think, the worst fate of all. I’d rather spend my life beating myself against the rocks of a shore I might never approach than giving up to tread water forever.

And when you want to Live
How do you start?
Where do you go?
Who do you need to know?

– The Smiths, “The Boy With the Thorn In His Side”

One response to “an open letter to Pyracantha of Electron Blue

  1. Jennifer, you are so good. I hope someday I can meet you face to face. I have friends in Asheville who I might visit. As for my classroom nightmares, it is not something I can speak about in public, but all my memories of school and classes are horrible. I wouldn’t go back unless I were forced to. One of my Friendly Scientists in Baltimore has offered to help me, and maybe I’ll just take my Orange Car up to Baltimore if he has the time. If you e-mail me “off-list” I will explain more about not only my classroom experiences but why I am motivated to do math and physics.
    But thank you for your kindness.

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