Monday, November 15, 2010

My Life at Caltech; The Riddle of the Complex

Exactly 10 years ago, I was one of three hundred bright-eyed freshmen at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA.  Palm trees, perfect weather, and problem sets would saturate my next four years.

I, like most of my classmates, was initially devastated by my academic performance:  about average.  But after seeing the typical fates of those who had managed to pass out of introductory physics or math -- one poor guy in my hall overloaded on credits and literally drove himself manic-depressive -- I was grateful to be normal for once in my life.  Gradually, I learned to spend what little free time I had drinking beer in the courtyard and making friends.

Since I had grown so accustomed to being a nerd, it took some time to realize that I was one of the cool kids at Caltech.  Looking back on my behavior, though, I now regret having blown my chance to use these newfound powers for good.  I gradually developed an artsy, avant-garde image and an absurdly crude sense of humor.  I drank, partied, and did my best to corrupt other hapless nerds into a hedonistic worldview.  I became part of a clique that, by the time senior year came, set much of the tone for what jerk-off behavior was and wasn't cool at Tech.  There were even, for the first time in my life, girls who liked me.

Despite these external changes, and despite 40 hours of math problems per week, my inner life continued -- keeping journals, pondering imponderables, and visiting libraries during every spare moment.  But rather than trying to get ahead in physics like everyone else, I decided I wanted to learn about other things, like literature, art, and poetry.  The more I read, the more I needed.  It became like water for my parched soul.

But my thoughts and journals were by no means limited to non-science.  I frequently entertained the wildest speculations about the nature of the universe.  Since reading Hawking's book, I had read and continued to read popular books about time-travel and wormwholes, artificial intelligence and Godel's Theorem, and chaos theory and complex systems theory. 

For a scientist reading this, perhaps it paints a picture of a gullible mind.  But that was not how I saw myself.  I wanted to teach myself to think creatively, to see the big picture, and to understand the line between a scientific idea and a mystical or pseudoscientific idea.  I was extremely skeptical of the theories of Douglas Hofstadter, Roger Penrose, and Stuart Kauffman, for instance, and in fact I would have been very surprised to ever learn that they were true.  What I admired in them, however, was their ability to critique and explore ways of thinking outside the usual frameworks.  They were rebels -- the bad-boy hipsters of science.

But what was I searching for in all of these mad ideas, neglecting my problem sets in the library late at night?  I'm still not entirely sure.  At the time, I was certainly obsessed with the idea that physics -- mere particles moving according to equations -- was not the whole story about reality.  It wasn't that I thought that there were spiritual forces in addition to particles, or meaningful coincidences, or life after death.  It stood to reason that everything was made of particles.  But the most interesting things that these particles could do when brought together, from composing symphonies to staging political revolutions, did not seem to fall under the purview of physics at all.  And physics was supposed to be science at its best.

Still, how would I know I had found what I was looking for?  I couldn't have told you.  Physics was apparently the only precise science.  But real science must be precise, which meant that physics was the only real science.  But physics was only about particles, and not about things we care about, like people or societies.  Thus I was driven to read the writings of avant-garde mathematicians who thought they could extend their precise models to so-called "complex systems," that is, people or societies.  But even if this were possible, what could you do but laugh off a simple equation describing all of human civilization, no matter how true the equation?

On and on my search went.  But what was I after? 

I think, ultimately, it was a search for the divine in a world from which God had long since been banished.

(Background story to be continued ...)

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