Twofish's Blog

August 7, 2006

Babies R’Us and 26-100

I got out of academia because of something that happened at Babies R’ Us. My wife was expecting, and I was still a RA. I was looking around for baby decorations and cribs and other things, and I realized that I couldn’t afford any of the stuff on a RA salary or a post-doc salary. It’s hard to describe the awful, humilating feeling being in a large room full of decorations and baby things, and to realize that other people can give that stuff to their babies, but you can’t.

I got back in because of something that happened in Room 26-100 at MIT a few months ago at the reunion. The physics department had set up a bunch of physics demonstrations, and my kids were just loving it. There is the pendulum that demonstrates potential and kinetic energies, and I was able to use them to use that to teach my six and eight year-olds some basic facts about phase diagrams and resonance. When I was going through that, I was thinking to myself, you know, I’d make a damn good physics professor if someone just gave me the chance. I was also thinking to myself, maybe my kids are a little too excited about MIT. They think of it as some fun cool playground (which it is). I didn’t quite have the heart to tell them about the bullsh*t undergraduate admissions process which elite universities use to separate the worthy from the unworthy.

I had the same bad feeling when I did the video at wikimania for the MIT Media Lab and MacArthur Foundation. When you start me talking about science, I start getting very animated, but in the back of my mind, I feel a little disgusted with myself. Actually more than a little disgusted. I’m getting people interested in science and then submitting themselves to an inhumane and terrible system that will brutalize and abuse them, that turn their idealism into bitterness and worst of all will make them think that its their damn fault.

I mean, we have this really, really, really stupid stuff like the NSF report on the future of science in America. I am utterly amazed at how the brightest minds in the science and engineering can come up with just total stupid garbage. It’s because the people writing the report are the “winners” of the system and there is no way for us “losers” to say anything useful. People are trying to get more and more kids interested in science and engineering while ignoring the fact that there are no science and engineering jobs at the back end.

This is just disgusting, and the more one thinks about it (which no one with an NSF grant has) the more disgusting it is.

The people on the NSF panel are some nice people, but their institutional interest is to get more funding for science and technology for universities.  If this results in a massive overproduction of scientists and engineers, they don’t see it as their problem, and they certainly aren’t thinking of the human costs of getting kids interested in science and engineering.

You are getting kids interested in a field, and having them enter a brutal process designed to weed them out. What the HELL is all of this about? I’ve seem just too many bright and idealistic high school seniors at University of Texas who want to be physicists and engineers that then go into those stupid undergraduate weed-out classes (which I should point out that MIT does not have), which leaves them bitter and brutalized.

OK, that’s merely anger. What is turning this into total rage is this…….

If I don’t do something to change the system, my kids are going to go through it.


1 Comment »

  1. I’m not sure about the accuracy of some of what you said but I wouldn’t doubt it to be true. I keep thinking that there is something wrong with people not living up to their potential by being scientists and engineers but there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Why does everyone need to be a scientist? The answer is that we don’t. It is our cultural understanding that we shouldn’t know anything beyond that which will directly infuluence our life and job application (which says that work is our life). The sad fact is that most everyone just wants to pass through life with the least amount of effort while getting the most they can. We forget the quality of our lives matters more than those things in it (excluding people and relationships which aren’t things) and that quality isn’t about Starbucks coffee, or having the newest trendy clothing and electronics. These things do make life better, or at least more enjoyable, but they aren’t necessary and we can’t see past the “must have” that is thrown at us. I myself would love to have all those things but I am not willing to work myself to death just to have things that aren’t necessary and in the end won’t matter near as much as the time spent with friends and family.
    It’s a sad fact that there really aren’t the high paying jobs out there for science and engineering college graduates any longer but that is a fact in almost all fields these days. There is more of an oppurtunity to do science experiments in your garage because of advancement in miniturization though and who says you need a college degree to be something? I have found that we need to show our kids that life isn’t all about work but that yes you should do something that you enjoy and if you aren’t don’t let it consume everything. What each of us must do is find that balance that we are willing to accept such as so many hours a day for such a salary. If you want the ultra high paying job then you must sacrifice or if you want to be that scientist that everyone has heard of then there is something to be paid. The system is somewhat brutal as I have seen but that is because we aren’t humanitarian and we still haven’t figured out how to come to terms with the fact that some people want to do things that don’t come easily to them (this is where you ahve those people who aren’t good as engineers but would have made better writers or philisophers). We are caught up in a gigantic battle to make us all uber productive little cogs in a perfect machinge so that they can forget that we are human.

    It’s somewhat of that old debate between Aristotle and Democritus which is that either we should be humane or we should be mechanistic (a somewhat simple explanation but I think it works). The only way to fix the system is to move towards humanismas far as I can see though I don’t think it should be all about being humane. Anyways the systems is extremely broken and there isn’t a solution that we can just patch on it as it has been toyed with by to many people. It’s time for an overhaul and that isn’t going to work easily. But if it is to be done it just has to be implemented instead of debated as no one is ever going to agree with it but out Senate and House can always out vote us in that respect.

    Comment by Darklingknighted — August 15, 2006 @ 1:56 pm

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