February 15, 2012

Oh great, another paean to how hard” science is.

There’s an essay getting some Twitter traction today from NPRs 13.7 science blog entitled Science: It’s really, really hard, and that’s something to celebrate.” I just read another essay by a mathematician seemingly making the same point about his area of expertise.

They both annoyed the bejeezus out of me, because they both seemed to be glorifying the supposed fact that science and math are necessarily hard”—that engaging with them in a meaningful way has to involve putting up with stuff that would make most people want to shoot themselves in the head out of frustration or boredom, and that successfully slogging through that sort of thing is some sort of badge of honor, because science and math are important, and important things are hard, so yay for hardness and frustration and boredom.

When ITT Tech wants to get more people to become auto mechanics, does it make commercials full of auto mechanics gravely droning on about how hard” the job is? Or what about chefs? Do you think people become chefs out of some martyr-like affection for the boring, frustrating aspects of the work?

What sparks someone to meaningfully engage with something hard—i.e., any damn thing in this world worth doing, including but in no way limited to pointy-headed pursuits like science and math—isn’t the hardness of it. It’s something that Jennifer Ouellette calls the mimetic moment.” The moment when your brain and your emotions line up like iron filings because you realize Ah: this is that!” The hardness goes away.

Not the challenge, mind you: Ouellette still had a lot of challenging labor in front of her in between having her mimetic moment about calculus and finishing her book about it. It’s the boring, frustrating opaqueness that disappears—or at least lifts for long enough to make you not care about the hardness. Adam Frank, the author of the 13.7 post, describes a similar mimetic moment which made him realize he wanted to be a scientist:

It was my high school physics class and I must have been 17. … We were doing an experiment designed to measure the wavelength of visible light. At the time I still didn’t get math. It always seemed really, really hard. I was never sure why, or what, I was doing with the calculations. … As the class wore on we took our readings and transcribed them into lab books. Then came the analysis section. First we had to climb a steep hill of trigonometry. Then came a long slog through the muddy ruts of algebra. I kept screwing the calculations up, losing my way. But then, with a bright burst of clarity, the math spoke loud and clear. It gave me the answer.

Beautiful! Unfortunately, this is his takeaway:

On that day something shifted. All of a sudden I understood why math and science needed to be hard.

OK, so: It’s not that math and science need to be presented, taught, or even practiced in a way that makes these incredible, inspiring, life-changing mimetic moments more common and easier to come by. No, it’s that math and science need to be hard”—obscuring the mimetic moments behind steep hills,” long slogs” and muddy ruts.” What the $#&@ kind of logic is that?

Look: anyone who wants to master something is going to face hills, slogs, and ruts aplenty. That’s not the issue: that’s just what it takes to become excellent. The issue is getting them to want to start the process in the first place, and perhaps stay with it.

If that very first spark of inspiration, that eureka, the Ah: this is that!” is hidden behind the intellectual/emotional equivalent of barbed wire and land mines, we are simply not going create as many scientists or mathematicians as we would like to. This is a design problem. As Bret Victor writes in his Kill Math” manifesto/project:

The power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols.

In other words: this shit shouldn’t be that hard. 

Great chefs love making food. Great auto mechanics love fixing cars. They have to put in a ton of not-always-instantly-rewarding effort to be great, but I doubt they love being bored and frustrated. If all we have to dangle in front of would-be scientists and mathematicians is a martyr-like regimen of hardness” as some sort of inescapable end unto itself, then we don’t deserve their talent.

Screw hardness. We don’t put points on the board” by glorifying thankless intellectual friction and forcing people out of being fascinated. Inspiration does not happen by attrition. We need mimetic moments by the millions—by any means necessary.

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