Human Relations for Math and Science Nerds

A People Skills Primer for the Theory-Intelligent Yet People-Incompetent

Welcome to MIT! You’ve spent long hours with Isaac Asimov books and hardcover editions of the Feynmann lectures, worked extra hard on that SAT Writing section, and now you’ve finally arrived at the premiere science and engineering institution in all of the known universe. Congratulations!

We here at the Institute realize that your arduous calculus studies and endless prepping for your Westinghouse competition has left you… well, how to put this? Socially-deprived? Lacking those extroversion skills?

Have no fear! To help ease you into your years of tooling away at problem sets with as-yet complete strangers, we have put together the following “Relationships Cheat-Sheet”. This cheat-sheet uses science and math concepts as analogies for your relations with other people that can guide you through those awkward cafeteria moments, or if, for example, you stumble upon a dimly-lit gathering of noisy persons holding containers of ethyl hydrate-based drinks. Lesson 1 — this is called a party.

We hope you find the following of use and that your remaining years are as painless and restful as physically possible!

Proofs and Axioms: The relentlessly logical among us will formulate basic values in an attempt to extrapolate a consistent value system. Sometimes, though, it needs to be understood that other people and their feelings can be givens from which your own personal actions can be derived. These include not only your family, but your boyfriend or girlfriend and their maddingly finicky desires. Do not be surprised by their need to do laundry every other day or their hopeless inability to eat spicy food. Learn to deal with it — there will be bigger issues in life you’ll need to work around.

Numerical and Exact Solutions: Like partial differential equations or the three-body problem, most questions of human endeavors will never have exact solution. For example: what are you going to do after you graduate? When should I give up on that exam question? What color shirt should I wear today? (Okay, the answer to that is the one that doesn’t clash with the rest of your attire and still smells clean.) We all have to make do with crappy Matlab calculations and errant decimal points in our answers, so get cracking with your Runge-Kutte algorithms.

Inequality: Unlike mathematical equations, life is an expression for which you cannot compute the outcome. For instance, are you going to: finish that pset, go to a frat party, stay in and watch movies with friends, or wash the dishes? There is no single number that will quantify the value of all the aspects of your life, so just put down your calculator.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: Like some mathematical theorems, some things cannot be derived even from a comprehensive set of axioms. These truths are just as valid but simply unexplainable; just beyond the reach of a set of proofs. This holds true for your own values and behaviors as well. Try as you might to explain quirks like your inability to resist a good LAN party, you may find some actions to be inexplicable.

Quantum Wavefunctions: As a bright and bushy-tailed freshman, you’re quite like the solutions to Schrödinger’s equation: all probability and potential but fuzzy and unrealized. You will need to try out the many different activities available to you to determine if you have sufficient energy to break free of your potential well to succeed at endeavors like 8.022 or if you’re just another trapped standing wave.

Entropy: As you learned the hard way in math camp, people will come and go. The relationships that you wish to keep will require work to maintain, lest they fall victim to the entropy that collapses everything else. Make sure you put in the energy to let the people you care about know that you care. If you don’t, your relationships will become just another example of that thermodynamic law — things fall apart.

Evolution: Contrary to zealotical opinion, the biological environment around you does indeed change. For instance, your having been selected for entry into the Institute qualifies you as among fittest specimens of your species’ generation. (Whether you survive the brutal local conditions until graduation is a different matter altogether.) Needless to say, you will certainly not leave as the same person you were upon entry into the MIT ecosystem: your digestive tract will be unable to accommodate any more Anna’s burritos.

Feedbacks and Hysteresis: As the unformed human beings we call children first interact with people through family and school, we are generally products of our environment. However, this influence becomes less prominent as adulthood is realized. The feedback loop by which we create our human world feeds into others’ perceptions which can determine our decisions. And like any sufficiently nonlinear and complex feedback system, the order in which we accomplish these tasks can create crucially different results through hysteresis. If you don’t believe me, just think about what you’re supposed to do when in a relationship.

Hubble’s Law: Finally, your constant interaction with the universe does not mean your constellation of friends and encounters will fill up some limited space in your head. Rather, much like the expanding universe, your galaxy of human experiences will only grow and expand, and you’ll be all the better for it. Don’t let yourself be limited to a pre-Copernican view of your solar system and your time here at MIT. Go out and explore your world!

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Technology and Policy Program in the Engineering Systems Division.