Campus Life little life lessons

Connecting the dots

The beauty of HASS meets science

Life is full of lessons, and not just those learned in lecture. There are some lessons that you acquire not within a classroom, but through experiences outside the realm of academics. With all the new encounters and hardships and rewards that college brings, these four years are an ideal time to start tackling the big questions — why are we here studying? What is really important in life? What is the meaning of Stonehenge? Little Life Lessons will muse on philosophical questions that college students may face at this turning point in our lives. Perhaps you’ve already contemplated these issues before; perhaps such matters have never crossed your mind. My hope is that this column serves as a springboard for the next step along your path of thoughts.

We MIT students pride ourselves on our laser-sharp focus. Whether it is concentrating on a late-night problem set or aiming to land that dream internship, we have the absolute precision of a surgeon when it comes to achieving our goals.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that I recently overheard a classmate question the use of studying fields outside your major. “Why bother studying Y or Z when you are pursuing a career in X?” they wondered aloud. “If you had instead spent that time fully focused on X, you would have been more knowledgeable in your major and thus a more valuable asset in your field.”

A part of me died a little at hearing this. I remembered all those late nights I spent tackling 7.013 problem-sets and deciphering cryptic 8.02 textbooks … Had I invested that immense amount of time and energy into things I actually love —such as music or philosophy — may I have become a professional pianist by now? Or a Plato of the 21st century? I had chosen to study at MIT because I knew it would stretch me to my limits, throwing me light-years away from my comfort zone. Was studying math and science outside my major just a waste of time? And are humanities classes just a waste of time for the engineers or scientists of MIT? Nothing, I believe, could be further from the truth.

Different fields — both in the sciences and humanities — are simply different lenses through which we observe and understand the world that surrounds us. Biology explains the building blocks of life: genetics, evolution, cell and organ development, how our entire body “ticks.” Chemistry lays the foundation of all that: the concentration difference in ions that makes neural systems work, the chemicals and bonds that form the very “building blocks” of life. And physics is about the interaction of all matter: it’s about gravity that roots us to the ground, about the Earth’s magnetic field that essentially protects us from the inferno of sun flares, about the stars that we see at night and the mystery of the universe.

Even something as potentially abstract as math offers us elegant tools through which to understand relationships. How else would we understand the definite relationship between time and distance, between supply and demand — or even between two partners’ love for one another? One of my most memorable moments yet at MIT has been an 18.03 lecture during my freshman spring, in which we used differential equations to model the relationship dynamics between Romeo and Juliet. Chalking two equations up on the chalkboard, “R’(t) = aJ” and “J’(t) = bJ + (c - dR)” (where R(t) represents Romeo’s love for Juliet over time, J(t) the opposite, and a, b, and c representing variable parameters), our professor explained that this means Romeo gets more into Juliet the more she’s into him, but too much of Romeo’s affection gets on Juliet’s nerves. Witnessing an entire Shakespearean tragedy be modelled by two equations made me wonder: what other complex, human phenomena may be so elegantly modelled by mathematics?

Without science, we would suffer a state of perpetual and utter confusion, like a child thrown into a foreign country. If science is analogous to teaching that child to speak and write in that foreign language, then the humanities would be analogous to teaching the child how they should communicate, socially and culturally, with people of that country. It is the humanities that teach us how we should utilize our scientific knowledge for the greatest benefit of, well… humanity.

No matter what your course number, understanding both the sciences and humanities enables you to appreciate the multifaceted nature of the world we live in. Take a musician, for example. Which do you think would possess more remarkable musicianship: the musical prodigy who has done nothing but fiddle and pluck strings all his life? Or the learned musician who has studied the physics underlying acoustics, the motor neurons that control his hands and fingers, the chemistry that makes up his instrument, and the intricate math behind musical composition?

Like a spider’s web, like neural systems in the human brain, like the myriad solar systems that make up the universe, and like the T subway system, every academic field is interconnected. The most seemingly dissimilar fields have the most fascinating intersections: the physics of standing waves explains why plucking a guitar string makes different pitched twangs; the math of the Golden Ratio explains why Mona Lisa is (allegedly) so appealing.

So as of now, I disagree with the aforementioned statement that time spent studying fields outside your primary field is a waste. If anything, it’s the furthest thing from a waste. Understanding the connections between your field and any other field enhances your understanding of your field — and your overall appreciation of the world.

All the dots are there. It’s up to you to connect them.

Alan Cisar almost 10 years ago

Why study things out side your major? There is no such thing as useless knowledge, only knowledge you haven't found a use for yet.

B. L. almost 10 years ago

I was one of the people who dabbled outside my area a lot - so much that in the short term it hurt my academic progress. My field was a Science one, but I found making equipment in the machine shop more satisfying than the science - same for many of the other diversions I took (many humanities). After leaving MIT, I ended up following a path of different technical areas almost all outside my field. The diversions helped me when I found myself doing computer support, event management, event roadie, carpentry, painting, organizing voice recording sessions, inspection, rigging, public outreach, technical writing, non-technical writing, visual design, maneuvering through the political minefield in a company, finding the least worst solution to a fiasco, being the company coffee maker, being the purchasing manager, etc.

People around me had no idea what to do when the unusual tasks came up.

The many diversions and many disasters I faced at MIT gave me the tools and confidence to get through difficult times doing engineering.