Are Universities Creative Places?

April 18, 2015

While some university graduate schools may be creative places, on the whole, schools and universities are uncreative places for their students.  What makes an environment creative?  Dr. Robert Sternberg of Cornell has extensively researched creativity and has identified five factors which are always present in creative individuals.

1. Expertise
Creative people are masters of their craft and know what they’re talking about.

2. Imaginative Thinking Skills
They can see things in novel ways, find new patterns, and explore connections others have never seen before.

3. A venturesome personality
They welcome new experiences, tolerate ambiguity and risk, and have some inner source of strength which pushes them to persevere through difficult obstacles.  They are focused and are able to avoid distraction.

4. Intrinsic motivation
Creators are driven more by interest, satisfaction, and challenge than by external factors.  They’re not out to impress others or make money.  They typically become obsessed with some problem, project, or puzzle and work on it night and day.  They wake up thinking about it and go to sleep thinking about it.  They become deeply interested in something and pursue it because they want to.

5. A creative environment
Somehow creative people find a place which sparks, supports, and refines their ideas.  They’re surrounded by mentors who challenge and support them.  Creativity works best in teams which are out to innovate and have lots of communication.  There also has to be a lot of time to think and work on the problems.

Of these five factors, the university as I’ve experienced it only develops expertise.  They are places where competent professionals assign you lots and lots of homework, papers, and assigned reading, and if you keep pushing through, they eventually cram knowledge into you.  That’s not to say you’re going to be creative and contribute new things to your field, but you’ll be able to mechanically do the things you’ve been taught.

With time, they’ll teach you to solve integrals, translate certain types of problems into differential equations, and write formal documents in a very grammatically correct, professional manner, and all of that is wonderful.  However, that’s not to say you’ve been prepared to create and share original ideas.  If you just go through the typical university curriculum, even passing all your courses with straight A’s, that does not guarantee you’re ready to contribute new things to your field.  There are other skills which were never developed; that’s because they’re much more difficult to grade and measure.

Creativity requires intrinsic motivation, where things are studied and done for their own sake.  Most students hate their assignments, avoid them when they can, and are completely extrinsically motivated.  They’re out to get a good job.  When I was in my English class just the other day, one student shared how happy he was that he’s going to be graduating in a few weeks and that he landed a job which will pay him $65,000 a year.  The other students’ faces lit up and one student told him, “Nice!  You’re done.”  Those were his exact words.  The goal seems to be to gain skills which lead to employment and then go and earn money, which they’ll then spend on the things they’re actually interested in.  It’s all a means to some other end.

Because of the grading system, students come to hate tests.  They pray for easy tests and easy classes, because making mistakes is too costly.  They don’t want to be challenged because there is no room for mistakes.  If they get bad grades, they lose scholarships and grants, and that means more debt.  Also, if you get bad grades, you’re less employable and can’t get into the colleges and graduate schools you’re interested in.  Bad grades can completely destroy your career ambitions, permanently.  The result is students obsessed with compliance and grades.  The attitude is not to question, it’s to obey.  So, students worry that they have to do everything perfect on the first go because every score is kept in a permanent record.  If a person is not allowed to fail, they’re never going to learn to venture out and take risks; you can’t be creative without taking risks and failing over and over.

Taking tests can be of some use – for students – “where I am, what I know, what I’ve achieved,” or for teachers – “what should be changed or improved”

Beyond that, they never really tell you very much

– Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics, MIT

It feels like every other day you have an exam around the corner.  If you divert some of your time to explore your own interests, even if those things are just further explorations of a topic you’ve covered previously in that very class, you’re severely punished when you do poorly on future exams.

In science and engineering, it’s easy find yourself scrambling to master the material for the next exam, lacking the requisite time to make the material your own.  It’s very easy to learn things just well enough to answer the types of questions a particular professor will put on the exam.  You can skate through college, making really good grades, without a deep grasp of the material.

A person can do magnificently on a test and understand very little. We’ve all had the experience of “acing a test” and forgetting everything two weeks later.

– Noam Chomsky

I’ve found this to be true with really complicated survey courses, where the course is supposed to give you a brief overview of the field.  To get through them, you really don’t understand things, but you memorize how to work certain types of problems because you have no other choice.  To give you an example, in an introductory particle physics course, we were studying some sort of excitation process rooted in quantum electrodynamics, and I did not remotely understand it.  Equations were just pulled out of thin air, there was little explanation of what the variables even were, and the text basically said, “This is the equation that’s used.”  I shrugged and said, “So?  How does that help me?”  I went to the library and got every book I could find, read them all, and still did not understand it.  I could tell it was a really complicated, deep subject, and I suppose that was why it just gave me the equation without explanation.  Even still, I really wanted to understand it.

The test was coming around the corner and I thought, “Well, I don’t get this at all.”  I got copies of old exams, sort of figured out how to use the mystery equation, and somehow skated by.  I got 100% on the exam but that didn’t mean much.  With complicated material, even if you want to understand it, the class pushes forward and exploring the topic further only leads to you getting left behind.  I’ve known many curious students over the years who have interesting questions in mind but they’ve never had the time to pursue and explore them.

A sixth grade teacher came up and told a story how one of her students asked if she could learn more about something about a particular topic and the teacher said she felt compelled to tell her that she shouldn’t do that – that she instead should be studying for the upcoming national exam because it will determine the teacher’s future and indirectly, the girl’s future.  The little girl may have been a lot better off if she explored what interested her and not the test.  Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with inquiring, searching, pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.  In fact, you will remember what you discover – if you pursue this kind of learning.

– Noam Chomsky

American universities have many factors which crush creativity.  For one, they assign so much homework, reading assignments, and papers, you really don’t have time to pursue your own self-directed endeavors.  When I was signing up for classes in the past, two of my professors were visibly upset with me when I didn’t take the full class schedule which they recommended.  I told them I had ordered a stack of programming books on artificial intelligence, was interested in learning about the technology behind self-driving cars, and that I would resume being a full-time physics student the next semester.  One professor just chuckled and laughed to himself.  The other stormed out of the room and wouldn’t talk to me.  I found it bizarre, said nothing, filled out my schedule, slid it back to them, and then left in silence.  During the subsequent months I went on to study AI in depth and found it incredibly interesting – infinitely more interesting than the classes they were trying to push on me.

To pursue your own interests in your own way in college is considered laziness and you’re looked down upon.  The professors are often cynical and assume you’re at home playing video games or watching television, so they feel they have a moral imperative to “push” you, which really amounts to stealing the little free time you have for self-directed endeavors.

noam-chmosky education

Students are also crushed by massive financial burdens.  Over and over again, I see students taking huge course loads because they’re worried about the massive student loan debt they’re incurring.  They have no free time.  I was hanging out with a graduate student in the library one evening and he told me how he was taking double the normal course load.  I asked him why and he told me how terrified he was of the massive debt he’d been accumulating and needed to finish up so he could get into the workplace and pay it off.  How are you ever supposed to develop a venturesome, independent, self-directed personality when you have no free time of your own to explore anything?  Doing any sort of self-exploration in a college environment is impractical.  There are too many assignments diverting your attention and the financial costs are too high.  You need to have a directed goal before you go in there.  It’s not a place to explore.

As for the university environment, it’s generally passive, not interactive and involved.  When I was a child, my grandfather loved to tell a story where he’d ask me, “Jason, what do you do during church?” and I replied, “I sit still while daddy preaches.”  He’d then erupt in laughter.  Sadly, my high school and college experiences have been just that.  You sit still while professor lectures.

Professors will answer your questions, but they almost always have a rather rigid class agenda.  There is so much material needing covered before the next exam and if you try to get elaborations and further explore topics, there simply isn’t time.  And even if you’re interested in exploring it on your own, if you take all the courses the university system shoves onto you, you won’t have time.

Going back to extrinsic motivation, many employers want to find self-directed, self-interested scientists to work in their laboratories.  This leads to many science and engineering students faking interest in their subject or field to look more employable.  They get involved in several small, petty research projects which demand very little of them.  Then they self “publish” papers on these topics which are never intended to be looked at or read.  From what I can tell, they’re just resume filler.  These tactics may fool some naive employers, but I don’t know.  It’s all rather bizarre to me.

I’ve had several students recommend that I get involved in several projects of this sort.  We’d be in the hallway having having this discussion and their primary selling point was how little time was involved and how easy it was to write up the paper.  If you look at the papers themselves, they look very technical, but the students lacked any real deep understanding of what they were doing or what they were writing about.

Creativity demands teamwork and there is some degree of working together in teams within universities, but it’s generally on superficial assignments which don’t really mean that much.  No real comradery develops and it rarely lasts beyond the particular class assignment you share together at that time.  Universities are solo institutions.  When you do your homework and take your exams, you’re in it alone.  It’s actually worse than this though.  The top students are awarded scholarships, so everyone is in silent competition with one another to leave the university with the least debt.

In general, I would not say the environment is supportive either.  I’ve never been asked by anyone there what I’m interested in or why I’m pursuing what I’m pursuing, or felt like there was this system in place wanting to support me, encourage me, and help me achieve my goals.  Despite people lamenting how uncaring and brutal the corporate world is, every single business partner I’ve ever worked with has sat with me in a restaurant, asked about my direction and interests, and how we could effectively work together.  Universities are not like that at all.  They’re generally expertise factories.  You’re put on an assembly line, stuff is crammed into you (which is rapidly leaking out of you at the same time), and you come out the other end with a GPA (grade point average) stamped on your chest.

“It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.  That’s what teaching should be: inspiring students to discover on their own; to challenge if they don’t agree; to look for alternatives if they think there are better ones; work through great achievements of the past, and try to master them on their own because they are interested in them. Students will really gain from them but will remember them and use it as a basis for going on their own.  Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own because that is what you’re going to do during your life, not just absorb materials given to you by the outside, and repeat it.”

– Noam Chomsky

I don’t think very highly of universities or schools, but an education is a very important thing.  Without a high level degree, your opportunities will be limited.  Most of us have to just grit our teeth and deal with it.

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Schrodinger’s View Of The World

April 12, 2015

Lately I’ve been reading My View Of The World, a book by Erwin Schrodinger, the famous Nobel laureate physicist.  He was the creator of the wave equation used in quantum mechanics.  I’d like to share some passages from it, along with passages from his other books as well.

What I want you all to notice is that physics, to him, is a quest to understand God, himself, and the universe.  It was his personal journey to tackle the deepest questions of our existence.  Even so, philosophy was more important to him than physics.

my view of the world

 

“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear; tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and the west, I am above and below, I am this entire world.'”

“There is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction… The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us at all lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishad.”

“Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.”

– Erwin Schrodinger, My View Of The World

Schrodinger believed we are all aspects of consciousness and are beyond space and time.  We are immortal.

erwin-schrodinger-austrian-physicist-omikron

In one his other books, Nature and the Greeks (1954) he makes this very clear.

“We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies are in the picture. Our bodies belong to it. Not only my own body, but those of my friends, also of my dog and cat and horse, and of all the other people and animals. And this is my only means of communicating with them.”

“The observing mind is not a physical system, it cannot interact with any physical system. And it might be better to reserve the term “subject” for the observing mind. … For the subject, if anything, is the thing that senses and thinks. Sensations and thoughts do not belong to the “world of energy.”

“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”

“Science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, of why and how an old song can move us to tears.”

– Erwin Schrodinger, Nature and the Greeks (1954)

In his book Mind and Matter (1958), he states that we are all the same ‘thing’, one unified consciousness, one mind.

“There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousnesses. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind.”

– Erwin Schrodinger, Mind and Matter (1958)

Interestingly enough, Schrodinger thought this world may have been created by some sort of accident, but that is not true of consciousness, which we are all aspects of.

“Although I think that life may be the result of an accident, I do not think that of consciousness. Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

– Erwin Schrodinger, The Observer, 11 January 1931

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Our Deepest Selves

April 4, 2015

At times I’ve told friends that I believe, in the deepest sense, we’re all one and the same ‘thing’, though I don’t know for sure what this ‘thing’ is.  All conceptions we have of “selves” is an illusion.  Sure, I’m Jason and I’m a human male, and you’re Jimmy Joe, a blog reader, but deeper down there’s some universal ‘thing’ connecting us.  In the past, I didn’t have a name for it, but now I’ve come to use the word ‘consciousness’, and believe we’re all manifestations of it.  Let me explain this.

If you’re willing, give me a few minutes of your time and I’ll use a medical case from neuroscience to explain this to you.  Let’s consider the story of a young girl named Jody.  She suffered from epileptic seizures as a little girl, so neurosurgeons completely removed half of her brain.  Half of her skull is completely empty.  Even still, she functions like any other little girl.  It hasn’t impaired her at all.

You might be surprised to learn that a person can function with half a brain.  It’s pretty fascinating.  Let’s use this and devise a stranger scenario.

As you all know, I’m a bit of a mad scientist.  Well, not really, but I like considering strange thought experiments!  I’ll let my scientific curiosity get the best of me and imagine kidnapping one of you for research.  I’m going to put you under anesthetic for a special surgery.  While you’re asleep, I’ll divide your brain into two halves and transfer them both to different bodies made specifically for your brain.

experiment

Now we come to the big question: when “you” awaken from this surgery, which one of these new people will you be?  Both?  Neither?  Only one of them?  From what I know of neuroscience, I’d have two duplicate copies of you.  Both of these “new” people would open their eyes, look at me, and tell me they’re “you”, but how could that possibly be true?

Surely you can’t be both of them.  If you think this over, it seems impossible to imagine controlling both bodies, experiencing life from two bodies simultaneously.  You’d be able to send one of your bodies to buy groceries while you use the other to do laundry.  That can’t be right.  It seems more plausible that you’d wake up as one of the people and that another “new” person was created out of thin air.  A new “soul” if you will.  We have two separate people.

Now we can go even further.  If we’re able to take your brain and turn you into two people, surely we can go the other way.  We could take the two hemispheres and properly connect them again in a single body.  We’ve fused two “souls” and made them a single person.  Two people become one and the same person.

You may be thinking that this couldn’t be done with two very dissimilar people, like one half of a car-mechanic’s brain with half of an elegant ballerina’s brain.  It’d be a bit more difficult, sure, but not impossible.  The brain halves would have to undergo some adjustment and learn the situation, but it could be done with enough technical skill.

We’re all made of the same stuff and are all aspects of the same ‘thing’.  If it helps you, you can think of this “pool” of consciousness which can bend itself into separate pockets temporarily before bouncing back to a single ‘thing’.   I sometimes think of it like soap bubbles on the surface of pool of water.

255px-TwoBubblesWcommonSurface

At other times, I wonder if matter has some sort of “proto-consciousness”, and based on what patterns matter takes, patterns of consciousness emerge.  Is matter fundamental and does consciousness emerge from it, or does consciousness manifest matter?  I don’t know, but I think there’s a deep relation between the two.  There is some relation that connects matter and consciousness, and we’re all connected and the same ‘thing’ within that medium.

“What you are basically, deep deep down, far far in, is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself, only there’s a conspiracy that you mustn’t let on about that, because everybody is.”

– Alan Watts

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Scientists See A Lot More

April 2, 2015

Not too long ago I said that I was going to finish my last load of “crap courses” this next semester and be off to finish some final classes in graduate school.  Well, there’s been a change in plans.  Come this next semester, I’ll be taking more physics courses.  I met with my adviser and it turns out that I can take courses outside my university online and receive credits. They’re not credits that will help me graduate (only undergraduate credits I need are humanities and other things), but I honestly don’t care right now.

I’m not married and probably never will be.  I have no responsibilities.  I don’t have any debts to worry about and pay off.  I might as well study everything I’ve ever wondered about and just keep going as far as I can with it all.  That’s what my parents have been telling me to do as well.  My mother sat with me one evening and said, “Why are you worried about graduating?  Why does that matter to you?”  Other than wanting to get deeply involved in research I’m interested in, there really isn’t a reason.  When I think about it, my curiosity to study all the different areas of physics is more important to me than specializing and doing research.

But anyway, I’ll be taking courses on cosmology and general relativity.  That and I’ll be studying tensor calculus.  So, so much for the plans.  When do I ever follow a plan anyway?  It’s back to thinking about the expansion of the universe, black holes, and galaxy formation!

I’ve been excited to see MIT Opencourseware posting their graduate school lectures online.  All of their quantum field theory courses, particle physics, general relativity, and all the rest.  That’s amazing.  In today’s world, pretty much anyone has access to the best lectures in the world, and with these online options for students, you can take courses at different universities online and have your exams taken where you are.  It’s exciting.

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The History Of The Universe In 10 Mins

March 25, 2015

This short video captures the history of the entire universe and the evolution of life on Earth in ten minutes.

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