Sunday, February 17, 2008

Playing, and Why The Fast Track Wasn't the Best Track

A NY Times article on playing today got me thinking about the indirect path I took to being an astronomer. I went to school at Harvard with a lot of very bright people (and even managed to marry one of them). The undergraduate academic experience at Harvard was a little hard on me, though it took me several years after I graduated to fully understand why. The first reason is pretty common to undergraduates at Harvard--intelligent and accomplished people who are used to being the best at what they do are suddenly brought into contact with quite a few people who are better than they are. For driven students, this blow to the ego can undercut some of the self-assurance necessary to work productively.

What was harder on me than turning in my "big fish" status as I moved to a larger pond was the cultural mismatch that existed between myself and the faculty with whom I came into contact. Harvard physics (or at least physics instruction) has a strongly theoretical bent to it, and while some modicum of application is maintained through the 2 lab courses we were required to take, I was always given the impression that applied fields were a cop-out for theoreticians who couldn't make the cut. The culture of disdain for experimentalists kept me on a theoretical track throughout college, long past the point at which I was "having fun". I can tell when I'm having fun, because I play. Playing, as defined in the article above, is "apparently purposeless activity." For me, that means trying to answer questions that aren't on the homework, just out of curiosity. It means starting projects, building things, and enjoying it. The farther I went down the theory track, I less I played with what I was learning. The undergraduate curriculum left little time for doing anything that wasn't strictly required, which was one problem, but the larger problem was that the path I was taking wasn't supporting the kind of playing I like to do.

I got lucky when I enrolled in an introductory electronics class with Paul Horowitz. I found myself, outside of class, trying to teach the computer I'd built to shoot a dart at a mechanical dinosaur. I modified a remote sensing, squawking penguin to spit water at passers-by. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was playing. After I graduated, somewhat at a loss for what to do, and burnt out with physics, I asked Paul if he knew anyone I could work for. He introduced me to Dan Werthimer at Berkeley, where I started designing and building electronics for SETI. Out of school, I suddenly had a lot more time for diversions, and I began learning Python and using it to write evolving programs that mutated their own source code. I tried writing speech recognition (I'll post someday about language acquisition, one of my favorite diversions). I made a guitar website to learn cgi programming. Most telling, I (mostly) gave up video games for computer programming, which indicates the degree to which this really was playing for me.

Eventually I stumbled into radio astronomy, where the physics that I learned (and really did love), met with the electronics and programming that I loved playing with. An incredible number of skills that I currently use were developed during my diversions, including Python programming, soldering, web programming, and signal processing. I never took classes in any of these things, I just learned them from my projects. What I didn't understand as an undergraduate was that working can really be "playing" if you find the right job, and that if you don't play with what you're doing, you might be barking up the wrong tree. Moreover, I was able to learn and accomplish much more when I was in a laboratory environment, playing with what I was learning, than in a classroom listening to lectures. Of course, you can't learn everything from playing--you need people to take you beyond what you have immediately at hand--but for me at least, I would rather this be the exception to the rule. Playing shouldn't just be for kids.