It’s probably logical to move from the problem I had with number lines in 4th grade to multi-dimensional problems in the 10th grade. But while the problem had more dimensions, the issue remained the same. On the first day of 10th grade geometry, the teacher said, “Ok. Given a point…” and again my mind drifted away and the panic started to settle in. Given a point!! What if that wasn’t true? What if there was no such thing as a non-dimensional point? Wouldn’t that basically destroy everything that was about to come after?
My attention returned briefly to the teacher. “It has no length, no width, no height. It really can’t be measured…” and back out again. I wanted to scream out – “Don’t you see! We have to come up with something different!! It’s not safe to blow by that with no further investigation, just accepting it because it’s what you’ve been told!”
These were very heavy ideas. I was already scarred back in 4th grade from the concept that we could not define what was happening between zero and one and now this! If what these teachers were teaching was actually true, then what sense did it make to hold a ruler up to something and say it was “five inches long”?
Now, you may think that a youngster should not be so concerned with such details. But I didn’t really get to control how my brain and mind worked. They just were – dare I say it – very much like a point. I couldn’t define it at all, but if enough of it were around, apparently I could think.
It’s not like I gave up and went into a funk. I had a great childhood, lots of fun and friends. But what this information did do to (I would say “for”) me was to pull back the curtain of certainty. I can’t remember when I did not want to be a scientist. Watching astronauts blast off into space, seeing Frankenstein movies, anything that had dials and meters and charts and graphs, that was for me. But I also was starting to understand that science, while powerful, was not The Truth. I was awakening to the idea that The Truth may just not be fully available to us mere mortals.
But the “given a point” problem was challenging. If I can “give one point”, then what’s to stop me from “giving two points” in which case I can now “give a line” in between. And we all know what happens if I “give three points”! By god, I’ve got a plane! Bad news. Very bad news. Because now I can just keep going. What would prevent my teacher from walking in day one and saying, “Ok, given our universe…”? Or worse, “Ok, given any random universe…”! To say I was shook is most def an understatement.
It wasn’t so much that my teacher could just invent entire universes. It was rather that what if that was a requirement? What if every person (that definition was beginning to get a bit sketchy as well) was actually responsible for creating their own universe?! If that were actually the case, why wasn’t she just telling us the Truth so we could get on with it? If I had to be busy building my world, I certainly didn’t see a lot of gain from studying this standardized view of things.
One of the problems I faced back then was that no one, and I mean No One, seemed all that interested in my concerns. By 10th grade, I had become an adequate guitar player. That seemed like a good idea back in 1963 when I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and then watched the reaction of the girl population around me. I freely admit, along with many, many other guitar players of my age, my first strums were under the impression that it would help me pick up girls. But now, at least in my mind, I had a new weapon! Math! I could really see how this idea of how we had it all wrong was going to get me a leg up with all these women.
For those of you reading this, you know the outcome. If you’re reading this, it’s likely you had some similar experience where you thought what you thought would be so intriguing to the opposite sex. (Yes, I know from today’s view, I would say “so intriguing to the people that attracted you”, but you get the drift.)
But as it turns out of course, we all know the outcome. If you want to pick up girls, play guitar. Unfortunately, at least from that perspective, it turns out you need a bit more than just good tunes. But that all worked out just fine with my wonderful wife and family drifting into nearly forty years of marriage at this point. So don’t cry for me, blogging reader (if you sing it to Evita, it’s a lot funnier).
Still, at day’s end, I remained “concerned” and certainly unsatisfied as to the general lack of interest in my dilemma. Here were dedicated teachers wanting to teach me truths and parents and society wanting me to learn truth, and yet… I was pretty certain neither of them were really on the right track. It’s not that what they were teaching had no practical value. Clearly, the skyscrapers and rocket ships and even the nuclear bombs showed that these truths have great value. But we were basically learning not much more than what the guys in shop class were learning. And to some extent, they were cutting to the chase, learning the tools of angles and circles and squares and building those points to lines to planes, making those things a reality, while we in geometry class were just drawing the ideas on paper.
And so it was that I went about this exercise with about the same routine as I did practicing my guitar. I learned chords or formulas. I learned songs and rules for math and geometry. But I also learned that playing guitar is not the same as performing. And in fact, the performers were generally not the best musicians but somehow seemed to get the girls. The teachers were teaching, but they were leaving out, or often actively discouraging the most important aspect to all of this – creativity. They provided the tools, but not the spark, while down the hall in shop class, the whole point was to try something new.
And at least in this aspect of my life, I begin to feel somewhat alone. I didn’t have the confidence (the performer was not strong in me) to ask mathematicians and philosophers (as if I even knew any of those types of folks), but I also learned to keep nice and quite, as Pink Floyd might say – just another brick in the wall. The good news for me at least, is that these thoughts and problems didn’t really haunt me day and night, mostly just at night when I could kick back and contemplate.
Around the 10th grade, I discovered a door – Scientific American. One cover I remember very distinctly was a gas chromatograph on a chip. Now, I didn’t really know what a gas chromatograph was or what it did, but I did know from all those science fiction movies that whatever it was, it wasn’t really supposed to fit on a chip. And so the veil was lifted a bit. I started reading SA every month. Understood about every fifth word. But here were people who seemed to get it, who did not just accept that a point could be given, or perhaps even worse, taken away. They were asking much more basic questions than were my teachers and those around me.
And somewhere around the end of 10th grade, I started to understand about every forth word, and then every third. And eventually… I started to get it. I didn’t know at the time, but the reason I was understanding more and more is because I was recognizing patterns. These weren’t just a bunch of random people all running around thinking different thoughts. They were rather, comparing, poking holes and repairing. They were “making things” instead of just practicing scales and songs. And I wanted even more to be able to enter into their secret society, to understand and even to bring my own thoughts to the table. To be honest, I probably was hoping they could repair my universe, show my “given a point” was perfectly acceptable. And I could go back to learning more songs, thinking that was going to land me some fine woman.
A quick note from my future. Eventually, that did do the trick:). My wife told me that the first time she saw me strumming my guitar at my apartment, she was immediately attracted to me. So, sometimes faith and just keeping on keeping on can turn out just really fine:).