Petr DosekOn learning and the long game Melanie Baker June 20, 2014 Columns, Communitech, Featured, Guest columns, M-Theory At the end of May we gathered at the ever-funky Members’ Lounge at Centre in the Square for our May Girl Geek Dinner with Dr. Claudia de Rham, visiting fellow at Perimeter Institute and assistant professor in the department of physics at Case Western Reserve University. With the entire universe up for discussion, it was pretty much guaranteed to be a fascinating and mind-boggling evening. (Full recap here.) I found myself pondering little questions like what the universe is made of and whether there are additional dimensions out there. I also started thinking about who studies these things and why, thanks to one of the questions asked during our Q&A about how many scientists are working on problems like extra dimensions, dark matter, the Higgs Boson, etc. Even here, in Waterloo Region, those who get PhDs in advanced STEM disciplines or dedicate themselves to studying the biggest problems we can imagine are a minority. So of what benefit is it to those of us who don’t become cosmologists to learn about physics, either in school or recreationally? Many a student has grumbled about being required to learn various parts of the high school curriculum: “I’m never going to need to know this”. And that is perhaps true in some ways. Learning the details of Pythagorean Theorem or the War of 1812 might prove of little real-world use beyond bar trivia nights. But these interpretations of “value” are very literal and based on day-to-day practical application. And a day-to-day practical life can get pretty boring. Someone probably tried to explain this to you once upon a time – learning for learning’s sake, learning to think, the value of it in ways you don’t know yet. But let’s face it, teenagers aren’t really wired to think philosophically or long-term. And they can be pretty contrary. Twenty years after high school, I still don’t claim to entirely get it. But I’m starting to. I have never really gotten the idea of math as “beautiful”, though people with PhDs have tried to convince me. I do understand, marginally, how code can be “elegant”. The longer I am a writer and work with developers, the more I understand the parallels between great writing and creating code. And thanks to many Perimeter Institute public lectures, articles, videos and other media, I understand many of the potential applications of physics research, theoretical as it may currently be, in the world where I live and where my friends’ kids will grow up. But the other evening, when I was furiously scribbling notes about the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, it occurred to me that…I get it! Not just the content of the presentation, which I was pretty jazzed to understand. But I felt that creeping awareness of insignificance. That precariously balanced point on which we stand, between having immense (and often destructive) significance and influence over our world, and how, to paraphrase, “We know nothing, Jon Snow”. I mean – we don’t even really understand what the universe we inhabit is entirely made of. We don’t know who else might be living out there. We don’t know if there are other dimensions that we could be oh, so close, or lifetimes away, from even detecting. (I admit I loved Dr. de Rham’s examples of us being like beads of dew on a spider web, or ensconced on the surface of a soap bubble.) And this is what that “useless” education is for. This is why it’s important to try and learn and understand things that are hard sometimes. Not because you may “need” it in your job, for example, but because we all need it. It helps us to be more open – in how we think, in what we consider, in what we can imagine. It trickles down to how we interact with the places and people we live among. It helps us think and act in broader scale and longer-term. Apparently we need to think bigger and do better in the world of innovation. How do you think that happens? It requires a solid base of quality education. Learn the rules, learn how things work…and then you’re in a position to break them in new and cool ways. (This is as true for great literature as great technology.) Or conceive of something no one’s ever really thought of before. You can’t do that if you can’t harness imagination like a boss. A bit of daydreaming is good for us from time to time, and how much more engrossing and inspiring will that be if we have a solid grasp on a sense of wonder. Perhaps it will be applied to cleaning up oceans or detecting other dimensions or telling more compelling stories or creating great art. These things are all practical and valuable. Now go finish your calculus homework.