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Scholarship and morality May 2, 2010

Posted by Sarah in Uncategorized.
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Two posts from Emily, a classmate of mine, “The Queer Activist — a Brief Observation” and “A Story of Emotional Poles” got me thinking. The posts are concerned with the question of whether it’s okay, whether it’s good enough, to spend your life as a scholar. Emily is more of a scholar than I am, and she’s also more of an activist, and when she cautiously, thoughtfully answers the question for herself in the affirmative, I think “Emily, why were you ever worried?”

But for myself, I do have unanswered questions. If I do math, whom do I serve? Whom do I help? I think this is work that does help, in the very long run, because anyone who wants to act based on empirical data will need to learn to interpret that data. Everyone who wants to change the world for the better needs to understand the world; and, perhaps, they need techniques for dimensionality reduction and denoising and so on. And we also need pure math to understand that. So mathematicians help people get the facts right, which is the basis of everything else. But, because it’s basic, it’s also distant.

I consider the fact that it’s all right to take into account one’s own abilities, education, and curiosities, in deciding the course of one’s life — we’re all certainly encouraged to do that — and mine very clearly point to math. I’m doing it because it’s beautiful and important to me and because I can do it. But is it enough? Is it a life? I give as much to charity as I can afford; I’m not as active a participant in my community as I should be, but I can change that; I’m trying to be a good friend to my friends, but I’m not always sure how; and still I’ll probably be wondering for a long time, “Is this a life?”

I think it can be, but I’m going to have to be very careful. To give, and contribute, and participate, in the academic community and the wider community; if I can see beauty, to share it, and if I can see something going wrong that I have a chance of fixing, to fix it. And not to mistakenly be too much of a “do-gooder” — remembering the words of Szent-Gyorgi, “If any student comes to me and says he wants to be useful to mankind and go into research to alleviate human suffering, I advise him to go into charity instead. Research wants real egotists who seek their own pleasure and satisfaction, but find it in solving the puzzles of nature.”

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1. Emily - May 2, 2010

Oh Sarah, of course math helps! Of course understanding the way the world works, in the numerical patterns that structure and define it, is integral (lolz pun) to our collective need for knowledge as academe and as people. I’d also say that the subject is not as important as being an educator; whatever discipline you learn and teach and do research in, and whatever your private scholarship (which you can do for the love of knowledge) is, the altruistic part is that you are making a serious difference in the lives of the young people who pass under your influence for a semester or for four years. That, to me, is the part where we give back, where we make it morally defensible–because in many ways I think the world needs educators more than it needs people who work in Washington. How else are unwitting young people’s eyes to be opened to the world around them?

Also you will be unhappy if you know there is one thing that you do best and you don’t do it. Do your thing!

Sarah - May 2, 2010

Thanks!

2. Cole - May 4, 2010

Hi Sarah, I found a link to your blog on the introduce yourself thread for Less Wrong. I figured there wasn’t many people my age (22) with an interest in dimensionality reduction of noisy data sets, so I better not pass up your blog.

Anyways, my comment..
You wake up every morning with a infinity of paths to follow that day. What’s the right thing to do? Is it math? Well you’ve been making that decision long enough. You already know what to do when you wake up. If the day comes when your path to become a lifesaving brain surgeon shows itself, then you’ll change your direction if thats where you want to go.
Math makes you happy. You are producing works or transforming them to teach others. It would take the perfect mathematician to quantify the value of some one’s life. Not being one, I’ll take the incompleteness theorem and say that the value of your life’s work is only important to you. It is your perspective that matters the most, and being confident in the steps you take through your life is a positive feedback loop for your perspective.
Its good to reflect on what you’re doing. That shows your focus and conscious. Cheers and happy counting!

3. streever - May 9, 2010

sarah, if by doing math you find yourself happy, and you share that happiness with others, then you are in a zone of good morality.

(this message is from someone who sits on 3 non-profit/municipal boards, who will do possibly 80 hours of community service this year, and who dedicates most of his not-at-work time to doing community building. Honestly I don’t think most or even some people need to do that much–just smile, be kind to others, and maybe do an occasional park clean-up near your house!)

4. streever - May 9, 2010

oh wow, and then I read that you are going to yale this fall. Well. New Haven is an incredible city, with a lot of space & room in which to be involved and do things beyond work that have meaning. If you’re looking to volunteer or do any community stuff, e-mail me.


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