All the World's a Classroom
In the wonders of living, experiences that seemingly contradict each other can co-exist at once. Multiple thoughts and feelings happen at an instant, and while deconstructing them one by one is an interesting academic exercise, it does not fully reflect the unity of the experience as a whole.
Once Upon a Shark Encounter
Recently, for the first time ever, I swam with sharks in the wild. My first encounter was at a site that was not supposed to be a shark site, but I saw a juvenile shark that came by a few times. From a distance, I could see something white and flat approaching. I thought, That’s either a white string ray, unlikely, or the belly of a shark. Sure enough, it was the latter, and also the main reason I went to the Bahamas.
Was it scary? A little bit, sure, for I know what a shark could do when unhappy. My worry grew as it came closer, but more importantly, my excitement, too, grew. It was so graceful, beautiful, and wonderful, and the contours of their fins looked amazing against the blue vista.
The video below was one of the times it swam by.
Later on, we went to the shark arena, a spot where many Caribbean reef sharks gathered. Here, a group of us floated on the surface, holding on to a rope as precaution and watching about 30 sharks swim 20-feet below. We were instructed to stay still so as to not look like a distressed fish and attract the sharks, not necessarily because they would eat us—humans are not usually on their menu items—but because they were curious creatures. My husband and I were the first ones in and last ones out, although it was still too short for my taste.
Wonder and Fear
On land, we’re preconditioned to fear sharks. (Think Jaws.) Certainly, it was not possible to leave these thoughts behind while we were in the water. But this feeling of fear was not the only one present during those moments. Rather, there was also awe and love and wonder. As for me, I could not get enough of it. We were too far up and it was hard to see their full physiques. One day, I would get closer.
If I were to be academic about it, I could try to analyze the experience and breakdown each component of my feelings. On wonder, what made me admire the creatures? What was it about this experience that impressed me? On fear, what made me worry about my safety? On paper, these two things seem to belong to separate categories, one a positive feeling and the other one negative. And I could say of this experience, “It was amazing,” or, “It was scary” as a single statement, and it would be fully justified.
But in reality, they were there together in the same experience. The two feelings were interwoven, like two threads that made up a piece of fabric, such that I couldn’t separate which moments were fearful and which were wonderful.
Such is life. In nature, the things that amaze us are often the same things that can cause fear. Of cliffs and rocks and mountains, grand and capable of destruction (or you could fall off them). Of the ocean, expansive and vast and dark and mysterious. Of creatures, beautiful and fierce. Many grand things have latent danger in them, and it’s perfectly natural to both love and fear them at the same time.
What Overcomes Fear
Yet there is another aspect that brings this seemingly paradoxical experience to the next level. When I see shark divers, conservationists who swim with sharks in such close proximities and interact with them so naturally, they seem to have no fear of sharks whatsoever. They could do this because they love these sharks. My wonder may lead me to 20-feet away, but their love brings them much closer.
I don’t think this is just a function of their courage. In their interaction, they are respectful and careful. There are boundaries that they honor between them and the creatures, an implicit covenant between human and fish that they would only admire and not harm each other. Certainly, they could not remain safe if they harassed these sharks. After all, the underwater world is the sharks’ home turf.
Love casts out fear, someone said. I think its truth is evident in this situation. Nothing changes in the sharks themselves; they still have the potential to be dangerous, especially when their boundaries are crossed. But this does not prevent the interaction between humans and animals, because love gets rid of the fear and makes room for a connection between beings.
 Fear, here, is quite different than the fear of zombies, hypothetically. Same words, but distinct concepts.
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The following experiences happened within the last 3 months:
Tried on a winter jacket at The North Face store, nicely designed, warm, and smooth. Went to a next door store that sold jackets with one-fifth of the price, but it was plastic-y, with rough hems and zippers that caught repeatedly.
Waited for an hour at a doctor’s office, ended up having a 10-min visit with the doctor, during which he gave his regular spiel (overheard him from another room) without ever addressing me personally or mentioning my name. The visit cost $70.
Got my car checked at the dealership. Greeted by a representative who introduced herself and addressed my name with a smile. Answered all of my questions in a calm, unhurried way, performed requested services, and sent me off with a handshake. Good job, Honda.
Visited a Greek restaurant during restaurant’s week. The place was busy and well staffed, but everyone was super alert and watchful over the customers. There was no slacker there–no one standing around spaced out having nothing to do. Everyone walked like they had somewhere to go, quickly. Used plates were cleaned and replaced, drinks refilled, boxes offered without being asked. Free valet service was offered to all customers, and they speed walked to get the car. All around efficiency–loved it!
Waited almost half an hour in a baggage-drop line at the airport with only 3 people in front of me. Despite the long line formed, one of the agents strolled off and disappeared into the back room, never returning until who knows when.
Read a journal paper that was meticulous in its problem definition, step-by-step in its explanation, and comprehensive in analysis. Edifying from the first read.
What made some of these experiences extremely pleasant? Excellence.
When a person, a company, or an establishment is excellent in product design, service, academically, or technically, they can command loyalty from customers and assign higher prices, and people would pay willingly and happily. I have visited many doctor’s office in my local area and to this day, I have not settled on one yet. Whereas with my car, since the first day I came to this particular dealership, there was no thought of going anywhere else. The one time I did, I was sorely, sorely disappointed.
Both establishments surely need to make money and serve as many customers as possible, but one tries to hide this from the consumers’ experiences and takes time to perfect their services, and the other doesn’t. It troubles me somewhat that the assembly line mentality is present in health care services more than my particular auto service provider.
Excellence matters, not only because it makes good business sense, but also because it enhances people’s experiences and brightens up their days.
The Moral Imperative to Be Excellent
Paul Kalanithi, in his book When Breath Becomes Air, reflected deeply on the moral imperative to excel in neurosurgery, where a millimeter-level error could result in an altered life and identity of his patient.
“As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed–or fail–were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”
“Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear. Certain brain areas are considered near-inviolable, like the primary motor cortex, damage to which results in paralysis of affected body parts. But the most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language… If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?”
Early in his medical training, he realized the soul aspect of his work:
“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life–and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul–was obvious in its sacredness.”
Contrast his commitment to excellence with an incompetent resident he came across during treatment. Paul wrote,
“Meeting his obligation to me meant adding one more thing to his to-do list: an embarrassing phone call with his boss, revealing his error. He was working the night shift. Residency education regulations had forced most programs to adopt shift work. And along with shift work comes a kind of shiftiness, a subtle undercutting of responsibility. If he could just push it off for a few more hours, I would become somebody else’s problem.”
The difference? One saw his work as a sacred calling and another saw his as a job–a checklist of tasks to do and get by.
The Fullness of a Work
Certain professions have greater immediacy to life-threatening danger upon failure. How would you like to fly on a plane designed to survive 99.99% of the time? The number looks impressive, but 99.99% means 1 out of 10000 flights would fail. With about 100,000 flights scheduled each day in the US, this statistics is way too poor. Nothing less than 100% is good enough in aviation.
I would argue, however, that the life-threatening level is not the only measure to the importance of excellence. One’s work doesn’t have to implicate life and death to carry moral weight in society. Instead, most work makes a difference in other people’s lives, improving or deteriorating their experience and quality of life.
Yet more than avoiding liability, excellence brings joy. Encountering excellence in a good book, a great teacher, or an excellent service makes us happy. The task is not just done, but fulfilled–filled to the full. This goodness multiplies in the recipients of the work and propagates to others they would in turn impact.
I would further submit that this is also the way to work happily. Excellence is never accidental, always intentional, effortful, and focused. And when it bears fruit, it’s extremely fulfilling.
The old adage says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A truly wise saying.
Follow this post with the Anatomy of Excellence.
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Today is a great day for science. At 9:35 AM this morning, I received an email letter from MIT’s president L. Rafael Reif, announcing the results of decades-long effort in trying to detect gravitational waves. Today, the National Science Foundation, MIT, and Caltech made the announcement that they have detected gravitational waves for the first time, confirming Einstein’s theory from 100 years ago.
I could hardly contain my excitement. I am in complete awe of science, of the scientists, and just…the world. President Reif’s insightful letter also calls us to reflect on what today means in humanity and scientific history, and I’d like to share it with you. Here is the full reproduction of the letter, with my emphasis added.
February 11, 2016
Dear MIT graduate,
At about 10:30 this morning in Washington, D.C., MIT, Caltech and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will make a historic announcement in physics: the first direct detection of gravitational waves, a disturbance of space-time that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.
You may want to watch the announcement live now. Following the NSF event, you can watch our on-campus announcement event.
You can read an overview of the discovery here as well as an interview with MIT Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss PhD ’62, instigator and a leader of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) effort.
The beauty and power of basic science
I do not typically write to you to celebrate individual research achievements, no matter how impressive; our community produces important work all the time. But I urge you to reflect on today’s announcement because it demonstrates, on a grand scale, why and how human beings pursue deep scientific questions – and why it matters.
Today’s news encompasses at least two compelling stories.
First is the one the science tells: that with his theory of general relativity, Einstein correctly predicted the behavior of gravitational waves, space-time ripples that travel to us from places in the universe where gravity is immensely strong. Those rippling messages are imperceptibly faint; until now, they had defied direct observation. Because LIGO succeeded in detecting these faint messages – from two black holes that crashed together to form a still larger one – we have remarkable evidence that the system behaves exactly as Einstein foretold.
With even the most advanced telescopes that rely on light, we could not have seen this spectacular collision, because we expect black holes to emit no light at all. With LIGO’s instrumentation, however, we now have the “ears” to hear it. Equipped with this new sense, the LIGO team encountered and recorded a fundamental truth about nature that no one ever has before. And their explorations with this new tool have only just begun. This is why human beings do science!
The second story is of human achievement. It begins with Einstein: an expansive human consciousness that could form a concept so far beyond the experimental capabilities of his day that inventing the tools to prove its validity took a hundred years.
That story extends to the scientific creativity and perseverance of Rai Weiss and his collaborators. Working for decades at the edge of what was technologically possible, against the odds Rai led a global collaboration to turn a brilliant thought experiment into a triumph of scientific discovery.
Important characters in that narrative include the dozens of outside scientists and NSF administrators who, also over decades, systematically assessed the merits of this ambitious project and determined the grand investment was worth it. The most recent chapter recounts the scrupulous care the LIGO team took in presenting these findings to the physics community. Through the sacred step-by-step process of careful analysis and peer-reviewed publication, they brought us the confidence to share this news – and they opened a frontier of exploration.
At a place like MIT, where so many are engaged in solving real-world problems, we sometimes justify our nation’s investment in basic science by its practical byproducts. In this case, that appears nearly irrelevant. Yet immediately useful “results” are here, too: LIGO has been a strenuous training ground for thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of PhDs – two of them now members of our faculty.
What’s more, the LIGO team’s technological inventiveness and creative appropriation of tools from other fields produced instrumentation of unprecedented precision. As we know so well at MIT, human beings cannot resist the lure of a new tool. LIGO technology will surely be adapted and developed, “paying off” in ways no one can yet predict. It will be fun to see where this goes.
* * * The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic. Without basic science, our best guess never gets any better, and “innovation” is tinkering around the edges. With the advance of basic science, society advances, too.
I am proud and grateful to belong to a community so well equipped to appreciate the beauty and meaning of this achievement – and primed to unlock its opportunities.
In wonder and admiration,
L. Rafael Reif
I am close to tears just pondering about this significant finding. As President Reif says, it tells a marvelous story on science–how our universe works–and on human achievements, the painstaking work of dedicated scientists over decades. I am so thrilled for the researchers and graduate students who have been working on the problem for many years without any spotlight. Science is humble work. As said in the letter, science “is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic.”
What a marvelous day for science. What a great day to be alive!
P.S. Watch the videos below to learn more about the discovery. The first is the NSF announcement from today and the second is a clip from MIT.
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