Feb 11, 2016 | Reading Life
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.
Dec 15, 2015 | Thinking Better
The year is dwindling down and the office gets emptier each day. But if you’ve run out of vacation either because you don’t have enough and/or have wisely taken up all of them so you’re not left with unused paid vacation, you may be stuck in an office building during what everyone says is the best time of the year. While this can be categorized as sucky, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can use this time to get ahead while everyone else is relaxing at home. It’s very quiet, there’s no one to bother you, there will be no meetings, and it can be very useful to do things that otherwise wouldn’t be done during normal workdays. These are 6 ways on how to get ahead over the holidays and get a head start for 2016.
Take Time to Learn
During the year, it can be hard to learn something new amidst the constant task lists associated with your work. While you have this quiet time, take time to gain new knowledge and skills related to your work. Read a book, or take an online training course. Do something educational that increases your skillset and thus your value to your organization.
Explore Creative Ideas
Creativity needs freedom and space to bear fruit. If you have new ideas that you want to implement in your work, but have been finding no time to develop it, this is the time to build, refine, and test the idea.
While you’re at it, jot down all of your “crazy” ideas. Have a personal session where all ideas can fly, as if the world has no constraint. Who knows, maybe some of them can be a breakthrough in your 2016 work life.
Plan Out 2016
You have goals for 2016 (if not, use this time to create goals for the next year). Chart out a timeline on these goals will be accomplished for the next year. What milestones should be done by what date. Have a game plan on how you want to attack these milestones, so come January, while everyone is still waking up from their holiday slumber, you can hit the ground running, knowing exactly what you need to do.
Clean Up Your Desk and Office
I love purging out clutter. It always makes me feel light and free afterward. I don’t know how often you clean your desk and office (or ever?), but at least do it now while no one will be interrupting you. Throw out old and unnecessary files, dust all of those folders, and store non-immediate materials. Organize the cabinet. Make it easier to find documents and increase efficiency in your own workflow. Get some compressed air dusters and clean your keyboard. Clean the yucky gunk on those keyboard keys too (you know it’s there). Wipe the monitor. Go all out and do it all! A clean and neat working environment is not only good for your mind, but also good for your body.
Clean Up Your Inbox
The same housecleaning applies to your email inbox and digital files. Finish up loose ends from 2015 and reduce that inbox size. Organize your digital folders and archives, and back them up.
Take Time to Reflect
Finally and most importantly, while nobody’s watching, take time to be brutally honest with yourself and evaluate the past year. What went well and what went horribly wrong? Glean lessons learned from the past year and write them down, then commit yourself to apply those lessons in 2016.
With these 6 steps, you’ll be ready to jump-start the New Year with good momentum. Have a productive holiday season!
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla.
Dec 9, 2015 | Books, Faith, Thinking Better
This article is the third of an essay series on engineering, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here and the second here.
“I can’t just work with mice!” Billy told me after not seeing each other for 8 years. “I need people, human interaction.” I knew Billy in Boston when he was a biomedical engineering student. Between then and now, he switched to anthropology and went on to do humanitarian work around the world, places like South Sudan and Nepal. He glowed when he said, “I love it.”
I admired his courage to make the turn to his very fascinating, and important, current work.
In describing his human-deprived environment, Billy hit on a distinct aspect of technical work, especially in a research setting. Mental activity—reasoning, analyzing, experimenting—is on overdrive while social needs remain starved. While we’re at it, let’s just be honest here and admit that it puts physical activity in expense too. Who’s got time for the treadmill when you need results? I’ll do it next month. Or year.
The nature of engineering work often requires isolation. Quite a number of us can get away from not talking to anybody in a given day, if we want to (and sometimes I do). This caveman-like behavior becomes a problem, though, when it is elongated, because, well, breaking news, engineers are humans too. And humans need other humans [citation not needed].
As such, engineers then are not exempt from the regular laws that govern normal, daily humanness. Like eating, breathing, and… oh yeah, interacting with other people.
Ever heard someone say, “I wish people are more like machines, give an input and you know what the output will be”? Maybe you heard it from me. Surprise, surprise, humans are nonlinear, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. And we engineers ought to know how to be human too.
What Gives Work Meaning
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? It’s because of this notion of a fulfilled life, which I want and cannot buy. Can I, engineer, have a fulfilled life and glow like Billy when he talked about his work? Can I do engineering with some soul?
I should note that many scientists and engineers glow when they talk about their work, because they just love science. For many, this love is enough to fulfill their lives.
But what I’m seeking for myself is the type of glow from knowing that my work helps another person. It’s the element of service that gives meaning to my existence. I won’t pretend that doing engineering in an office can be as noble as empowering communities out of poverty. They are incomparable. But, can I, in some degree, bring this type of soul work into my daily life?
To me, being an engineer is part of my identity, but not its totality. It’s deeper than a mere role, but there are other things that make up who I am as well. Who I am, in total, is a human being, with a body, mind, and soul.
The Soul Dimension
I wrote before about the segmentation of knowledge, how our education is classified into silos that are often tangential to each other. Here, I’m questioning the segmentation of the things that make us human: the body, mind, and soul.
Of all three, the soul seems to be the most optional in modern, Western society. The body commands greater interests now as health trends occupy media attention. But our greatest preoccupation, though, is mental. Our schools and employers are less concerned with people having good health, good character, and fulfilled lives than with their brains’ outputs. In the race towards prosperity and paid bills, we pursue education to get a job, and work, work, work. Exercising, eating well, thinking about the purpose of work, loving what you do, and giving back to others are luxuries that many can’t afford.
This arena of the soul covers a wide field (or, I’m recasting it as a wide field). It is the sphere where we have human connections, compassion, and appreciation for beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. It is something that is beyond physical or mental, but rather a spiritual aspect being human. By spiritual, I’m not talking about religious experiences exclusively, but a soul component to life that reaches beyond our own selves. I believe all of us seek something spiritual.
Abraham J. Heschel says,
Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. Man is Not Alone, p 138.
I think Heschel is on to something here, because there’s evidence of this need to give. We admire individuals who are not only smart and good-looking, but who also invest themselves in the good of the world. The ones that can combine the body, mind, and soul command our greatest respect, perhaps because they have something that we ourselves seek.
[True education] has to do with the whole being… It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. – Ellen White, Education.
Whoever came up with the idea that any one of the body-mind-soul triads can be neglected without consequences? When I first encountered this quote, it was groundbreaking, because it sounded foreign. I thought education only had to do with the mind.
I began to understand the interaction of the three when I started taking stocks of my days. The best days at work for me are those when I feel useful to other people, when my work directly helps another person and makes their lives easier, even in a small way. I now understand this as the spiritual aspect of my work, and though anticlimactic from the grand ideas above, it is a start of a journey.
I think, whatever field one may be in, these body-mind-soul combo needs to be fulfilled. For an engineer, the soul aspect is probably the one more lacking. But other profession fields may suffer in a different way, maybe too much soul or too physical, but not enough mind, or too much soul and mind yet very sedentary.
This balanced development though will not be given to us on a platter. We must seek it and pursue it actively into becoming a whole, holistic human being.
To follow Billy’s work, visit his website http://www.onthemountaintop.org/
 Randall Munroe’s influence.
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