"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On The Midpoint

Well, the second year has come to an end.

I remember old middle school days, when I felt safely sheltered from adulthood and "growing up" by the endless high school years before me... and now college is half-past.
It is a bit surreal.
The passing of time seems to have a very strange quality to it. The years seem to fly swiftly by on fairy's wings, and yet days and weeks can drag by in an impressive manner.

In the midst of this strange passing of time, I find it difficult to assess my growth. Surely I change in subtle ways between moments, days, weeks, months, years... But the gradualness of the process makes me incapable of detecting the difference.
I am reminded of when I first learned calculus. The concept of the integral made the tricky concept of life clearer to me: it is the accumulation of changes that occur on infinitesimal time scales. Decisions made from instant to instant appear so incredibly trivial and inconsequential, but the summation of the values of those instants make up a life. Magical.
It is fitting that the integral encapsulates the great, elusive concept of infinity. How do we ever reach the infinitesimal? How do we ever progress? When and where do we capture the fleeting Now? How is it that the minutes and days and years slip by?
The mysteries of life and metaphysics seem to me to be intertwined with the wonder of infinity. It is lovely.

Yet somehow the time does slip by. Somehow "life" does get accumulated between duration-less Nows. And somehow or another, I do make small bits of progress.

As the term approached its end, I came to realize that I have learned things during my time at Carleton. Shocking, right? It is the sort of thing one hopes will happen, but it is wonderful when you realize it is actually true.
There are the little things- like realizing that my knowledge of the Greek alphabet has expanded tremendously since my old high school days, where alpha and beta and pi and theta were funky things that you used in math every once in a while. By the end of Set Theory and Computational chemistry, Greek letters were being carelessly spattered all over my work. When did gamma and phi and psi and epsilon and sigma and lambda (etc etc) become a natural resource to tap into?

Additionally, I have come to realize that tossing myself into reckless situations can be a good thing.
(To clarify, "reckless" in this context refers purely to academic recklessness. Reckless, indeed...)
For the first time in my life, I had the experience of sitting in a classroom where the teacher could very well have been speaking another language, because I certainly was not understanding what she was saying. She was speaking other languages- the languages of quantum chemistry, kinetics, thermochemistry... Languages of which I only knew a few basic words. I was a tourist in a foreign country hoping to rely on words like "food" and "bathroom" for survival.
But I still remember the moment where I re-read a textbook excerpt that was being assigned for about the 4th time. And that time- I UNDERSTOOD what they were saying. Between re-readings and nearly impenetrable lectures and frustrated struggles with foreign words and concepts... the pieces eventually came together. It was a glorious realization- and it would not have been possible if I had not taken the risk of utter failure. And I shall admit, for a while there I was rather concerned.
But there is something wonderful about going in scared and mostly lost, with only a bedraggled roadmap for company, and to slowly gain your footing to ultimately emerge triumphant.
I can now tell you a story about quantum chemistry, I can model a baby protein for you, I can perform ab initio calculations and tell you a bit about a chemical system of interest- I can do quite a few things I simply could not have done ten weeks ago.

There is also the world of dance. Two years ago, I probably would have laughed and blushed with embarrassment if you were to suggest that I would find myself waltzing freely with others in a couple of months. "Ballroom dancing" was something magical, wonderful, and fundamentally unattainable to those not blessed with extraordinary grace. Admittedly, I have yet to achieve a satisfactory level of mastery, let alone claim beauty in my dancing (alas, I have not been suddenly gifted with heaps of gracefulness), but I have managed to learn a great deal during the last two years. Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, east coast swing, west coast swing, tango, cha, rumba, samba... even some mambo and hustle and nightclub two-step... Two years ago I knew nothing, and in a few months I will have the privilege of introducing social dance to a new generation of future social dance lovers! It is terribly exciting.

I think that my understanding of things has also become more complex and subtle. Two years ago, I would probably have agreed with the somewhat vague statement that science is true. My understanding of models and scientific progress was limited. I was a naive empiricist.
I may still be a bit of an empiricist, but my appreciation for models has increased tremendously. I now value the utility of a good approximation and I understand the importance of knowing the limits within which a model can operate. I realize that there are ways in which our scientific knowledge is solidly grounded, and yet that there are more fundamental ways in which the scientific quest is deeply vulnerable to skeptic probing.

To focus on this spring, I think I can be proud of my accomplishments this term. Computational chemistry and set theory were both challenging and intimidating, but immensely rewarding. I did not expect computational chemistry to allow me to peer into the beauties of linear algebra. I remember the moment of wonder when I realized what my professor was explaining about vibrational modes- you want to understand how molecules move? Break down the motions in terms of an orthogonal basis set which will span the entire space of their motion, and now you can describe any movement your heart desires. Bam! Amazing.
I did not really expect myself to ever come to peace with quantum, but we managed to end on amicable terms. And set theory... ah, how to describe the beauty of realizing that you have built an entire world out of nothing? Or the beauty of the natural numbers, like infinite Russian dolls? Or the sheer wonder of successive limit ordinals, like dense black holes?

All in all, I am fairly proud of myself.
I do not think I have been able to say that in a very long time- I do not remember when. But I succeeded in achieving my goals for this term. No, I don't have a perfectly-filled goals chart- there are certainly a number of gaps. More importantly, I succeeded in fulfilling the aspirations underlying the carefully penned goals on my chart.

Three months ago, I was terrified: I really believed that this term was going to be painful, stressful, confidence-destroying, and unbearably lonely.
It has been painful. It has been stressful. I have been less-than-fully-confident at times. I have been lonely. These things are true. But they represent a small minority of my experiences.

I feared that I would have no great friendships during my time at Carleton, but I no longer have that fear. I have grown closer to a number of wonderful people, and planted seeds which I know shall flourish in the upcoming years.

I feared that I would sink into a pathetic fit of loneliness and moping. But I have realized that I am stronger than I believed. I do not have to fall apart when I am alone. Granted, on almost any occasion I would rather be joined by loved ones, but if I must stand alone, I can and I will.

Ironically, it has been one of my most enjoyable and fulfilling terms at Carleton.

I am still filled with fears and insecurities and doubts on a number of points. I still do not know what I shall "do" with my life. I do not know what exactly that mysterious thing called love has in store for me. I do not know what friendships shall blossom, what pains shall be suffered, what life lessons shall be gathered, nor if I shall ever attain beauty in my dancing.
But I am proud of what I have accomplished and excited for the adventures that are in store.

There is hope!
And for now, that's all I ask for.

Here's to the midpoint of my Carleton career. Huzzah!

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