The Kid Who Wants to Know More

I was curious about why you came in wanting to study science.

This is something I thought about a lot. I have a lot of cousins who are engineers, and they think of things and how they can put them together from a human standpoint. They’re excited about what they can create and then connect things and make things work in a mechanical way. So they always loved looking at cars because they could see human innovation had created this object that could be used or this utility that advanced the human race, which to me sounded interesting.

But I always loved chemistry, for a similar reason but with a very distinctive change. To me chemistry was creation, but everything was already there. You can coerce things to do what you want them to do but you are not going to force it. There are laws in place, rules you have to abide by. It’s more of a cooperative effort with nature, so I always think of it as discovery. I know people say it a lot—inventing a chemical, but to me it always seems silly, because all the parts are already there. When I think of inventing something, I think of taking something completely new and creating parts for it and putting it together. When I think of chemistry, everything is there. The periodic table is there for you. Your job is to think differently and put things together in ways no one else has, and see what you get, which I think is wild.

I’ve always been the kid who wanted to know more. My dad used to mock me because I’d keep him up late. I’d ask, “How do tornadoes work?” or “Why does water not have a taste?” These are things you’d have to ask multiple professors, who can give you hour-long presentations on each topic. But I just wanted to know things. I wanted to know why. I guess chemistry leads down that path.

It’s interesting to hear you say that you are the kid who always wants to know more. I feel like that’s something that’ll definitely resonate with a lot of the student here. Do you think that your curiosity about how things work will eventually lead to a set of answers, or is it more valuable for you to see that they lead to more questions?

I think they have to lead to more questions. I think of an end of a science, or mathematics, or any sort of thing—when you pushed it to its limit—that’s a perfection, which to me seems scary. If you’ve perfected something, then that’s it; there’s nothing else. If there’s no more questions… that seems like less of a celebration and more like the death of a subject. I would hope that you keep on discovering new things in all walks of life as you push forward.

Perfection is such a tricky thing to want. I’d hate to know everything. I feel like that would be a death of a part of me, because part of me is curious. I’m a curious guy. I like to know more and gather more in my arsenal of what I know is true. I think perfection, and the end of questions, to me seems like a bland and odd point to reach. I’d want to always have the next thing to look forward to, that makes me go, “Wow, I’ve learned this, but now I want to learn that!” Life would be pretty boring if you just knew everything.

Do you then think that the pursuit of knowledge is like a tautology almost? I wonder what would happen if humans were not there. Would there still be questions and answers? Apparently, the counterpoint of a question is the answer, but if the answer is not there, then the question sustains itself, which means the pursuit of knowledge sustains itself. It’s not reaching out for something. Another way to phrase this is, do you think knowledge is out there, or do you think it’s a projection of our questions?

That’s a tricky question. My brain goes to chemistry. Chemistry happens. If I don’t believe in molecules, if I’m unaware that they exist, if I’m unaware of biological processes, if I don’t know what a protein or an enzyme is, or that I have lungs, if I don’t know anything about my body, my body still works. I guess it comes down to what is impulse and what is not. If you think of eating and breathing as impulses, then I guess my question would go back to, “What was the first question?” That’s a crazy thing to think.

The answer depends on whether or not questioning is an inherent, human thing. As living, breathing things, whether you believe we were created or evolved or whatever happened, I think you have that question: “What was our first question?” Was it, when you breathe in, you go, “Why did I do that?” Did you wiggle your fingers and go, “How do I know how to do that?” I’m not clear enough on me being a baby, but I probably had questions even before I could voice them. I think of curiosity as an inherent, human trait, so to me the lust for knowledge is less of a thing we have to do, and more of something that people who are passionate about their curiosities inherently strive to do.

I think everyone is curious about something. Even if they aren’t, they might be curious why they are not curious. I think it is in our nature to question, which I know is kind of a cop out, but it really is. I couldn’t answer that question without knowing what drove the first question.

So questioning as a human faculty lives on because it’s part of us.

I think it’s inherent to survival. As something on our utility belt, questioning probably developed as a means of…I have to be able to react to what I learn, I have to learn. Learning means I have to take in experience, which means you then have to question. It is a means of categorizing what we do and don’t know. “Man, I somehow have to keep track of what’ll kill me!”

It’s interesting as things become less about what’ll kill me but more intricate—it’s an interesting progression. Things almost become more complicated as the simpler things become more constantly there. We’ve got food and water, generally, which I think leads to a sense of what else can I question. If I’m not so preoccupied with how do I get these things I need, you can then, as a luxury, focus on crazy questions that may not affect your daily life. Be it physics or chemistry, there are things you don’t come into contact with often but are really interesting, neat case studies. If I didn’t know about aqua regia, I doubt that would affect my life to an extraordinary extent, until I came across it.

Everyone should be asking these question: What are we taught that might be through an incorrect lens? What are we thinking that thirty years down the road we might regret?

How that affects you is a function of what people before you have learned. Ultimately, going back to the first question, that came out of a need for survival. But after that, the subsequent questions that each generation of people who had the leisure to ponder over problems that were not necessary for survival generated this huge corpus of knowledge that’s passed on. And we now dwell on that.

It’s interesting too that knowledge can be false. I’ve never been a huge believer in religion or higher power. I’ve just struggled—that’s something I’ve dealt with for a while. I definitely went through a phase when I really wanted to believe in stuff. I tried out a bunch of different religions, looked into a lot of them, and I couldn’t find something that grasped me. I kept finding things that clashed with my curiosity. The questions that I couldn’t answer made me uncomfortable to the point where I couldn’t believe fully.

It’s interesting that things we know and are certain of can change immediately. In terms of science, Albert Einstein and other physicists can come along and say, “All we know about gravity is wrong, and you have to adjust.” Religion to me is something people believe fully in. It makes me uncomfortable when people say, “Greek mythology is a mythology.” People believed it. That was their fact, the fact of their day. It’ll be interesting to see, forty years from now, what the things we take now as certainties aren’t. Everyone should be asking these question: What are we taught that might be through an incorrect lens? What are we thinking that thirty years down the road we might regret? It’s difficult because we have like-minded people around us often to  reaffirm us.

That’s how human society is organized. I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens that talks about how the biology of humans affects our society. It brings up this important concept called the imagined order. I think a lot of people need to realize that science is in itself a kind of belief. It is a coherent system that came out of human imagination. It is a way of looking at the world, a set of beliefs, that many people hold sacred in a similar way to how some people treat religion. I think we need to bear that in mind when we think about science. However, what sets science apart is that it evolves not because we find out things were incorrect, but because science holds that there is no correct or incorrect. It builds upon our previous assumptions and models, how we think of things. We write them down and revise them over and over again with empirical data. It’s a process of revision that builds science, that created this coherent core that looks almost impervious to any kind of religious understanding. Through science, we can explain things infinitely. We can put things into language.

If I come into contact with something that goes against my experience, my discomfort should not be the ammunition that I use to shoot down their opinion, but it should be a signal that I should reassess.

No one likes to be wrong. I think it takes a separation of personal belief versus an understanding of something bigger to fathom that my incorrect assumption about something is the product of my experience. When someone else’s experience comes in clash with that, that is not a fight to the death between two different experiences, but should be a mixture. It should be a point at which you can reflect. If I come into contact with something that goes against my experience, my discomfort should not be the ammunition that I use to shoot down their opinion, but it should be a signal that I should reassess.

This is invaluable to science. In science, you are taught early on that if something doesn’t seem right, if it clashes against a core belief, that’s to be expected. You should take that into account and see if you can modify the definition you’ve held. That’s part of evolving as a human, if you will. It’s important for anything, including religion. But it becomes tricky when it comes to things you can neither prove nor disprove. I can’t prove that there isn’t a God. I can’t disprove that there isn’t a God. To come into contact with that means I have to, on whatever level, make sure that I respect that that is a possibility. Maybe there is something, perhaps a giant ball of energy, or this connection between us—I don’t know. I try to keep open about that.

I used to be very set on my beliefs, especially with science. I used science as my religion, which is dangerous in some ways. There is a sense of factual nature to science and only factual nature, but at the same time it is prone to change. I think the Catholic Church is interesting nowadays, as the Pope has brought in new ideas and has come in conflict with a lot people. Those moments are important, and whether the Pope is wrong or right, or whether the cardinals are wrong or right, should be a point of reflection. That clash of beliefs is so valuable.

I was excited for college, because I came from a very small place with very small beliefs, in my view. I want to meet people who come from all walks of life, who are Republican or Democrat, Christian or Hindu, any kind of difference. I think difference doesn’t make us bad or good, right or wrong. It’s a lovely shade of gray. I realize more and more that people can hold different opinions and beliefs than you, and that’s okay. It’s part of growing up and realizing the world is not as linear as you’d want it to be.

Bennett Atwater 2

Totally. That’s definitely something you’ll get comfortable or uncomfortable or comfortable again with in college. I’m glad that you can realize so early on in your college career that you are going to expect these things and you’re open to differences. You respect them, appreciate them, and approach them.

On the first day of classes, and during orientation, there is this big focus on equality and respect of differences, which is tricky to think about. There is a paradox in there. You treat all people equal, which is inherently a good thing, but if you have different beliefs, then that intrinsically means that I have to treat people differently, not from a sense of being mean or nice, but from a sense that you have different things you hold valuable than I do. The world will always have contrast. You have to have contrast, the good guy and the bad guy. To have one, you have to have the other. This understanding is important.

My parents are very into World War II. My uncles are both really into the Civil War. I remember our conversation once when I had dinner: What if the South won? What would our history books say? It seems like history is written by whoever wins the day. “America is great because we won!” Whoever’s the winner usually dictates how things go, which is tricky. I see the flaw in that, because there are so many countries in the world that will point out and say, “No, not exactly.” But, especially if you live in a country, it tends to be that the way you understand historical events is from the perspective of your own nation. So the North wins, and slavery is really bad. I always wonder if the South had won, would I be sitting here right now saying “Slavery? I don’t see the problem”? If, God forbid, Germany had somehow won World War II, would we be here sitting and talking in a completely different way? Would racial profiling be seen as perfectly fine? Those are weird questions to ask. I hate to think that I hold some values inside me that are negative.

I had this discussion with my roommate about ethics and morals. I’ve always thought of ethics and morals as a probability game, because to me life is not absolute. I think anyone who’s had anything weird happen to them, bad or good, knows that random things can happen because there are so many variables. So I see ethics and morals as a means of trying to get a better outcome. I help people with the understanding and expectation that good things happen when I apply good morals and ethics. But what about that guy who robs a bank and keeps all the money and bad nothing happens? What about the guy who gets into a fight, runs away, and nothing ends up happening? He didn’t use good morals and ethics, but he’s fine. There wasn’t a “negative” outcome. Maybe there was even a “positive” outcome. What does that mean? There is so much gray, but also such a want for things to be linear and black and white, for us to ride the line that is the good line, to an endpoint that is satisfactory and beneficial. This is not the case. People will have different lives. People who got bad grades will do great things, so will those who got wonderful grades, or the opposite! Any kind of outcome is valid.

I came to terms with that in my high school career. I was diagnosed with depression. I was one of those kids who were like, “I don’t have depression! I get straight A’s!” My life was the good life. I was not the “emotional unstable kid”. But I realized that even if I’d been doing everything that was “correct,” that didn’t stop life from affecting me; that didn’t stop variables from happening. Having any expectations or any sense of the world owing you something is just odd, because you start to realize that you’ll have a couple people to count on as being non-variables, but there are seven billion other people who could affect you at any time.

Do you feel like coming to college you will be able to have more control over your reaction towards the circumstances around you?

I think you can only control your reaction. When I first started driving, my parents used to say that, “He knew he was right as he sped along, but he’s just as dead now as if he’d been wrong.” You can control yourself. I can make sure I am driving correctly, following the speed limit going through the green light, but that doesn’t stop that truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel from crashing into me.

But you can define how you bounce. I think what defines us as human beings is less those moments of triumph—Jimmy got straight A’s and went on to become President—and more those dark times. It’s how we deal with tragedies, things that are complex—emotion, love, hatred—that defines who we are. It is really easy to be a good person when great things are happening, when everything’s going right for you. But it’s really hard when there is nothing, when you are at that darkest time, and there’s a sense that life is hard. In a weird way, I’d hope for every person to come into contact with that moment where they have to assess who they are. I’m still hoping to look around every once in awhile and just go, “Oh crap, that’s not what I expected, and I have to change.” You are going to live with yourself for so long that going on autopilot and letting life happen as you interact with it seems odd.

It’s not so much that you are always doing the right thing, but rather you have to actively respond to things that affect you. You have to adapt and change, so that you are not just living a smooth and straight life, but a life rich in experience and perspectives.

Like I said, there are things that are seen as endgames. Money is one. So many people see money as an end result. And I will say that money offers opportunity. It offers options. If I have seven billion dollars, I can do a lot of things. But that still doesn’t guarantee happiness. When you go, your money might buy you a nice coffin, but it’s not going to give you a better end. I would hope that I keep that in mind. We have to all remind ourselves that our quantitative values—how we put a price tag on life, the number of friends I have on Facebook, the amount of money I have in my bank account, the amount of trophies I have, the amount of titles on my resumé—don’t guarantee happiness.

I had to stop asking myself because I’d get so mad. When I first started realizing that I did have depression—in social situations when I would be smiling, I’d ask myself, “Man, am I happy?” And that immediately makes you unhappy! I found that the second you start looking for happiness, it’s never what you wanted it to be. If you ask yourself, “Am I sad?” Usually your mind will go, “Yeah I can make myself sad or angry.” But happiness…happiness is so complex. When was the last time you were purely happy? I find that’s so difficult to answer. I always go back to “I remember when I was five, I got a birthday present…” That lack of worry! I think there becomes this weird sense that happiness is a product of something else; it is something that is gained, which puts a price tag on happiness and makes you feel like you didn’t earn it.

I think a lot. I probably overthink. I’ve been trying recently to simplify things. So I let myself be happy without asking why. I interact with people, go after things, auditioning and not being afraid to fail. No one is thinking about you as much as you are thinking about you, so be unafraid to make that statement, to ask someone for a favor. I don’t think that needing other people or being afraid to say I’m really feeling sad is a negative. That makes you an aware and strong person.

There’s that fine line between what keeps me sane and what keeps me sheltered.

I really appreciate the way you put things. Your thoughts are pretty impressive, I think. With the experience you talked about from your high school, and how much you reflect upon yourself, how much you are open to seemingly unbreakable dichotomies like happiness or sadness, negative or positive, correct or incorrect, you are pushing the boundary on how much you can accept and live with. That can apply to things outside of you and inside of you. You can live with more emotions and thoughts inside of you, and you can live with more beliefs and opinions from other people.

When I learn new things, I try to question myself. What am I projecting on my world for my own sense of safety? I think it’s very easy to project an environment around you that reaffirms your beliefs and makes you feel comfortable. You put on your blanket and you go, “Okay, the world is this way, and I see it in these ways.”

I’ve met people who have very strong beliefs, that if they didn’t have them, they would fall apart. I don’t know how some people make it through the places that they are emotionally, but they hold these beliefs that I’d be awful to take away. I used to go to church a lot. I went through an angsty phase. I was like, “I don’t believe in this, and you are wrong for it!” I remember meeting this woman who had basically lost her family in a lot of ways, but was so passionate and so comforted by the thought that God held her together. That made me realize that it would be awful of me to take that. I could not, as a human being with empathy, tell someone who was holding onto something like that, “Hey, your sense of safety is not as important as the way I see the world.” Everyone has their own illusion, their comforting fantasy, whether it is something they are aware they believe, or something they are unaware they believe. Those are important.

There’s that fine line between what keeps me sane and what keeps me sheltered. They overlap sometimes. If I didn’t have the thought that me getting straight A’s will give me a better life, why would I be here? Though there is no guarantee, I’m still going to hold that, because I don’t know if I would be willing to learn and excel here without that thought. Sometimes you have to mix your own medicine and tell yourself this is the way it’s going to be, because sometimes, first and foremost, is living, and second is thinking so much. Everyone’s got their different medicine, whether it be that A’s will get you a better life or that you are going to have this job—your goals and aspirations, your confidences.

My dad is a social economist. He used to tell me that confidence in anything is an assumption, because it hasn’t happened yet. So goals, aspirations, things that I want and see as guarantees, have to be self-comforting. It’s patting myself and stroking myself, saying, “It’s going to be okay.” But that doesn’t make it bad. It is okay to go to a magic show, and just sit and watch the illusion without thinking about why or how it’s done, or what’s fake about it.

It’s amazing that you can realize that. I think what I’ve learned in the past few years is this transition from asking questions, as we talked about earlier, to accepting that there are a lot of imaginary ends to things that are really not ends. Instead of saying this is correct and right, I can say this is beautiful—I can appreciate that. There is so much value in cherishing the existence of things you might not identify with. I think your perspective is great.

One of the first things that made me really think about life was years ago—as a Reddit browser I try not to go too deep because I’ll lose too many years in my life—there was an ask-me-anything interview on Reddit. “I’m a seagull, and ask me anything!” Anything that might be interesting you can ask them questions about. I remember this guy said, “Hi! I quit my job and became a train-hopper, a hobo. Ask me anything.” I remember thinking, “Why did you do that?” and then thinking, “Why wouldn’t you?” What makes having a job and making tons of money better than being a guy who rides trains, visits places and experiences life?

High school especially instills in you a linear sense of life—you can be good at everything, and then you get into college, and then you get a job. College is a little broader. “Okay, you have a little free time now, what are you going to do with it?” There are clubs that are offered. Not everyone is taking the same club. There are enough that everyone can take a different one. And then you get to life, where the “clubs” are pretty endless. You can do anything. The only thing limiting you, as stupid as it sounds, is your preconception about that thing. Man, it is scary. It is much more comforting to say I’m going to follow Steps A and B and C, and get to D, but there is also something very freeing about the fact that anything could happen. You can look back on life—you can trace it a little bit—but it certainly is never what you think it’ll be.

Things keep shifting. You shift and you learn—back to curiosity, the survival instinct, which tells me to learn from my choices, shapes who I am. I think if we didn’t learn, we’d all be the same human being. You are different from me because you have different things that are valuable to you or have been instilled in you, or experiences that dictate I should value this or that. The fact that there are different variables and experiences means that people will keep being different, and all you have to do is be open and identify what you want to learn from them.

 

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