Category Archives: Philosophy

Why the World Always Seems to be Getting Worse

“It’s the end of the House System at Caltech,” many Caltech alumni proclaimed upon hearing the administration unveil its plans for the newly constructed Bechtel House yesterday evening. The first major addition to Caltech housing in over 20 years, Bechtel will allow every undergraduate who wants to live on campus to do so. No longer will upperclassmen be subjected to the same harrowing process of roompick lotteries, uncertain whether they’ll be able to stay in their beloved House or move off-campus.

If you’ve spent any time dealing with the Caltech administration, though, you know there has to be a catch somewhere. Fortunately, the admins didn’t decide to go with one of their original plans, to make the new dorm all-freshman housing. Instead, they decided to make it a more free-for-all living arrangement, where clusters of friends can join and create their own culture without the social pressure of being another House (or two).

Working through the consequences, then, the procedure of matching freshmen to houses, currently a weeklong process known as Rotation and occurring right after students arrive at school, would inevitably have to be reformed. The main source of the drama lies in their solution: Houses will no longer have the ability to rank prefrosh; placement will instead only depend on the preferences of the incoming prefrosh (that’s Caltech lingo for matriculating freshmen).

There are unfortunately also serious concerns with the way this decision was reached that call into question the integrity of the administration. Sadly, this is not the first time they’ve acted unilaterally and in bad faith, despite giving all pretenses of working with student committees. Since they hold all of the power, it also won’t be the last.

That said, I’ve also been struck by the reaction of my fellow alumni to the content of the changes themselves. As one of my Caltech friends messaged me, “Sam, the world is ending. It’s all over. Run for the hills!” (emphasis his, punctuation mine) And yet, I’m also not surprised: This is exactly the same way that the Caltech Alumni Facebook group has reacted to, well, pretty much everything.

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Here’s to the ones who sustain

As I near the end of my grad school years, I’ve begun to think back on it all and ask questions like, “What did I get out of it? Was it worth it? What if I had never come to grad school in the first place?”

And to be completely honest, I’m not sure I have good answers to this set of questions. By the traditional metric of publishing, my grad school years have been a dismal failure: The only publication I have to date is a five-author paper all the way back from the summer of 2014 to which I didn’t even contribute that much. My two main research projects since then have been slow; the first is still in the review process, and the second has yet to produce a paper yet.

This is especially frustrating because I chose to do math research in particular (as opposed to pursuing my other undergrad major, chemistry) for two main reasons: because I thought I was good at it and because math research seemed to proceed faster, at the speed of thought rather than the speed of experiment. What I found, as I’ve recounted before, is that the hard part of math research is actually the challenge of finding a good problem, and I’m neither good nor fast at that.

This isn’t to say that my grad school years have been completely devoid of personal development; I did get married, for one. But maybe these aren’t the questions I should be asking in the first place. To approach the last six years of my life by asking merely, “How did it advance my resume?” is to view MIT as merely a dispenser of goods and services, a stepping-stone on the path to my own glorification.

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45, ESV)

Christians, what does it mean to follow Jesus for you? What is he calling you to? Since 2010, I’ve discerned God’s calling on my life to be a life of service. God might very well call others to take positions of worldly authority and influence (like professorships) and use that status to be ambassadors for Christ. But based on my abilities and inclinations, it seems clear to me that I’m called to a life primarily of service, loving God and others in my community by serving them. So instead of reflecting on my lack of publications, I’ve been encouraged to reflect on all of the ways that I’ve been able to serve here at MIT.

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Five More Things Millennials Need to Kill

I’m a millennial, and I like to read about what’s unique about my generation, even if it’s just a lazy analysis of market trends that might as well be noise. But the one consistent thing I keep reading is that Millennials are Killing Everything. At least, that’s what the Miami Herald says, offering 27 examples. Business Insider claims that ‘Psychologically Scarred’ Millennials are killing countless industries, but I can count, and they only have 19 in their list. Even BuzzFeed seems to mock their own style of headline: Here Are 28 Things Millennials Are Killing In Cold Blood. Not to be outdone, Mashable offers 70 things millennials have killed.

Since this seems to be our generational superpower (apparently always alongside avocado toast), I have a few more things that I’d like to see us use it on.

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Disillusionment with Authority is the Coming of Age Story of Our Time

As I wrap up my time in math grad school and start to look beyond, I’ve been reflecting on what led me to study math in the first place. It was the topic that captivated my mind, that I was the most proficient at, and which made me thirst to learn more. But that it even presented itself as an option for a career to me at all is one aspect I’d never really considered.

Only after I got to grad school did I realize that I had an image in my mind of academia that was rather different from what I found. I had imagined that everyone in academia was motivated by the desire to solve the big problems that the world faces, and they simply aimed at different time horizons for their solutions. There’s an underlying talk of work that is “20 years away”, “10 years away”, and academics rightly pride themselves in the fact that they have the freedom to think on those scales where businesses would shy away.

But what I found was that a large number of academics — and this isn’t even restricted to the math department — don’t even think in terms of providing solutions. Instead, there’s commonly a self-referential focus, an inward turn to do things to impress other academics, writing papers and building theory with only fellow academics in mind.

Part of my story, which I’ve touched on in many recent blog posts, is therefore one of disillusionment with this type of academic authority. Some of it comes from rising to the highest ranks and seeing what life is like at “the top” of whatever status hierarchy you find yourself in. In high school, I remember being somewhat disillusioned by my experience at a science summer camp in Australia that our Science Bowl team had won as a prize for winning the national competition. “This is it?” I remember wondering. “This is what I was striving after all of this time?”

I’ve gone through a similar type of evolution at MIT. To be clear, this isn’t the only mental malady one can experience at a place like MIT, or even the most common. I hear a lot about the impostor syndrome, where we think that we don’t belong in an institution because we’re not good enough. But such students still often believe in the fundamental goodness or effectiveness of their school, and only wish they could live up to it. The disillusionment I’m talking about is when they no longer believe that the institutions and authorities they’ve looked up to are actually praiseworthy anymore.

Disillusionment like this is surprisingly common today.

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What did Jesus say about ethnocentrism?

The events in Charlottesville last weekend around a planned white nationalist protest called “Unite the Right” have raised the ugly specter of racism again in a country which has been steadily growing ever more diverse. Given that white evangelical Christians famously voted in droves for the same president that the white nationalists cite as inspiration, one naturally wonders: Should we be also allow ourselves to be united to such a cause?

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