How to learn Quantum Mechanics: not like this!

This particular topic never fails to get my hackles up. At breakfast this morning, I stumbled over an article about Willow Smith. This article linked to a profile on the same person.

Up front, Jaden and Willow Smith have both made their feelings about school well known. They are home schooled and actively decry spending time in the classroom.

The Smith kids are a master course on how to game the media. Every article about them comes off crooning over how smart and otherworldly they are. Jaden Smith opens his mouth and utters endless solipsisms with offhand references to ‘mathematics’ and ‘theoretical physicists’ and the tabloids bend over in awe about his perceived intellectual might. Never mind that for all his talk about ‘math’ and ‘physics’ he has not once pulled out any associated skill in a place where it’s clear that he doing anything but reading Deepak Chopra –which is a really bad way to learn anything about Quantum Mechanics.

When I think of Willow Smith, I will always think of this:

I went to school for one year. It was the best experience but the worst experience. The best experience because I was, like, “Oh, now I know why kids are so depressed.” But it was the worst experience because I was depressed.

Followed closely by this:

maybe even attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) one day. It’s why she hopped on a flight to tour the campus in Cambridge directly after Paris Fashion Week (where she excited a flashing mob of paparazzi with karate kicks at Chanel’s #frontrowonly show—NBD!). “It was nice to be able to talk to female students and professors about science and logic because that’s just such a man’s world,” she notes.

This pair of quotes is separated by a couple years. The first outlines why she won’t stay in school while the second is suggesting that she’s thinking about jumping into the iconic school of STEM education. Does she want to be in school or not? She’s been in school for only a year total in her life and doesn’t like the process, but she wants to jump into MIT??? If you can’t handle the classroom in a normal highschool, you are not only flunking out of a University, but talking about a place like MIT just for the name recognition is a complete joke. To get into MIT and make it meaningful, the bare minimum is not merely a GED, it’s excellent scores on ACT and SAT. You can’t just talk your way through that. Maybe money is enough to open all the doors, but what do you do when the professor has shoved a test in front of you and demanded that you either get an ‘A’ on it or fail? You can’t cry about gender discrimination if you are not capable of handling the task put in front of you… and it sure as hell won’t be a photo shoot with you dressed head to foot in swanky leather.

In the GRE, before heading into graduate school as a physicist, I managed nearly an 800 on my math score. That is not kidding you. To get that number required a meaningful amount of bashing my skull against the wall –I think that most people can probably do it, but it’s not trivial preparing to be able to. There were no solipsisms that I was uttering. I did better than the average on my Physics GREs. The time spent being able to do this would never have allowed for a trip to Paris fashion week; it required months of diligent, focused work! It’s like sharpening a razor blade or learning the form for an Olympic level high jump or learning how to shoot a sniper rifle and being able to hit the bull’s eye every time at two thousand yards. You know how marines get that good? They sit on the firing range all day with their faces glued into the sighting scope, shooting round after round after round. Just buying the gun isn’t enough. You have to work at it really hard and there’s not much time to do other stuff. Getting there leaves you pissing the intellectual equivalent of blood for your efforts –literally dinged and light headed as if you just stood a round against Connor McGregor and got the crap kicked out of you! My first two years in graduate school several times had me in tears. I was dreaming in mathematics and waking up in the middle of the night with the equations swirling around me. You’ve not lived until you’re deriving vector expressions for E-field polarization in light from Maxwell’s equations in your sleep. Breathing the topic, eating it, changes you. I regretted it at the time, but that place where demands are being made that are just beyond where you think you can go really does force you to break your own limits. The reality of physics very rapidly squeezes out anything resembling Osho or Prana energy.

Now, it’s with me forever and not just words. The feeling and the vision are still there along with the addiction of cracking problems apart and seeing where they implode into order.

In truth, there are people in this world who are ‘that’ smart. There is a small chance the Smith kids are among them. I do believe them to be bright, but how bright? Not like you can actually tell something like that from a tabloid interview. I’ve met and interacted with a few of these people, though I wouldn’t qualify myself among them. These people are truly scary because no matter how hard you work, they do better than you on the same test without having seemingly put in the effort. On the other hand, when they talk, it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about… with the Smith kids, it’s endless alliteration and metaphor without any substantial verification of the background. They use the words, but shove them into metaphors as if they have no concept of what the words actually mean. I was completely capable of that myself at that age! I talked endlessly about hypercubes and event horizons when I was seventeen, but ask me now if I truly understood it.

This particular article about Willow Smith drove me to write something on this blog because of this:

Willow sews clothing, hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics, and is studying how to produce songs from mathematical equations

And in the other article, this:

1. Willow Smith likes to sew.

2. Willow Smith is a self-proclaimed “STEM freak.”

3. Willow Smith chatted with female professors at MIT about science and logic, and might attend school there.

4. Willow Smith’s eyeliner philosophy is “all about emulating the colors you feel inside,” which is probably the best eyeliner philosophy, tbh.

5. This whole interaction between Willow Smith and Siri: “‘I see myself as a — €”hold on, let me ask Siri.’ The teenager whips out her iPhone and speaks into it, drawing stares from tables nearby. ‘Siri, define artisan.’ Everybody’s favorite robotic voice serves up a satisfying definition: Artisan is a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand. ‘Ah, OK, yes!’ Willow allows. ‘I call myself an artisan.'”

6. Willow Smith is studying how to produce songs from mathematical equations.

7. Willow Smith “hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics.”

A big portion of what’s written here is about some combination of science, physics and math… having never actually demonstrated a competence at any of these in a public framework! What does it mean ‘hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics?’ Is she sitting around with a group of her friends learning how to derive Klebsch-Gordon recurrence formulas?  For all that the article applauds her for using the words, there’s zero demonstration of the substance. You can look back at my post about Quantum University to know what I think of that.

I’m all for STEM education in women. I’ve dealt with female physicists who pulled higher scores than me in my quantum classes. I have a deep respect for women in STEM and I know flat out that they are capable of wickedly cool things. Take Emmy Noether, for instance. General Relativity would not be the same as a field without her. The difference here is that Emmy Noether actually did it. She didn’t wear around the aura of doing it, she didn’t abstractly pay lip service to ‘quantum mechanics,’ she produced real mathematical topology results never having once wasted her time singing about it in a recording booth, going on photo shoots for whoever or beaming about Prana energy, Ayurveda or Osho. After they get to the level I’m at, most of these women stop worrying so much about how they dress or what makeup they wear because they simply don’t have the time to spend the effort. I respect them because of the bias they wade against in many fields and it blows me away when they dress just as comfortably as the guys and pull through tests neck-in-neck. They can certainly do what they want with their clothing, but with many of them, it’s clear where they put their budget of energy. Most stop troweling on the eyeliner or lipstick unless they feel like it. Give me a clean-faced, smiling woman in flat, comfortable shoes with a three second pony-tail talking competently about Fourier transforms over this paper-tiger with her photo shoots and nonsensical posing any day. Willow Smith is casting the image of what popular culture wants smart to be… not what it actually is!

This girl could be an incredible benefit to her generation: she could make it cool for girls to do well in engineering type disciplines (if she were actually doing that, of course, which is debatable). She and her brother could make it cool for kids to be science geeks like I was. However, in order to actually accomplish in these fields, you can’t just wear the aura. If you are divided in your path and can’t get behind the idea of sitting in a classroom learning how to tell when you’re wrong, and really being pushed into a territory where almost no one is just ‘comfortable,’ you aren’t making it. Don’t delude yourself, it’s never just the words! Anybody can sound smart.

Much ado is made about them ‘teaching themselves’ in the book of life and how much better that is than the classroom. The problem with self study education (autodidacticism at the extreme), is that it’s hard to learn how to error-check your own thoughts. There are not that many true autodidacts because of that. People don’t easily step outside of themselves to know whether the information they’ve picked up is correct or not. Adding to a library means sometimes knowing when to discard a book. For instance, reading Deepak Chopra is not going to take you anywhere in learning quantum mechanics, but you can’t necessarily know this without some external direction since Chopra actively works to make what he says look like a legitimate truth deserving of as much consideration as what the topic of quantum mechanics actually contains. If you’re spending too much time pondering such chaff, you go nowhere with the things that have substance which take huge amounts of time to understand, like real Quantum Mechanics. And, if you accept what Chopra says as a valid interpretation because of some eastern mystic mentality, you have sabotaged yourself from knowing what real quantum can give you. For something like this type of physics, which contains no close conceptual parallels in our workaday world, without some guidance toward where the field lies, there’s not any reason why anyone can teach themselves to sort out what’s truth from what isn’t.

I think that the path to deep understanding of something like quantum physics is not along the path she’s walking… if she were actually walking it, it wouldn’t be ‘learning how to make songs about mathematical equations’ it would be ‘learning math.’ You can’t go deep or far if you’re divided. Your purpose can’t be distantly around, it has to be directly through. For instance, you can’t really learn quantum if you’re wasting time pretending that Ayurveda contains some kind of equivalent truth. That would have you spending time on the Ayurveda and not on the math. Quantum is a handful all by itself, let me tell you! I wish very much for her to prove me wrong, to prove to me that she has some substance to go with the borrowed legitimacy from using the words ‘quantum’ and ‘math’ to describe half of what she does. If I were invited to one of her ‘underground quantum mechanics teachings’ believe me, I could knock the topic straight and make it real… but I doubt anybody like me is ever invited. Likely, it’s all Ayurveda and Chopra and 2% real quantum.

Prove me wrong, girl! In five years, when you’re 20, after you’ve scraped off the makeup and put away the toys, gotten the GED and dominated the aptitude tests, then spent enough real effort on learning higher math to know what an equation is, we’ll chat again about what you like at MIT.

Math is fun, but you’ve got to really do it!

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