An Intellectual Commitment

I’ve just finished my first semester as a graduate student in physics at Harvard, and it’s been an exhilarating 3 1/2 months since I arrived in Cambridge at the end of August. At Amherst College, I did a lot of physics and math, including doing a lot of research and spending at least a few nights every week doing problem sets. However, I realized that I was a college student first and foremost; I was extremely free to seriously pursue my interests in music and other fields. By the end of my senior year, I was involved in five different musical groups, despite the fact that most of my afternoons were already consumed by doing research in Prof. Hunter’s lab.
Harvard is very different. The courses have been intense, more so because I am also doing research almost full-time in Prof. Gabrielse’s group. Thankfully I have adjusted to the shock of the first problem sets and now I feel confident in adjusting to the pace for the next semester. I felt that I’ve truly experienced a major shift. Every day, I interact with highly accomplished and knowledgeable physicists and fellow graduate students. We talk about the basic physics of our experiment (the ACME experiment to measure the electron electric dipole moment), about our plans for its next generation and beyond, about atomic physics in general. Instead of a “just” a rigorous education in physics, this has been a full-blown immersion. I am no longer merely a student of physics, or “someone doing research”, but an apprentice, acolyte and disciple of the dark arts of atomic and molecular manipulation using light and other means, studying in one of the world’s most accomplished groups in atomic precision measurement.
How does it feel? My feelings have been like a non-linear, chaotic roller coaster – sometimes flat and stable for weeks, followed by brief periods of intense existential crisis. I tried desperately to cling onto my college mentality in the first few weeks, with futile results. I had to come to terms with the fact that the people regularly around me no longer consider me to be a musician, but at best a physicist who is interested and somewhat competent in his musical hobbies. Thankfully, I have managed to make my mind and mental well-being adjust to this.
Despite this, there are good moments, especially when I am reminded of how implausible all of this would have sounded in high school. At that time I did take physics and math as subjects like everybody else in Singapore but I was more known for my musical capabilities. I was never the “whiz kid” who regularly participated in science fairs and olympiad, winning prizes and medals right and left. Instead, I dreamed of becoming like Yo-Yo Ma. Or Beethoven. I seriously considered pursuing cello performance after high school, and for a while worried whether I was talented enough to get admitted to a conservatory.

Renaissance Dreams

In the midst of all this self-doubt, I remember that when I was in 10th or 11th grade or so, this vision of being a Renaissance man and polymath came into my purview. Maybe it was the result of my interest in reading about Christian apologetics (which had begun since I was 14 or so), a topic which spans a whole range of subjects from evolutionary biology to cosmology to medieval history to Ancient Near Eastern studies. At some point I came to admire people like da Vinci, Jefferson, Goethe, Humboldt, Thomas Young, Benjamin Franklin, as well more modern figures like Douglas Hofstadter and Umberto Eco – polymaths whose intellectual power transcended regular subject boundaries. I was in awe of the ability of their minds to span vastly different subject areas, something especially remarkable given that we still regularly hear of the simplistic notion that science people are “left-brained,” whereas humanities and the arts are “right-brained.” These men were able to transcend that reductionist categorization! They were models of the perfect human being, at least intellectually speaking.
Why couldn’t I be like one of them? Part of my motivation was “noble”: to become a fully-equipped intellectual defender of the Christian faith in these secular times. Another part of it came from my perfectionist tendencies: I simply found an unquenchable desire to become a polymath. Not necessarily because I knew that I enjoyed the actual experience of studying everything (as I had had very little experience), but I certainly enjoyed the prospect of doing so. The curiosity was quite real.
So I began crafting a grandiose, Faustian vision of perfecting my own self. It was integrated with the fact that I had also became enamored of popular physics books – I remember being deeply engrossed in Brian Greene’s lucid explanations of special relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory in The Elegant Universe. The fancy “Plan” in my mind was somewhat as follows:

I will start by becoming a professional physicist with a PhD, preferably doing research in string cosmology or something similarly super fundamental to understanding the universe. Armed with this mastery of the mathematical description of nature, I will then commence studies in philosophy, the most fundamental humanities subject, earning a second doctorate in this subject. Next, I will branch out into literature, theology, history, and whatever else suits my trajectory to becoming a Renaissance Man, a polymath, conversant in any subject and set to become the da Vinci of the 21st century. At the same time, I will have been nurturing a side career as a world-famous composer of contemporary classical music.

So much for having a realistic plan. But as they say, it’s important to start out by dreaming big, isn’t it? The draw of the Plan was powerful enough that by the time I finished

Executing the Renaissance Vision

The first phase of my Plan involved avoiding the hyper-specialization that occurs from the second you go to university and pick what subject you studied. I really, really wanted to study physics and music together, equally. This meant avoiding universities in Asia or Europe where it’s normal to specialize early. I turned to America. I learned of liberal arts colleges, relatively unknown small gems in the American education system that seemed to allow this.
To make a long story short, I applied to 10 top colleges and universities in the US, all of which were hard to get in but could probably give me sufficient financial aid if I did. All rejected me except Amherst, which did give me a more or less full scholarship. So I went, with the express intent of pursuing my twin passions in music and science.
Fast forward four years later, it may be surprising to some that I still retain a lot of the naive idealism of my teenage years. Interestingly, I have been able to chart a course which still somewhat resembles the one I thought of as a teenager. I did end up majoring in physics. But instead of becoming a string theorist, I found myself drawn towards experimental atomic physics, the specialty of the Amherst physics department. At the same time, I studied music seriously. In my senior year I pulled off writing a separate honors thesis in the two subjects. I became a fluent composer of music – not yet a profound or very successful one, but at least one with a fair amount of experience and facility in composing for different settings.
I even found time to do other things than physics and music. I took a third major in mathematics. I took a year of Ancient Greek, as being fluent in the classics has always been a part of the Renaissance ideal. I took courses in philosophy and Shakespeare.
My Amherst College experience was indeed, exceptional for me. There are so many fun and amazing things I did there that I could write multiple posts about it. I now recommend going to liberal arts colleges for any high school senior who is in a realistic position to do so.
That being said, I was already starting to find cracks in the Plan even during my time at Amherst. I found that Physics is a difficult subject, requiring a lot of time to study. My majoring in math was in fact done with the consideration that it would greatly aid me in becoming a better physicist. Doing research in physics consumes even more time. While in the midst of this, I still managed to take plenty of music courses, I somewhat regret the fact that I could not take more classes in the humanities. But this is something which I cannot regret, because while I liked the idea of liberal learning in general, getting a typical liberal education (which normally consists of doing just one major and taking a slew of introductory courses in as many departments as possible to widen one’s horizons) was not 100% commensurate with the Plan. The Plan attempts to make one into a polymath, not a mere dilettante or jack-of-all-trades. Unfortunately, to work towards being a good physicist I sometimes found myself unable to keep up nurturing an interest in the humanities at all. This was disappointing, but unfortunately necessary.
In my senior year, it was time to start aiming for phase 1b of the Plan: physics graduate school. I cared enough about my Renaissance vision to mention it in my application essay. It worked. (Or maybe it was luckily not annoying enough to spoil my chances.) I got admitted to a range of top programs in physics. I chose to go to Harvard, the school that rejected me as a college applicant. At Harvard, I successfully got into a research group that is running one of the major atomic physics experiments of its time (or so we like to think!).

Grasping onto the Plan

And so here I am, having completed a tenth of my “first” PhD. I keep realizing I did not understand the risks and consequences of my grand Plan. Namely, the risk that the effort needed to master my first subject might be more than enough to completely extinguish the fires of my youthful Renaissance fantasies. Now I’m starting to understand why most people are content with having one doctorate in one subject. Night after night of doing problem sets many times more complicated and difficult than the ones I did in college has really exhausted me mentally. I even find my desire to compose and make music greatly tested and diminished. I haven’t composed anything in the last 4 months. I haven’t been playing cello in an orchestra, although I did discover the incredible World Music Ensemble at Harvard. During the summer before going to Harvard, I was determined to maintain my Renaissance-like outlook even in graduate school. Instead, I found myself slipping further and further away from the Plan. Now I would be content just to be able to become a decent physicist, since it is so hard by itself.
Is the Plan over? Am I finally becoming like any other person, having their specialized place in modern society, and barely an interest in anything else? I managed to put it off during college. Is it finally catching up to me?
The answer is not quite.
Despite the mental exhaustion of this first semester, I see signs that things are not as bleak for the Plan as they seem to be. I took Ancient Greek in sophomore year, and promptly forgot most of it since. But I have since been regularly attending weekly, non-curricular classes in Koine Greek. I found the willpower to wake up early for this non-mandatory 9 AM class on Saturday morning. And I have been doing all the homework for it. This means I still take the Plan somewhat seriously.
I have also managed to find time to complete a MOOC in Coursera during this semester, on Philosophy and the Sciences. Not the most rigorous or challenging course, but it was still very refreshing. I find myself being able to read non-physics books during spare moments of the day, even though I procrastinate and waste time on Reddit just as much. While I’m not composing anything, I have been attending the Harvard new music composition colloquium every Monday, where I have learned so much about new music and the composition process. I have started thinking about exploring computer and algorithmic music composition, and the prospect of integrating my science background into the music I compose.

Reclaiming the Renaissance Vision

Nearing the end of this first semester, I have decided to make an active step to renew my commitment to the Plan. I have not fully thought out what exactly it constitutes, but starting this blog is an important part of it. The blog will serve as a place of daily, routine reflection on the various things I am studying, whether it be atomic physics, general physics, computer and data science, music, theology, or the humanities. Since the Plan began I have attempted to keep up a regular schedule of reading “classic” works of the Western literary and intellectual tradition. It hasn’t always been successful, but I always manage to have something read in the background. But for some time I have only been reading without reflecting afterwards. In intellectual terms, this makes my reading very ineffective. Thus, the purpose of this blog will be to make it a habit for me to write short pieces and essays on the things I read.
I am currently in the middle of reading Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady, which hopefully I will finish in a few days and post of something. In the next few years, hopefully I will be able to tackle more classic literature, and also wade through the Great Books of the Western World. Why are the Great Books important? Many of its defenders have argued about the importance of being part of the “Great Conversation” or “finding the truth in an age of cultural relativism” and so on. I believe some of those arguments. But for me, it is really just part of the Plan. To be a Renaissance man, you have to know many things, especially those things which are applicable to many different intellectual contexts. And what better fits the bill than the Great Books? These are books which have been chosen because of their historical importance and because they have become part of the canon. Many people rail against their “hegemony” or lack of diversity, but even for those people, Plato and Shakespeare and Marx and Darwin are inescapable. Understanding these ideas is important to understanding anything else in the humanities.
I have looked around for different plans of reading the Great Books. For example, Andrew R Jacobs (a professor at Faulkner University) has been running a seven-year plan in his Through the Great Books blog. There is also a ten-year plan created by Alan Nicoll for his seemingly now-defunct reading group. I may use these guides as rough pointers for what to read, and what to think about. But as I will detail in the next post, a review of A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning by James Schall, the Great Books are not necessarily the only thing someone desiring a liberal education should do. There are many good, not necessarily great books written in the last 100 years that are worth reading. Some of these are suggested by people like Schall, but in my case I also love reading high-quality popular science books, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Richard Holmes’ The Age of WonderThese I will also try to incorporate into the reading schedule.
In conclusion, I hope that this blog will serve as both my intellectual journal and a source of motivation. Its primary purpose is for me to express myself for my own personal intellectual benefit. While I would not mind other people reading and engaging with my thoughts, I anticipate that for the first few years it’s going to be rare for me to come up with anything really interesting or worthwhile.
But the Plan still lives, I hope. The Plan has morphed from being a youthful fantasy into a silent but overarching philosophy of my intellectual life. I hope it will continue in that role, and develop even further. Many years ago I dreamed of being the Greatest Intellectual of Our Time. Now, I have the humbler, more focused dream of being a successful physicist – but also, a successful scholar and human being. Still always, a Renaissance Man.

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