If I were given the opportunity to make a fresh start of my post-high school life — not just my career, but all the education leading up to a career, possibly a different one than I have now — what would I do differently? That’s the question that gets brought to mind by the very end of this article by Freeman Dyson at Edge.org.
In the final section, titled “Bad Advice to a Young Scientist”, Dyson recalls his experience of meeting a young Francis Crick in 1945. Crick had begun his career as a promising physicist, only to spend six years languishing in a “dismal office building” called Fanum House doing Naval intelligence work and watching his physics career die on the vine. Dyson goes on:
I came away from Fanum House thinking, “How sad. Such a bright chap. If it hadn’t been for the war, he would probably have been quite a good scientist”.
A year later, I met Crick again. The war was over and he was much more cheerful. He said he was thinking of giving up physics and making a completely fresh start as a biologist. He said the most exciting science for the next twenty years would be in biology and not in physics. I was then twenty-two years old and very sure of myself. I said, “No, you’re wrong. In the long run biology will be more exciting, but not yet. The next twenty years will still belong to physics. If you switch to biology now, you will be too old to do the exciting stuff when biology finally takes off”. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to me. He went to Cambridge and began thinking about DNA. It took him only seven years to prove me wrong.
I’ve always felt like I got into being a mathematician for all the wrong reasons — I mainly just wanted not to work in the real world, and I wanted the title of a Ph.D. to brandish about — but that I finished my education for the right reasons. And I still believe in the reasons I became a college professor, which are mainly to provide guidance and intellectual training to young men and women; and be the kind of intellectual and spiritual mentor to college students that I wished I had had as a college student myself and didn’t really have until graduate school. (Don Paul, are you reading this?)
But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what I’d do differently. I don’t know if I would study math. I think I would be doing computer science in some form or another — perhaps the business-oriented information systems kinds of majors; or maybe informatics, which looks very cool. And I’d probably double-major, pairing the computing education with something like economics, biology, linguistics — subjects which I’d always enjoyed or have recently come to have great interest in.
Of course the beauty of being a college professor is that I actually can make a fresh start of sorts, any time I like. Doing so was the main motivation behind my going to Reconnect 2007, although I don’t think I’m anywhere near freshly started in the fields I studied there. But there’s also the reality of having a wife, two children, a mortgage, and so on that make the notion of really starting over — especially devoting the kind of time it takes to really learn a field of study from the ground floor — quite a difficult proposition. This is why, I think, I lean so heavily on my students to use their time wisely; they won’t always have the opportunity to have the primary focus of their lives being to totally abandon themselves in pursuit of learning a field.
What would you do if you had the chance to start college over again? And has anybody successfully made the kind of fresh start that Crick describes (although obviously with the same degree of success Crick had)?