There is no Formula

Shortly before I got mercilessly rejected from MIT last year, I read an article on the MIT Admissions blogs titled “There is No Formula” which highlighted how there wasn’t an easy set of checkpoints you could complete to ensure your ticket to MIT. Being but an MIT reject, I am focusing on other goals like becoming a scientist.

Most people think you have to be super smart to be a scientist. Popular culture depicts the scientist as possessing a higher IQ level and level of intelligence than an average person. I used to think that too. I believed that only smart people became good scientists. I also believed I was smart. Both of these beliefs have been shaken completely now that I’ve actually embarked on the journey.

As the great Carl Sagan said in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,

“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop.”.
Something I’ve realized us that you don’t need to be smart to be a good scientist. The biggest requirement for becoming a scientist is to be passionate and endlessly curious. There is no formula to become a scientist. Science is a risky profession and a risky tool. It brings with it lots of responsibilities. It isn’t always used correctly. Science has been used to create horrifying weapons they harness the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom. At the trinity test, the first successful test of an atomic bomb, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer quoted the following verse from the Bhagavad Gita:
“kālo’smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ”
The English translation of which is
I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
And yet, even though I don’t support nuclear weapons at all, is there any way us puny humans can ever wield that kind of power if not for science? We must remember that we weren’t the first to harness nuclear energy. There is a nuclear reactor in our cosmic neighborhood that has been using this technology long before we emerged as a species. In fact it is the reason we emerged as a species. The Sun.

Our ancestors lived a life of bleak prospects. Their average life expectancy was about 20-30 years. In between all the hunting, gathering and foraging, there was little time to wonder about the reason behind our existence and our goals as a species. And yet, those are the very questions that drove our ancestors to accomplish their most mythic achievements. Science is what has been driving our species forward. It is what drives our economies and what grows our industries. But most importantly, it is the one thing that can vanquish the darkness that surrounds us.

We may be tiny ape-like germs on a speck of dust, but we have developed  a tool that can predict the motions of galaxies and determine the origin and fate of the cosmos. Merely thinking about this gives one a sense of euphoria. Whether they are accepted as such or not, scientists have always been the real heros of our species. They are the equivalent of brave wanderers who, in olden times, set off to discover lands unseen and bounties unimagined.

Yes. Science is flawed. I never said it wasn’t. It can take lives at a mind blowing scale. But hasn’t it also saved lives at an even larger scale? There are more people alive today  than there ever were in history. This has all been possible due to science. Science increases agricultural productivity and survival chances. It is the reason the planet can sustain more than seven billion people.

The British poet W. H. Auden wrote, in the final stanza of his poem, “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” (click here to read the full poem. It’s amazing),
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
And indeed, we do not yet know whether it is wise for ‘median sized’ creatures like us to concern ourselves with the knowledge of ‘magnitude’s extremes’ from the infinitesimal quarks and leptons to the humongous galaxies and nebulae, but we can’t help it. We crave to understand where we came from and why we are here.
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