for teachers writing recommendations
A person's character is determined by the sum of two complementary cases: what he does when he is compelled to do something, and what he does when he is not compelled to do anything. In the first case, in which schoolwork springs immediately to mind, mine is a character under construction, and you as my teacher have been privileged to witness my edification with the protection of hard hat and goggles. In the second case, typified by extrascholastic pastimes, I have always found ways to entertain and teach myself. To the end of providing you with some insight into the life of an otherwise normal, intelligent teen, these are some of the things I do outside of class.
I hesitate to divide my areas of interest into the quasi-French Revolutionary slogan of “academic, athletic, personal,” since those terms share much of my favorite territory. Instead, I will go by subject, and pick up the loose ends at the end.
This was my first love. Before I was a writer or a scientist I was a mathematician. In first grade this meant always winning the opening game of Around the World and going up to the IMC in search of ways to satisfy my thirst for math. In fifth grade I studied independently. In eighth grade I woke up early, like the older kids, and rode the bus to the high school for geometry. Now, I'm studying multivariable calculus via a distance learning program from the University of Illinois. I have lost some of my love for math because as it becomes more advanced it seems to become less applicable to real situations. Fortunately, every few years someone discovers a connection between an obscure but well-documented mathematical method and a previously unsolvable physical problem. For example, The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot introduces a new paradigm of graphing-by-iteration by which to represent nature's complexity in mathematical form. Other books of math I have read recently include A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann, which parallels the development of accurate decimal representations of the ubiquitous constant to the development of civilization itself; Chaos by James Gleick, an account of the mathematicians and scientists responsible for the creation and applications of the aforementioned fractals; and Ivars Peterson's The Mathematical Tourist, which dabbles in cryptography, topology, higher dimensions, and of course: fractals.
I like math because it enables me to do physics; since Newton, physics has relied on mathematics for its credibility and beauty. I hung around after the eighth-grade visit to Fermilab in order to discuss the aesthetic aspects of gluons with the presenter. It was a purely qualitative discussion, of course, for I had no concept of the mathematics underlying quantum theory or the rest of the standard model, and today I have only an inkling. Instead of trying to teach myself, I read books that convey the romance of modern physics, hoping that when I attend college I will be able to convert that sense of excitement into fervor at the blackboard, scribbling solutions to Schrödinger's wave equation under the tutelage of a professor. The God Particle, by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, succeeds both as a popular account of particle physics and as humor. I read Physics for the Rest of Us by Roger Jones, an occasionally platitudinous but often illuminating analysis of the effect of modern advances in physics on our culture and philosophy. I read the late Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon-Haunted World, and marveled at its accuracy of expression and logic in deriding the antiscientific hogwash that dominates our information-based society.
Physics also has applications to the motion of a stack of weights. I weight train thrice weekly in an unusual way: I move the weights so slowly that the momentum of the machine is negligible compared to its internal friction, requiring my muscles to apply continuous force to maintain motion. This, of course, is “hard.” Training this way is not only more efficient than the usual manner of weight lifting (a workout takes forty-five minutes tops) but also much safer, because there is never an instant in the motion of the machine when I do not have full control of the weight — so it will never move suddenly to injure me. Unfortunately, most people don't know enough physics to understand the benefits of “Super-Slow” training. This is one of the reasons I am interested in studying education.
I love language. It is the medium through which a mind expresses its logic to another mind. Why, then, are there so many ways to write bad sentences? Probably because English is the result of centuries of tectonic (and Teutonic) shifts of plates of differing varieties and eras, jarring one another on the fault line which is contemporary culture. Perhaps the inevitable result of gradual change in language is a decline in its consistency of form. Due to this effect in our language, the syntax of English is quite forgiving; but whereas an errant statement in a computer program brings vitriol and late-night frustration to a haggard programmer, a person's failure (intentionally or not) to communicate his idea with another person can provide fodder for humor. Richard Lederer makes a comfortable living highlighting such errors in order, sense, and nuance. Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman ascribes a higher meaning (of sorts) to the decline of English, as does George Orwell in several of his essays, notably “Politics and the English Language,” and more subtly in his well-known novels.
Emily Dickinson swoons at the apparent variation in body temperature induced by poetry; for me, though I am disappointed that I rarely find it in poetry, powerful language of any kind has a similarly profound effect on me. That is why I own four of the five books in the series The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said; In a Word, a book of words invented to mean what is normally said with jumbled phrases, or not said at all; The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, which despite its single volume is indeed encyclopedic in scope; and the definitive The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
At some level thinking becomes meta-thinking, and this is where the best writers shine. To incant a spell with language is to think clearly and to express clearly, but to express clearly is to think clearly about expression, and so on, down the interminable chain of elephants holding up the world. The best writers, though they know of its existence, never have to face that infinity: the progression of thought to words is seamless. I am not yet this good at writing, but I want to be, and so I practice it in the form of persuasive essays and short stories and poems, in the hope that by repetition I may acquire the skill of firing off words easily and precisely when I have a thought to write.
If mathematics is my everlasting platonic love, then computers have been my fiery, recurrent affair. I taught myself to program the Apple ][ in elementary school, first the basic “Hello!”, then as a tool for math. In middle school I learned algebra and wrote programs to solve the quadratic equation and apply the Pythagorean Theorem on right triangles. In high school I got a programmable calculator, then bought myself a few different models when I learned of their variations. I wrote programs for trigonometry and analysis that are literally legendary here. “My calculator crashed. Could you give me TrigFinger?” I overhear in the math lab, and even if the sender doesn't have the program, he invariably knows of it and speaks of it reverently. I am now just starting to delve into the hardest programming language of all, called assembly language, which consists of mnemonic codes that represent 8-digit binary strings.
My favorite computer books are UNIX in a Nutshell, an index of commands for the multi-user operating system running most of the Internet; Clifford Pickover's Mazes for the Mind, a joyous blend of math and creative writing and computer pseudocode; and Macworld Mac Secrets, an enormous compendium of tricks and hidden features that make the Macintosh as magical as it is. (By the way, I won $100 and the newest edition free for sending over 150 corrections to the book's authors.)
Needless to say I have recognized a connection between the language of people and the language of processors, and of all the subjects that interest me, it is this connection that fascinates me most. I intend to study computer science and English in college for the purpose of determining just how far the comparison can be drawn. Perhaps by understanding the structured rigidity of Pascal syntax I can arrive at a solution to the problem of ambiguity in English; more likely, I will find that the connecting road ends too soon for lack of pavement. I want to be the construction worker at the frontier.
Yet another language. But I wouldn't call music a universal language, as it is often called, because it varies with culture and time and person. At a Ravinia Festival recital I attended, the musicians played a piece that, though certainly original, sounded like the moan of a cow upon having the flesh of its nose torn off with the ring. I looked in the program notes for the ex-convict who must have composed it, and found that he intended it to evoke images of “rushing water” and “fresh springs bubbling with the joy of existence” and some other well-worn phrases. It was the worst music I've ever heard. I don't think I heard it wrong, either!
Music I like ranges from Debussy (my current favorite) to Brahms to Khachaturian to Cab Calloway to Pink Floyd. I am willing to listen to any music placed before me before criticizing it, as I usually do, for being boring or stale or otherwise tiresome, but I laud the rare music which rightly earns my admiration. I play classical piano; with my ear for music I can listen to jazz or rock groups and play along with chords and solos in a few moments. When I hear a compelling phrase in my head I rush upstairs to the piano and improvise.
The role of music in my life is none more than another language in which I strive for eloquence and facility.
A champion of generalization, I must work to garner needed evidence for my assertions. So I read Newsweek, TIME (these could, in fact, be a single magazine — ”TIMEweek”), and the Chicago Tribune regularly. For a laugh I look at People. I just recently subscribed to Scientific American, and find it terrific for my curious mind.
Miscellaneous Other Reading Materials
I haven't read enough fiction to warrant its having its own section, but I must tell you about a book I have read twenty-four times since last year: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Reading it for the first time was both a revelation, an epiphany, and at the same time an admission of things I had always known, but had neglected to remember or apply. I haven't yet decided whether it is possible to live consistently and completely by the philosophy presented in the novel, that people are rational, self-interested, and productive by nature, but I would like it to be — and just as a scientist repeatedly prods his infant hypothesis to see whether it can stand and walk, I have continually reconsidered my opinions on philosophical, ethical, and political issues through the prism of Objectivism. Each time I read the book, I find new answers — and new questions.
A corollary to Amitai's Theorem of Character: a person is what he does. Now you know what I do, and who I am.