My physics courses were taught very well, and were exciting, but I don’t think they were transformative since they helped me along a path that was already set. The time I spent in philosophy courses opened my mind considerably. I took courses on Kierkegaard, and on existentialist literature and film with Hubert Dreyfus, and on philosophy of science with Paul Feyerabend. For many scientists Feyerabend was just too much, but I found him engaging and challenging. He emphasized that science is a complex human process, not a monolithic activity progressing according to a well defined method. He also transmitted a passion for argument itself, and saved his most ferocious criticism for those who were flippant on topics that deserved serious attention, or who substituted appealing catch phrases for reasoned arguments.
I had the impression that our children were born curious, and that they developed a sense for the completeness of stories long before being taught any formal notions of rigor in arguments. I suspect that all children are like this. A good education encourages this curiosity, and provides tools with which to search for deeper understanding. I can’t imagine these things becoming less important.
The job of “professor” means different things in different places. I am enormously fortunate to have the luxury of thinking about the things that I find most interesting, and in exchange I am expected to transmit this style of thinking to the next generation. What’s not to like?
I was deeply impressed by colleagues who maintain their passion for their subject, and for teaching, even when they are not as well supported by their institutions as they should be. With the students, there were many deeply memorable interactions. I think most often of a young Native American woman, interested in public health issues surrounding addiction. She explained that educating herself to best address these issues will involve going far from home, but worries that when she comes back she will be an outsider. I was struck by the clarity with which she expressed a problem that confronts all of us: how do we pursue excellence, and become part of select groups who can do unique things to help the world, without separating ourselves from a larger sense of community?
We have the great pleasure of going to small theaters, experiencing really extraordinary performances in intimate spaces. One theater company, Ensemble Studio Theater, supports the development of plays about science and technology, and there is a period during the year where one can see readings of many works in progress. These performances give the audience a look into the creative process, which I find very special.