Dichotomies, False and Otherwise

Yesterday I met with several prospective students and some of their parents. It was a good visit and another reminder that I have pretty much landed in exactly the right job for me. Not only can I lose myself and rhapsodize about the universe for longer than most others want to participate, I am also delighted to meet with people who want to hear me talk about talking about the universe and I could spend all morning in the activity. As I do these visits, however, and we tour my lab I always notice the things around the lab that I forget otherwise, like the pictures of me that students have stuck all over the door and walls. These photos have quotes, things they claim I said one time or another. I am never sure what the prospective families think when they see these things.

When I read one of these little signs yesterday I was reminded of some of the concerns I have raised previously in this space, my wishing more people would want to re-invent the wheel among them. More directly related was my recent observation that I don’t care whether Pluto is a planet or not. It is an unnecessary binary, or dichotomy. We talked about something similar in department meeting a few weeks ago – trying to help students recognize that numbers they measure are not “big” or “small” in and of themselves. It matters what they are compared to. Likewise, I try to convince students that an angular resolution or a procedure is not “good” or “bad” in any absolute sense. It is better not to express our results that way.

Beyond these true binaries lie the false dichotomies. We are trained from an early age to absorb these and not really question them. Often people tell me “slow and steady wins the race.” This idea is reinforced with a story about a tortoise and a hare. I hope that those who have studied kinematics with me are quick to recognize that, in fact “faster and steady” ALWAYS beats “slower and steady.” So it is that I am pretty sure that I did say something like what the students have on the sign below. It seems likely that they were telling me about how they had deduced a way to work smarter at something instead of harder, once again something people often express to me proudly. It turns out that in no way does working smarter preclude working harder. In fact, the two in combination are pretty potent and I think the students recognize it. I am certain, too, that they are pleased I share these delightful insights with them.