Sunday, August 2, 2015

"The Best Summer of Your Life"

     On May 24, 2015, I received an email from Liz Holohan that began: "June 14th is getting closer! Only a few more weeks till the best summer of your life."  Following this statement was about what you would expect from an email detailing what you should and shouldn't bring to UVA when packing for your seven week experience as a counselor at the Summer Enrichment Program.  But that statement was so bold!  "The best summer of your life."  Really?

But believe me when I say that it was.

     I love working with kids.  I truly do.  Kids of all ages.  I've been involved with nursery, Vacation Bible School, Mathnasium, you name it.  I love kids, and for good reason!  I love their energy.  Even when it's 5:00 AM and they've been up since 7:00 the morning before, they'll still be dancing around the hall singing all of their favorite songs from High School Musical.  I love their honesty.  When they don't want to go to the pool and claim that they would rather "just read a book instead," they'll pack one instead of a towel and spend three hours of the most beautiful day of the year turning pages under a tree while all of their friends are splashing around in the water.  I love their thoughtfulness.  When dinner is almost over, and they stand up to get dessert, they'll often ask you if you want anything while they're up.  I love their spontaneity.  When they're quietly reading a book about the Periodic Table, they'll decide after a page on Sodium that it's the perfect time to claim that they can do The Shuffle and insist on standing up and proving it, even though you never said they couldn't.  I love their loyalty.  Even after you've taken away 20 minutes of their favorite part of the day and, as punishment for some form of inappropriate behavior, forced them to do a "blob of paint" puzzle that's all one color and has no corners, they'll still wish you a good night before bed and tell you jokes over breakfast the next morning.  I love everything about kids, and if I tried to list all of my favorite things I would never get to the rest of this post, so forgive me for cutting this short, but there's just too much more to say.

     Okay, you get it.  I love kids.  Now I should explain to you a bit about what I did with them this summer.  The Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) at the University of Virginia is a program for gifted high school and middle school kids.  They have to go through a rigorous application process in order to attend the camp, and all of the applicants are the naturally curious, academic type to begin with, so the campers who end up attending truly are the best of the best as far as middle and high school scholars go.  My job was to be the counselor of eight rising Freshman.  What does it mean to be their counselor?  That's a huge question, but I'll explain it to you the same way I explained it to them.  I have two jobs as a counselor: to keep my campers safe and to help them have a good time.  Keeping them safe means that I maintain an environment that is saturated with kindness and respect and void of both physical and emotional danger.  Helping them have a good time means being relate-able, building relationships with them, and leading by example and having a good time myself.  Over the summer, I saw 312 high school campers and was responsible for 24 of my own (there were three sessions, and each two-week session I had eight out of 104 of the high school campers in my suite).

     As far as writing this post goes, I'm brought to the most difficult part.  I could not decide how I wanted to try and capture my SEP experience.  Through narrative?  I have plenty of stories to tell, but I can't use names or pictures of campers, and I don't want to ruin surprises for potential future campers who might stumble across this as their sibling or friend is reading it.  Through summary?  Every session was too different-- there were common themes, but it would not do each justice to try and lump them all together.  No, I can't narrate and I can't summarize.  Instead, I'm going to do it like I would if I was still back at SEP.  Every session, in the high school camp, we have what's called a "Junior Farewell" on the last day.  Junior year is the last year that you can attend SEP, so at the end of each session, we give our Juniors the opportunity to tell all of their fellow campers and counselors what SEP has meant to them.  I'm the type to choke up, stumble over my words, and flounder in those kinds of situations, so I would have prepared a written statement (and I still would have read it through tears, as any camper reading this knows).

This would be my speech at a Junior Farewell.

     SEP.  Summer Enrichment Program.  "You're not wrong."  It's a program that happens in the summer, and I definitely feel enriched.  I definitely feel enriched.
     To enrich.  "To enhance the quality of."  To say that I am enriched is to say that I am better because of SEP.  But that's so vague. "Because of SEP."  What is SEP?  Who is SEP?  "Better."  Better how?
     From a counselor's perspective, SEP has nothing to do with classes and very little to do with any sort of activity.  Most of those things are, as each counselor has thought to themselves countless times, "for the kids." Yes, we walked you to your classes, but, for me, that was more about the chance to get to know you better and make sure that you got there safely than about the class itself.  And yes, we organized and participated in activities and had a lot of fun doing it, but my favorite part of the Counselor Dating Game and the Fashion Show was seeing the smiles on all of the campers' faces, not hearing about Pam's and Sam's sandbox or watching the baby Corticorn be born into this world.  To a counselor, or at least to this counselor, SEP is not about classes or activities, and I understand that many campers share this sentiment.  To me, SEP is about family.
     I would often greet both campers and counselors alike with: "hey, fam."  Why do you think that was?  "Fam" isn't just something that's convenient and fun to say.  It has meaning.  Obviously, it's short for family, and I meant it that way.  Some kids thought of their suite-mates as their brothers or sisters.  A few campers told me that they viewed their counselor as "the older sibling that gets left in charge, except more fun."  I know that several counselors thought of their campers as their kids.  I heard one counselor describe his job as "being a single father of eight," and multiple kids told me this summer that I "would make a great dad."  I think it's no coincidence that this theme of family came up so often this summer.  It's difficult to nail down exactly what part of the SEP family each member of the camp represents, but I think that most who were a part of the Summer Enrichment Program experience would agree that, in some way, we all grew to be one giant family.
     That's cute.  Really, it is.  It's a little cliche, but it's cute.  But how does that enrich someone?  A family isn't inherently enriching, but this one definitely had a positive influence on me.
I learned a lot about myself-- my strengths, my weaknesses.  I learned a lot about others-- their diversity, their complexity.  I learned a lot about responsibility-- the pressures, the rewards.  I feel as though these aren't things that I need to explore in great, long-winded detail.  Suffice to say these things.  A strength is that I have almost endless amounts of patience, but a weakness is that my passion for any given thing is very largely dependent on the passion of others; I could be more self-sustaining in that way.  Everyone is different, but they are equally complex and valuable.  The situations that are the most trying yield the greatest sense of satisfaction.  These three lessons have been very valuable to me, and I am better for them.
     I am walking away from this summer with countless amazing memories.  I will forever think back on the events that took place at SEP and smile.  To list a few that stand out, I will never forget my first paper plate award.  I will never forget about the two campers who sang "It's Raining Men" at Karaoke and absolutely killed it, even though I warned them that it might be difficult if they don't already know the song.  I will never forget the Junior who told me that he was up late just thinking about how he could apply everything he learned in my special topic to different aspects of his life.  I will never forget the twin who told me through tears at the Junior Farewell that I was her counselor crush, "not in a weird way, but because I just really think you're a great person."  I will never forget the times that one camper in particular smiled, even though she was always trying her hardest not to.  I will never forget the camper who rarely spoke, but who, when she opened her mouth to sing, got the entire camp on their feet in admiration and amazement.  I will never forget the secret handshakes that I had with campers.  I will never forget when one of my campers came up to me on five separate occasions within the same fifteen minute span to say goodbye after the Junior Farewell.  I'll never forget when a camper finally agreed to wear the matching outfit for our suite's performance of "Man in the Mirror," and how he ended up on his knees, singing into the microphone at the top of his lungs.  I will never forget the name of the camper that I forgot four times on the first two days (PS: I'm still sorry).  I will never forget answering questions, telling stories, dancing, or singing with the squam.  I will never forget the friendship bracelets and paper flowers that campers made me or the letters they wrote me.  I will never forget the conversations I had at social time and at the pool with campers who were gracious enough to spend that time talking to me.  There's a lot that I won't forget, and these few only begin to scratch the surface; I could write a book of all of the amazing things that I'll have the pleasure of remembering.
     Whew.  That was a lot to take in.  So I've been enriched with life lessons, I've been enriched with memories.  But there's one more way I've been enriched, and it's so obvious that I don't really even need to say it, but the way these things go is that I tell you it's "so obvious that I don't really even need to say it," and then I tell you anyway.  It's people.
     The people that I have met at SEP have truly changed my life.  I am a human of very few friends.  I will always prefer one or two very close relationships to many very shallow ones; however, the unique experience of connecting with hundreds of different people over such a short amount of time at such a deep level has left me a different human being than I was before.  I didn't just get to meet campers and counselors; we lived in the same building, we ate in the same dining halls, we did everything together.  I talked for hours with campers and counselors alike and forged relationships that will not end with my employment.  Thank you to every camper who took time out of your two short weeks to spend it with me.  Thank you to every counselor who put up with my antics and didn't ostracize me for not participating in every weekend activity.  Thank you to every member of the staff who doesn't get as much attention as the counselors for your invaluable work this summer.  I am not the person I was seven weeks ago; my quality has been enhanced-- I have been enriched.

Thank you, SEP.

**As always, please tell me if you find any spelling/formatting/whatever mistakes, so I can fix them!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

God's Glory as a Function of Everything

What is the meaning of life?  Any Bible-believing Christian would say: "To bring God the most glory."  Okay.  Great.  The meaning of life, our purpose in this universe, the reason everything happens the way it does, is to bring the most glory possible to the God who created us.  I like that, I really do.  It makes sense, it provides a convenient and satisfying explanation to why confusing things happen, it establishes a greater good.  Perfect.
Now.  The most glory.  What does that mean?  Rather, what does that imply?  It's a truly profound question!  Including the word "most" implies a comparison.  This brings God this much glory, whereas that brings God that much glory, and this much is greater than that much.  It implies that glory is quantifiable-- if it wasn't, there would be no this much and that much, there would be no most.  But there is.  Therefore, if we accept that we exist to maximize glory, then we must accept that glory is some value that can be changed, increased or decreased-- it's a variable.  It's a variable in a function that takes into account everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen.  God's glory can be expressed as a function of everything.  Of course, we couldn't hope to solve this equation, but I deal with all kinds of functions that I can't solve.  It's not really about the solution-- we leave that to the computers.  It's about what the function says about the system it describes.

Okay.  Let's break this down.  We have an expression.  Our expression is "God's glory as a function of everything."  What are we trying to do?  We're trying to find a maximum.  This is no surprise!  Mathy people do this all the time.  I can't remember the last time I looked for anything other than a minimum or a maximum in an interesting equation.  This is because extrema imply a state of equilibrium, a static point where the function is happy.  I hope you're tracking.

How do we find a maximum?  We look at the rate of change (the derivative for you math nerds), and when that rate of change is zero, the function is at an extrema.  With some more mathematical voodoo, we can determine whether it's a minimum or a maximum, but I won't bore you with those details.  The point is that it's possible!

So where are we now?  The purpose of our existence is to bring God the most glory.  Glory is quantifiable.  God's glory can be expressed as a function of everything.  We can find the maximum of this function.  Good.  But what does this maximum represent?  It shows the discrete values of our independent variables at which our dependent variable, God's glory, reaches its greatest value.  In English, it describes a reality, a past, a present, and a future, in which God receives the most glory possible.  Now things are getting interesting.
What happens if we have multiple absolute maxima?  From a mathematical perspective, this means that there exist multiple values for our independent variables for which God's glory will be maximized.  That's straightforward enough, but what is our physical interpretation of this?  There can be multiple realities in which God receives a maximum amount of glory.  This might not seem that interesting at first, but this idea could go in two directions from here.  Theologically, it could be an exploration of free will manifested in mathematics.  Physically, it could be an explanation of the Multiverse Theory from a religious perspective.  We'll glance at both.

Free will.  Age old.  Often debated.  Never resolved.  My belief is that absolute sovereignty cannot coexist peacefully with free will the way most people define it.  However, the question of sovereignty aside, this whole maximization thing is a pretty elegant solution to a few of the other issues people have with free will.  How can God receive the most glory if we have any control over our destiny?  Wouldn't one shift in the independent variables cause a deviation from the maximum we talked about?  Well, anyone who has worked with differential equations knows that small perturbations about the extrema won't necessarily cause a shift from equilibrium, but the conclusion that we can draw from our exploration is that even a large deviation can drop us off at another absolute maximum, assuming the existence of multiple global extrema.  Long story short, if multiple absolute maxima exist in the function for God's glory, then it's possible that we could still bring God the most glory even with the flexibility to make our own decisions.
The second path relates to the theory of multiple universes, the Multiverse Theory.  Honestly, it doesn't quite fit, but perhaps many realities exist, each of which plays out to God's ultimate, maximum glory, and rather than making choices, all possible permutations of our decisions are played out on different stages.  I'm no supporter of the idea that multiple realities exist, and I'm pretty sure that the Multiverse Theory describes a system where all of the different universes have different physical laws.  It's the Multiverse Theory, after all, not the Parallel Universe Theory.  But it's still interesting to think about the theory as an explanation for multiple possible maxima of the function I described earlier.

Whew!  So a brief summary.  God's glory can be expressed as a function of everything, and reality is described by that function at its maximum.  This gets more complicated when multiple absolute maxima exist, but the implications of this complication provide some pretty convenient parallels to existing theories of both religion and physics.

And then I found five dollars.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Break Through

            In order to discover something truly new, one of your fundamental assumptions has to change.
            This is an idea that I stole from a Ted Talk.  I mean, I kind of stole it from a Ted Talk.  It's not uncommon knowledge, but its implications are pretty profound.  This idea represents a barrier: the barrier between what you know and what you don't.  As a student, this is a barrier which I encounter often.  In fact, I claim that my full time job is to take a hammer to this barrier every day of the week.  However, students aren't the only people who run into this wall.  Have you ever put together a puzzle?  There comes a time in the piecing together of any puzzle when you feel like you've been given a bad box-- the puzzle-maker is out to get you, so he gave you a thousand ridiculously similar pieces that just don't fit together the way they should.  In the end, you're almost always wrong, and the feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and betrayal (because the puzzle-maker was supposed to be on your side) that you encountered at your lowest moment now contribute to the sense of accomplishment you feel when you've put together the picture that probably shouldn't have been broken up into a thousand tiny pieces to begin with.  That's what I want to talk about-- the dichotomy between despair and excitement and the way the former magnifies the latter once the barrier has been overcome.
             A topic of conversation that often comes up when I'm talking with my fellow science or math majors is the luxury which other students take for granted that is not needing to find a specific answer all the time.  Writing papers sucks.  It does.  But when I sit down with a blank Word Document in front of me, at least I know that in six hours I'll have about ten, sparkling pages that I can fork over to my professor, even if it's the worst paper I've ever written.  With science and math, you don't have that assurance.  There was an evening when Jacob and I sat down and spent hours struggling with a problem to which we never found the answer.  I filled three pages with algebraic manipulations for that one question, but eventually, we just had to move on.  There's something horribly depressing about sinking hours of time and energy into a problem which you never solve.  But I can guarantee that there was a physics student, we'll call him Jimjam Flimflam, sitting somewhere on the campus of William and Mary that same night who, after pulling out the majority of his hair while his roommate slept soundly in his warm, comfortable bed, landed on a solution that made sense-- and I'm sure it was glorious.  I bet Jimjam Flimflam gently set his books aside, stood up from his chair, ripped off his shirt, and quietly danced around the room punching the air and yelling silently in celebration, careful not to wake his snoring roommate.
            Do you know why he solved the problem and Jacob and I didn't?  He found a crack in the barrier, and he exploited it, smacking it with his hammer as it spider-webbed across the whole surface, until finally, he broke through.  That crack is the knowledge you have.  That hammer is your textbook and your notes.  And the other side of that barrier is a deeper level of understanding.  The thicker the wall, the greater your frustration, but the greater your frustration, the more magnificent your victory.  Some people go out and look for the thickest barrier they can find and start chipping away at it.  Some people start chiseling away without realizing just how deep they'll have to go.  Some people turn around at the first obstacle they encounter.  It's my job as a student and as a scientist to learn to see the barrier as a chance to accomplish something.  It's my job to embrace the challenge of a problem that I haven't solved.  One day, it will be my job to embrace the challenge of a problem that no one has solved. 
            However, embracing the challenge does not mean overcoming the obstacle.  There are humans who have spent their entire existence on problems that they never see solved, just like there are students who spend their entire evening on problems that they never see solved.  But that's okay.  There can be joy in the struggle.  I've never won a race, but I loved running track.  I've never finished writing a book, but I've had a great time writing chapter one.  I've never beaten Arjun in Melee, but I enjoy playing him.  You get the idea.
            Here's my advice to you: learn to appreciate the puzzle.  Have fun taking every likely candidate for the gap in your sky and twisting it every way possible before putting it back on the table.  Smile at the ridiculousness of the notion that the puzzle-maker is pitting himself against you (but don't completely discount the idea).  Laugh at the simplicity of the solution when you find it.  Breaking down the barrier isn't about scribbling down the correct numbers on the page-- it's about the understanding you gained from finding them, and that's something you can't get from an answer key.