On Turning 21 (Revisited by an 24 year old)


Over three years ago now, I drafted a short essay on my flight back from San Francisco. That whimsically spontaneous trip was made in the week after my 21st birthday. Back then, I was in the middle of my fourth year in my BSc physics program, and my slow transition from student to “adult” was just beginning.

An incomplete version of the so-titled “On Turning 21” was hosted on FWPhys for a while until I’ve taken it down in the general content slimming and blog overhaul near the onset of COVID-age in early 2020. While its general messages I’d say stay somewhat relevant, I’m now at a somewhat better vantage point to re-write it with emphasis on what had worked, and what needs more attention.

Epistemological Integrity, and Your Own Calculations

My mind still sometimes ligers on my brief Olympiad physics course in Year 10. Back then, I didn’t know much higher mathematics beyond manipulation of trigonometric functions by rote memorization of a page of formulae, nor could I speak any of the “overpowered” languages of Lagrangian mechanics or differential calculus.

Regrets of “what could have been” aside, I suspect the fondness with which I remember that period of my life was a sense of confused-optimism with which I approached my problems, which eventually guides my research actions today.

It’s a mind state exclusive to one’s high school age, I’d hope: the general willingness to solve problems without regard of what’s established or optimal, and an endless drive to just try and see what works. Time is ample. Stakes are low. Naiveness fades over such self-driven explorations.

As a student, I’m good at taking lecture notes, that I’m proud of. But during the time before homework problems and exam questions became directed efforts such as “show that”, what I did was more comparable to what I do now — just go on, and see where sense and your training takes you.

I hope I am not talking down on the importance of directed training and systematic knowledge, no. In the context of turning 21 — on becoming an adult — what one needs to realize is that it is his or her sole responsibility to arrange the knowledge system, and, at the end of the day, carry out independent calculations reliably. I reached this point after some detours, but wish the later comers be more wary of the need of self-reliance.

Well when brain download becomes a thing, this section will be nullified.

Emotional Freedom, and the Weight of Spontaneity

A general familiarity with numerical analysis — a path I’d followed since turning 21 — has opened a path littered with “Acts of Mundane Competence” for me. I’d built stuff in CAD, use 3D printers and laser cutters regularly, studied automotive bodywork in MATLAB, written songs (with computationally picked chords, of course), and produced various shorts with special effects. Some friends say I wear many hats, and I suppose it got me thinking. A critical evaluation of whether this is a beneficial development is in order, for self and for society.

When I chose theoretical physics research as my job, I’d already taken a tacit but decisive stance to side with delayed gratification, so called “cold benches” in Chinese, as opposed to the retweet-like world built to complement and commandeer our immediate-feedback-craving nervous systems so well.

Act of Mundane Competence is a new phrase I’d coined for myself. You might soon notice some FWPhys.com/LUX photo watermarks become LUX-AMC instead. The word “Mundane” in this context does not represent a dismissal on my end of professional knowledge and states of the art in the fields in which I dabble — my electronic music is crap and my photos, while a reliable source of income, are far from Academy levels.

Rather, it stands for a recognition that I’m carefully reflecting on myself, after a period of immense self-empowerment and self-realization, whether I’m just drilling in the thin part of the board — whether my efforts are really best spent in such a manner, that they make me a better physicist or educator at the end of my life.

Being adult — well, in my early twenties version of the word, somewhat independent, somewhat self-driving, somewhat self-interested, and somewhat self-sustaining — opens up much more dimensions with which one carves out his or her life trajectories, and makes it quite easy to branch up so often one stays running in circles, stagnant, and worse, getting distant with the initial motivation, assimilated by, or worse, lost in the external world.

As such, being an adult to me is not only an exploration of the boundaries of one’s interests and limits, but also a constant process of self-evaluation and trimming of loose ends. The bedtime fantasy of adoring every corner of one’s finite life, every attempt at something new, every trip, every hobby, with numerous perfect and interesting narratives is just that, a fantasy, a shadow in the distance of the waking minutes from a dream.

24, I’m writing this section after realizing my high-degrees of spontaneity recently brought discomfort for and potentially overwhelmed some peers I deemed important in my life, to the point I’m not realistically expecting them to see this at all — sorry. In the lingo of my previous paragraph, I signed up for a random photo gig, first in my life, of a sports event during a hiking trip; I met a player at the event; nothing happened after.

And that’s to be accepted.

Just Do

I’m talking a lot.

Both at Berkeley and at Auckland, I’m fortunate to be in the vicinity of a crowd that comprises no shortage of people shining in the startup business world. Survivor bias plays a role, but I’d also commend the startup mentality’s positive effects in one’a daily dealings.

It’s hard to pin down what I mean here by startup mentalities. “Fake it ‘till you make it?” Meh. I think I mean the drive to deliberately and constantly learn in action, in “doing”.

This is in general quite similar to the first point I’m making, really, that informed adults take full responsibility of their epistemological integrity — organization of skills, knowledge, and life philosophies, and ability to reliably perform nontrivial tasks on one’s own.

But the ability to construct good looking systems on paper alone is neither efficient nor meaningful. And in my case these are only summarized in retrospect: I didn’t have these fully comprehended or even written down when I celebrated my adulthood or during BSc graduation, or (more relevantly), at the beginning of my PhD. I went on with life. I failed at some points. I reflected on them. And here I am, learning from the mistakes.

Just do.

Go on with life.

We are small, time is short.

Western Springs, Auckland

23 July, 2022