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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Books write our life stories by Anna H. '14

Philosophy, astronomy, religion, neurology - and my plans for the future.

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”
-Anne Fadiman, in the preface to her essay collection Ex Libris

* * *

There are 37 days before graduation, so I decided that Room Cleaning must begin. I started with my bookshelf, since that seems to be where clutter ultimately accumulates. I unfolded a cardboard box, switched on my desk lamp, and sat down cross-legged on the carpet.

I pulled out loose papers. What if I need those vector calculus equation sheets in six years?! Anna, you have them now and you still look everything up on Google. Recycling bin. What if, in ten years, getting a job hinges on having my notes from organic chemistry lecture freshman spring?!? Um, right. Recycling bin.

At some point, I took a break to refill my mug, pausing on my way out the door to switch off the desk lamp. One night during the summer before tenth grade, I put a similar lamp and mug on the floor of a dorm room closet at Franklin & Marshall College. I dutifully turned off the room lights (my summer camp had a strict lights-out policy) then crawled into the closet, pulled the doors shut behind me, and read the newly-released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from cover-to-cover while crouching underneath my t-shirts. When I shut the book, I cried. That series had been a steady companion.

* * *

First into the cardboard box were the books I forgot I owned, followed by the books I had no intention of revisiting. Three categories of books survived the cull: used – but still useful – textbooks, books I haven’t yet read but am eager to read, and books I regard as old friends. The first category includes Shankar’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics and the second includes Le Morte d’Arthur and The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (I owe Prof. Bahr for much of my current reading list.)

The third category fills a half-shelf that I would gladly haul across the globe.

On the far left is Plato’s Gorgias. There is a convoluted flowchart opposite the inside cover, in some previous iteration of my handwriting. “Callicles” points to “pleasure” and “Socrates” points to “happiness.” “Pleasure” and “happiness” are boxed and connected, and labeled “Callicles mistakenly assumes that they are the same.” There is an arrow from “happiness” to “orderliness,” and another from “orderliness” to “cosmic order.” On the top of page 105 I wrote “what is the ultimate goal of the good life?” and on the very last page I underlined “to such a degree of lack of education have we come!”

I read Gorgias in 11th grade, in a semester elective called Early Classical Thought. Mr. Potchatek stood at the window gazing at passers-by while we students sat around an oval table and grappled valiantly with the following question: what the heck is Socrates talking about? I could tell that Mr. Potchatek was listening intently because every now and then our conversation made him smile or frown, and occasionally he wandered over to pose new questions that stunned us all into silence. He never answered his own questions; he let us sit in silence until one of us answered. One day, at the end of class, he told me that the text was still confusing him. He handed me a board marker and asked for my help. I got up at the board while he sat on the table, and together we drew a flowchart that I very happily copied into my copy of Gorgias. Sometimes, when the psets are getting me down and I need a boost, I peek at that flow chart and remember how that moment felt.

* * *

In July, my annotated Gorgias will travel with me to Marburg, Germany, for an intensive German language course. Then we’ll head south to Heidelberg, and Gorgias will live in my new apartment for a year while I commute to and from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. My research question is “how did the Milky Way form?” and my approach will be to measure and calculate the ages of stars and watch the process unfold.

I decided to try out astronomy research during my sophomore year at MIT, partly because I was captivated by a book called First Light. First Light resides two books away from Gorgias, separated by The Language of God by Francis Collins (a gift from a friend as part of our ongoing discussion about whether religion can be reconciled with science) and The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard (which I read in Prof. Diana Henderson’s wonderful Studies in Drama course at MIT).

First Light was written by Richard Preston, a science writer who spent many months with a group of astronomers, like (in his own words) “Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees”. The book is an intimate portrait of obsession: of the kind of person who can be an astronomer, of marching to the slow pace of scientific progress, of the persistence required for discovery. Exaclty how this came to pass is a long story and I’ll skip it here, but Preston autographed and mailed me this copy of the book, writing: “For Anna Ho, Good luck in all your adventures – keep looking up.”

One of the main characters in First Light is Jim Gunn. Preston describes him as a professor at Princeton University overflowing with awards and prizes, but most comfortable in a brown sweater drilled with moth holes and glasses padded around the nose with a wad of electrical tape.

I met Jim Gunn a little over a month ago. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that I hunted Jim Gunn down, a little more than a month ago. I was on a graduate school visit and asked Prof. Jill Knapp (his wife) where he was. She led me down to the basement, explaining that “he hides behind the vacuum tube.” Knock, knock. “Jim?” Jim Gunn peeked out from behind the metal monstrosity. “This is Anna Ho. She’s on a graduate school visit and wants to meet you.”

And just like that, I was sitting with Jim Gunn behind an enormous vacuum tube. I asked what it was used for, and he said that it’s not used for anything and it’s just too big to get out of the room. We spent the next twenty minutes chatting about First Light, what good science writing is, our favorite science fiction authors, and the importance of having breadth as a scientist. Finally, I asked him for his signature and now “best of everything! Jim Gunn” is taped next to Preston’s note.

* * *

Much of First Light takes place at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, so there will be something deeply romantic and satisfying about taking the book with me when I move from Heidelberg to Pasadena in order to begin pursuing my astronomy PhD at Caltech. When I’m banging my head against the wall fitting datasets or writing telescope proposals, Preston and Gunn will remind me of the big picture.

I love astronomy and doing astronomy research, but I’m a little nervous about becoming a graduate student. In his book Awakenings, the neurologist Oliver Sacks describes the feeling as follows: “we are over-developed in mechanical competence, but lacking in biological intelligence, intuition, awareness; and it is this, above all, that we need to regain, not only in medicine, but in all science.” For Sacks, a doctor, the point is that “treating” or “curing” a human being is a lot more than wielding a syringe. It can and should involve compassionate listening and emotional support. We risk forgetting that as we become more technologically advanced.

I’m not a doctor and my science is less obviously related to human beings, but as an undergraduate I’ve happily engaged with people through teaching and public outreach, and enjoyed pursuing a variety of interests through classes. At MIT, surrounded by the very highest mechanical competence, I feel like I was rescued by my humanities classes and my various extracurricular activities: I became a much better teacher and writer and speaker, and learned about cultures and civilizations in addition to scientific ideas and numerical techniques. All that said, I’ve been told that the goal of graduate school is to “focus” and I’m not sure how to best stay in touch with other interests and values.  Awakenings reminds me of all of this, so it sits on my bookshelf, leaning on First Light.

* * *

I spent the first semester of senior year frantically trying to make plans for the future: interviews, phone calls, essays, applications, letters of recommendation, presentations. This semester, those plans are set and my task is to transition out of here. The hardest part is deciding what should come with me and what should stay behind. It took me two hours spread over three days to trim down my bookshelf, and I’m still not feeling comfortable about all those old psets…

Next up are my clothes. I just took out a new cardboard box, and tossed in a pair of sweatpants that I want to donate. While I work on that, go take a look at your bookshelf (if you haven’t already) and tell me (I’m curious): which books have kept you company for a long time?