Book Review: Space Cadet

[Content Note: Intentionally exacting ethics, extensive quotation, casual discussion of nuclear warfare. Considerable spoilers for Space Cadet, but not in the way that you’d think.]


I’m probably going to regret trying to review Space Cadet because Heinlein is always about morality and writing about morality always frustrates me no end.

To be clear, it’s not morality that frustrates me, but writing about it, because I don’t have the time to dash off a three hundred page introduction to whatever idea it is that I’m trying to communicate. Learning to think in aesthetics was probably a mistake, because then you have to concretize and suddenly see that you’ve leapt over all the supporting framework.

If this seems a little dramatic for a slim YA novel, well, this book can be read on multiple levels. My initial reading, back in elementary school, mostly just took away the science fiction story of Matt Dodson joining the Patrol and his subsequent adventures as a cadet traveling the solar system.

Matt is a convenient character for this sort of story, because he has almost no defining features. He was raised in Iowa, North American Union, Terra. He struggles in mathematics but ultimately succeeds, enjoys playing space polo, studied Basic but not tensor calculus in high school, makes several friends and an enemy. Note that those friends have more features than him: “Tex” Jarman has a personality as big as his home state, Oscar from Venus tells us all about the Venerian culture and customs, Pete from Ganymede has an emotional episode of homesickness. Even the hate sink has a better-defined backstory. We’re intended to step easily into Matt’s shoes.

Heinlein, meanwhile, self-inserts into the various Patrol officers mentoring the young men as they attend Annapolis in space. The Patrol is not just a military organization, or a research organization, or a humanitarian organization. It’s all of these and more. Crafting boys into the sort of supermen who can keep the peace between the various nations of Terra and the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is no mean feat.

The first half of the novel is a standard Bildungsroman on the making of a spaceman. Consider this passage, during Matt’s orientation aboard the P.R.S. Randolph in geosynchronous orbit, where each cadet begins his education. Lieutenant Wong, Matt’s mentor, is explaining a cadet’s curriculum:

“Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno[sis] you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”

Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”

“No, no no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”

Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”

“You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply the raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally.’ What is moral behavior for a Patrolman, Matt? You are called Matt, aren’t you? By your friends?”

“Yes, sir. Moral behavior for a Patrolman . . .”

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“Well, I guess it means to do your duty, live up to your oath, that sort of thing.”

“Why should you?”

Matt kept quiet and looked stubborn.

“Why should you, when it may get you some messy way of dying? Never mind. Our prime purpose here is to see to it that you learn how your own mind works. If the result is a man who fits into the purposes of the Patrol because his own mind, when he knows how to use it, works that way—then fine! He is commissioned. If not, the we have to let him go.”

Matt remained silent until Wong finally said, “What’s eating on you, kid? Spill it.”

“Well—look here, sir. I’m perfectly willing to work hard to get my commission. But you make it sound like something beyond my control. First I have to study a lot of things I’ve never heard of. Then, when it’s all over, somebody decides my mind doesn’t work right. It seems to me that what this job calls for is a superman.”

“Like me.” Wong chuckled and flexed his arms. “Maybe so, Matt, but there aren’t any supermen, so we’ll have to do the best we can with young squirts like you. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”

Thus begins Matt’s theoretical education as a Patrolman. The process isn’t easy for him, and he struggles. That aspect of the story is far more relatable to me now that when I read this book as a kid, because I’ve been there. Honestly, if I could make 2013!me read a particular book, I’d probably ask myself to reread Space Cadet. It might just have bent the trajectory of my life a different direction.

Matt, too, struggles with trajectories—he’s so frustrated by the coursework in astrogation that he asks Lieutenant Wong for a transfer to the space marines. Wong refuses, saying that Matt is too far removed from the appropriate mindset:

“People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

[. . .]

“The Patrol is meant to be made up exclusively of the professional type. In the space marines, every single man jack, from the generals to the privates, is or should be the sort who lives by pride and glory.”

“Oh . . .”

Wong waited for it to sink in. “You can see it in the very uniforms; the Patrol wears the plainest of uniforms, the marines wear the gaudiest possible. In the Patrol all emphasis is on the oath, the responsibility to humanity. In the space marines the emphasis is on pride in their corps and its glorious history, loyalty to comrades, the ancient virtues of the soldier. I am not disparaging the marine when I say that he does not care a tinker’s damn for the political institutions of the Solar System; he cares only for his organization.

“But it’s not your style, Matt. I know more about you than you do yourself, because I have studied the results of your psychological tests. You will never make a marine.”

Rejected by Lieutenant Wong, Matt returns to astrogation, planning secretly to not return from his first leave.

The next chapter opens waiting for the rocket back to P.R.S. Randolph, wondering just when he changed his mind. The narrative alternates between the rocket flight and Matt’s vacation, illustrating the ways in which he is no longer a civilian:

Great-aunt Dora was the current family matriarch. She had been a very active woman, busy with church and social work. Now she was bed-fast and had been for three years. Matt called on her because his family obviously expected it. “She often complains to me that you don’t write to her, Matt, and—”

“But, Mother, I don’t have time to write to everyone!”

“Yes, yes, but she’s proud of you, Matt. She’ll want to ask you a thousand questions about everything. Be sure to wear your uniform—she’ll expect it.”

Aunt Dora had not asked a thousand questions; she had asked just one—why had he waited so long to come see her? Thereafter Matt found himself being informed, in detail, of the shortcomings of the new pastor, the marriage chances of several female relatives and connections, and the states of health of several older women, many of them unknown to him, including the details of operations and post-operative developments.

I’m glad I’ve never had that experience with my older relatives, though when Dad talks about his coworkers….

Yes, maybe that was it—it might have been the visit to Aunt Dora that convinced him that he was not ready to resign and remain in Des Moines. It could not have been Marianne.

Marianne was the girl who had made him promise to write regularly—and, in fact, he had, more regularly than she. But he had let her know that he was coming home and she had organized a picnic to welcome him back. It had been jolly. Matt had renewed old acquaintances and had enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from the girls present. There had been a young man there, three or four years older than Matt, who seemed unattached. Gradually it dawned on Matt that Marianne treated the newcomer as her property.

It had not worried him. Marianne was the sort of girl who never would get clearly fixed in her mind the distinction between a planet and a star. He had not noticed this before, but it and similar matters had come up on the one date he had had alone with her.

And she had referred to his uniform as “cute.”

He began to understand, from Marianne, why most Patrol officers do not marry until their mid-thirties, after retirement.

This passage, and several like it, were why I decided to reread Space Cadet after all these years. The disconnect between specialist and layman grows too large and it becomes impossible to talk meaningfully about your work. So far, I’ve managed to keep Mom and Dad up to speed, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Matt is in a much worse state, trying to describe missile maintenance to his parents, who neither understand orbital mechanics, nucleonics, nor the political motivations of the Patrol.

Nuclear weapons are kept in polar orbits, he explains, so that the entire planet is covered by the Patrol’s watchful eye. They are regularly serviced by ships—physically caught by a cadet, disarmed, and reeled in for inspection and repositioning. Matt casual mentions that J-3 will be passing over Des Moines in a few minutes, which gives his mother a fit of anxiety. “What if it should fall?” she demands.

Objects in orbit don’t fall, of course, as Matt explains—they would have to instantaneously lose 7,800 m/s of velocity to drop straight down. If the Patrol needed to nuke Des Moines that night, they would use a missile requiring a more moderate change of trajectory, like I-2 or H-1.

This doesn’t comfort her.

Matt’s father tries to argue that the Patrol would never bomb the North American Union, because the majority of Patrol officers are from North America. Matt refuses to commit, insisting later that the Patrol absolutely would. But he has doubts.

For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with the other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.

He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of [the deck’s] team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session with Lieutenant Wong.

“Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”

“Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”

“That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”

“Well . . . I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”

“I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.

“All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”

“I’d rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”

“Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”

Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”

“Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”

Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”

Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”

“You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”

“Well . . . can you tell me about it?”

Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a showdown, I’m expected to bomb my own hometown. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”

“Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”

“That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, the whole system breaks down.”

Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your own hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called upon to carry out the attack is equally slight…But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze with no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”

Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.

From thereon out, it’s a fairly standard science fiction story. If the last hundred page feel like an entirely different novel, well, the earlier drafts went in a rather different direction. In the final version, however, Matt is assigned to a ship, continuing his education while on search-and-assist in the asteroid belt, before being sent to Venus. There, Matt, Tex, and Oscar find themselves stranded, their commanding officer incapacitated, and must keep the peace with the local Venerians while rescuing themselves—exactly the sort of experience Lieutenant Wong was preparing Matt for. If only all college guidance counselors had the time and training to take such interest in their students’ psychological development!

What draws me to Space Cadet again after so many years is that it is not just a fun adventure in space (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s a vision of how to live as human beings.

This story was written immediately after the war, copyright 1948. The specter of fascism still hung over the western world, that Russia would be our geopolitical enemy for next forty years was still largely unthinkable.

Heinlein was looking ahead to a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Remember, Uncle Joe still didn’t have the bomb—if we’d acted quickly, the entire planet could have been a democracy (or a dictatorship). Even before America entered the war, Heinlein was thinking about the threat that nuclear weapons posed to world peace and world freedom.

In various forms, the Patrol was his fictional attempt to answer this problem. A quasi-military organization, with unlimited funds and unlimited firepower at its disposal, and each officer committed to the safety of every nation but his own. Lieutenant Wong is no accident: the Patrol’s multicultural character is made clear throughout the book. In a classic Heinlein twist, only after the boys are stranded on Venus do we learn that one of their commanders was of African descent.

(Those who mistakenly believe Sixth Column accurately represent Heinlein’s views on race should consider that he wrote this, for kids, at the same time.)

A decade before the beatniks, we’re told to stand up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and conduct ourselves as men.

Let’s do the responsible thing here and quote from William Patterson’s biography:

An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with [Heinlein] for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:

A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another younger man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.

Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then Adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.

An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can’t necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for [Heinlein], one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: “This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!” And that was enough.

This is what I love about Space Cadet, what I love about the Patrol, and what I love about Heinlein.

Maybe thinking with aesthetics isn’t so bad after all.

On A Desire To Save The World

Suppose that, for better or worse, it appears that I want to save the world. Very well, I do. It’s been a running theme with me, most recently reawakened by a book I read (review forthcoming).Today we’re going to analyze this desire in depth.

The first question, of course, is whether I actually want to save the world? This asks two additional questions: does the world need saving, and if so, what from? Here things get tricky, because while I doubt that modern civilization will survive the next few centuries without deliberate action, it’s not clear that “saving” is the word to use. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So really, I want to inoculate humanity against certain threats.

Existential risk comes in a lot of different forms. Personally, I think biological, chemical, and nuclear threats are overrated. Not that we shouldn’t be worried about such things because they’d be really bad on their own—they just don’t strike me as posing an existential threat in quite the same form as, say, an asteroid strike.

Climate change, similarly, seems like a serious issue but not a species-ending event. Now a supervolcano eruption—that is a genuine problem. There’s not a whole lot we can do for it, besides trying to backup the biosphere on Mars or L5. The same story with a geomagnetic reversal (if that’s actually a risk) and asteroid strikes. The problem only widens when we consider cosmological issues, like a hypernova or gamma ray burst. Nothing can really be done about those in the medium-term.

More exotic issues also include alien invasion, artificial intelligence, or runaway nanotechnology. These are all very interesting concerns, but not, for the most part, something I wish to discuss here.

Let it suffice to say that the world will need saving if nothing is done. Yet this essay isn’t about saving the world. It’s about my desire to save the world.

A desire to save the world is distinct from a desire for the world to be saved. Even at my most nihilistic, at some level I’ve wanted for the train to be put back on the tracks, for the catastrophe to be averted. A great part of my pre-Objectivist angst can be attributed to the fact that middle school administrators seem more concerned with riding herd over five hundred humanoid hormone bags than dealing with the pressing issues of global warming and space colonization.

“Down to earth” has never been an accurate description of me.

But I digress. Why should I want to save the world myself? Most folks don’t think its their responsibility or power. That’s not an unreasonable view. Unless the world needs saving most Tuesdays, it’s not exactly a job for everyone. Why is it a job for me?

Arrogance, in part. Big challenges seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

Systemization and eternalism. If I can’t live in a quasi-static universe, then what’s the point of trying?

And fear. Fear of dying, fear of never accomplishing a goal worth setting. This is a big part of the sentiment I’m calling a desire to save the world. Despite various attempts, I’ve yet to truly accept the notion of a “boring” life. Doing the same damn thing, over and over again, for no greater purpose than to pass that dull routine on to another generation seems worse than pointless. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?

That’s sort of what’s going on. Treating my nine-to-five (or nine-to-nine) as the daily grind sounds counterproductive. Framing my work as saving the world sounds fun.

Which brings us to another question: what would saving the world actually entail for me?

Unlike many others concerned with existential risks, I’m not planning to restructure my life around it. That would be necessary if I wanted to focus on a particular risks. If, for instance, I wanted to tackle artificial intelligence, I could treat aerospace engineering as my day job and spend the next few years moonlighting as an autodidact until I knew enough about mathematics and computer science to contribute towards that conversation.

I am not changing majors this late in the game. Instead, my plan is simple: keep plugging away at getting humanity off the planet. Finish school, get a job building spacecraft, and treat my work as part of a grand project to save the human race. It’s not a far stretch if I can keep my mind on it.

What does this mean for me right now? Well, it means I should really try at aerospace engineering.

Story time: during the last final exam I took at Purdue, happened to look around and noticed that one of the nearby test-takers was balding. It was a sudden reminder of the adult world. My plans were crashing in around me, yet on a certain level I knew that I wasn’t really acting like this was serious business.

College felt like more school i.e. not fully real. I was going through the motions but not entirely convinced that the whole situation was real. In that moment, the truth suddenly became apparent. I felt like an impostor—I wasn’t really trying to understand everything, to engage System 2 and do the work necessary to pass that exam (which I didn’t). I felt like an irresponsible kid. In that way, I was.

(Don’t take this as excusing Purdue Engineering’s role in my failure. They definitely share a lot of that blame, making things more difficult and less intuitive than necessary yet offering little benefit in return. Eventually I’ll get around to writing about conceptualization in education, but suffice to say that my thermodynamics professor at KU offered considerably better insight for fewer migraines.)

So that’s my meta-level theme for this year: taking both my schooling and myself seriously. Removing distractions and unpleasant pastimes, narrowing my life down to something closer resembling the essentials. No more politics, no more inanity. Rather than viewing my assignments as an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of a passing grade, I’d like to see them as part of a project to accomplish great things—each fact or equation a brick in an edifice of engineering erudition, world-saving or no.

As I’ve said elsewhere, you can’t rely on the schools to educate you. Now the professors here are pretty decent, but the curriculum only goes so far. Reading ahead, branching out into relevant side topics—that’s what excites me. I’m already building my pleasure reading list with this in mind.

Not that it’s all textbooks. It’s not even mostly textbooks. The majority is general science, history, and philosophy, alternated with fiction. Keeping balance is essential. Staying on top of my schoolwork is one aspect of that, but relaxing once I’m caught up is another key component. Saving the world through BRUTE STRENGTH only works in fantasy worlds. Indeed, I could have finished this essay sooner, but decided my limited recreation time was better spent split between writing and Kerbal Space Program, than on writing alone.

This approach seems like the best way, to date, of motivating myself to pursue my own self-interest. It’s both sufficiently meta to withstand internal scrutiny, and manages to unify present and future behavior.

But please be advised that this is not general advice. It’s a consciously adopted crutch. If this works as itself, it works. If it doesn’t work as itself, it collapses into functional behavior. And if it fails, well, another one for the rejects pile. This is my personal approach. It is not intended for everyone. Most people are relatively happy with “a normal life” as a terminal goal. I’m not. There’s no strong philosophical backing for this preference. It’s a quirk of my own mental apparatus.

I want to save the world. I want to help humanity spread out from this world. I want to shape the world in my own image. I don’t expect your help, dear reader (unless you teach engineering at the University of Kansas). But in the words of John Galt: get the hell out of my way.

On Feeling

It’s no real secret that I’m not a particularly emotional person. That clickbait is still a halfway viable business model honestly confuses me—after the eighteenth time you read a listicle called “19 $whatevers to blow your mind” and coming away bored if not actively annoyed, one would think you’d stop. Even when I heard of John Glenn’s passing yesterday, my reaction was more solemn than somber.

This doesn’t particularly bother me because not spending time reading clickbait doesn’t even qualify as a First World Problem. But I’m also not bothered because of what does emotionally engage me.

For example, Jai’s post on Smallpox Eradication Day:

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; The great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who led the efforts of those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

I don’t cry particularly often. These words reliable bring me to tears. Now to be fair, there is plenty of other stress in my life lately, but I’d rather cry over global successes than local failures.

Local failures don’t really affect me in the same manner, though. The idea of millions struck down, helpless against a force we’ve conquered yet they could not resist, strikes me far more strongly than supposedly heart-wrenching tales. Maybe the thousandth sob story made me numb. All I know is that dissatisfaction is my preeminent emotion when hearing about individual cases of distress, like homelessness or disability. My understanding is that presenting specific people in need is an effective tactic for raising charitable donations. For me, empathy takes far longer to kick in—I’ll be looking for solutions (so I can move on to more interesting problems) well before that happens.

Which is fine. Empathy didn’t cure smallpox. Rationality did. Human compassion alone is useless against the pain and suffering of the world. It is by our dedication, our intelligence, our creativity that disease and starvation will be overcome. Values direct your course of action, but will not carry you on the journey.

This is a systematizing mindset at work.

Not even ten posts into this blog and a certain theme is appearing. I’m interested in big, species-level projects. Eradicating smallpox is such an endeavor. We’ve nearly done the same with polio and are making significant progress with malaria. Such projects permanently address the root causes of human suffering. We seek to cure the disease, not treat symptoms, both literally and metaphorically.

I am not an altruist. Humanitarian work is worthwhile not because helping is good but because suffering is evil. Observe the world, do the math, and choose the projects which will objectively eliminate or prevent the most pain and death. We’ve done it before, we’re doing it now, and we’ll do it again until the last of our enemies has been vanquished.

500 million, and not a single one more!

Introspection and Depression: Thoughts from the Edge

Two years ago this day, I stood at the third-floor railing overlooking the atrium of Armstrong Hall (yes, that Armstrong), and debated with myself whether I wanted to die. It was a warm Friday afternoon, the last day of classes in the spring semester before finals began, and I was on my way to office hours in the vain hope of getting enough points back on my latest aeromechanics exam that I wouldn’t flunk it. I had stopped briefly to look over the balcony when the thought of jumping occurred to me, and I nearly dismissed it, but in an unexpected show of honesty decided to stay and think it through, all the way.

Looking over the edge that day, I realized my problem was worse than I’d thought. The semester and indeed my entire time at Purdue University had not been very good for me, and I knew there was a very real danger I would stay on academic probation for a second semester, which was tantamount to being expelled. My spirits were low, my comprehension was worse, and my grades were something I actively didn’t think about. I was afraid of being expelled, unfit for anything beyond the sort of retail job I’d taken the previous summer (making dimes above minimum wage), and loaded with a pile of debt I was completely incapable of paying off. It seemed that my life was completely hopeless, still a month away from my twentieth birthday. Maybe I should just “get it over with,” I thought to myself.

It wasn’t hopeless, but we’ll get to that later. I felt terrible because for the past six years my self-worth had been almost entirely based on perceptions of my own intelligence, largely measured through school. I’d been an honors student in high school, done reasonably well on my standardized tests, very well on my advanced placement tests, and so on. I had every reason to believe in my own ability to succeed at the fourth-best aerospace engineering school in America.

But the results just didn’t add up. I was struggling from the first semester, completely disappointed with the first-year curriculum, still frustrated once I got into my major, and overall not having a good time. Going from high school, where I was a middle-to-low honors student, to a population comprised almost entirely of honors students, wasn’t exactly stroking my ego. My entire self-worth and vision of the future was rapidly crashing down around me, and there was basically nothing I could do about it.

I flunked that exam, and I flunked the class, and I flunked two other classes. That itself wouldn’t have been an entirely unworkable problem, but the long string of Cs and Ds stretching back to Calc II were enough for Purdue to kick me out. And to them I said “good riddance, a whole lot of good you ever did me.”

The obvious message here is about measuring self-worth, in that any attempt to measure yourself against an outside metric is explicitly opposed to the philosophy I held at the time. In the worlds of Nathaniel Branden, “If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity–because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.” Though no longer much of an Objectivist, this much I still believe today.

The more abstract lesson, however, is about the importance of introspection. While perfect self-awareness may be impossible, a certain degree is necessary for ensuring one lives a happy and fulfilling life. It is certainly possible that someone will accidentally manage to live satisfactorily, even probable given certain circumstances and preferences, but that is far from a guarantee. At this point it’s quite evident that that is not the case for me.

Knowing what I want is the first step in this process, but even that is a challenge to ascertain. In the weeks before my first semester at Purdue began, I was slightly regretting not making an effort to get into more prestigious schools like MIT or Caltech. (The only school I applied to more selective than Purdue was the University of Southern California, which rejected me no doubt in part due to my hasty and unimpressive application.) At that point in my life, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thought. Having spent four years now at various sorts of schools, I can say very strongly that a maximally-difficult curriculum is not what I want.

Furthermore, one needs to know how to get what they want. A significant factor in choosing Purdue was its record of producing astronauts, which has been my dream job since elementary school. Of course, the odds are stacked against me, which was pretty clear by middle school: I’m unathletic, not terribly motivated, haven’t the best health, and don’t particularly like to study. This isn’t a winning combination, and for a sample as small and selective as the astronaut core focusing on work ethic and executive function would have been (and still is–I haven’t given up, but adjusted my expectations) a far more sensible approach than applying to a difficult school that I didn’t know I could handle.

And one has to realize the limits of possibility. I didn’t push my limits very far in high school, taking only a moderate slate of classes that were ultimately well within my abilities (I graduated with an unweighted GPA around 3.8). I didn’t apply to a large number of colleges, which would have given me a better idea of where I stood in the 2012 class of incoming engineering students. I never asked myself if there was a significant change of failure. The notion never occurred to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I had pushed myself, or if my parents had pushed me harder, then would I have been able to handle Purdue? In retrospect, none of it seems all that difficult, though the workload was a little high–and even that could have been dealt with provided sufficient executive function and time management. After this summer, I’ll have retaken every class I failed at Purdue, and even covered some material I didn’t get to. I’m still worrying about my grades, but I’m worried about getting multiple Cs instead of multiple Fs. Despite regular complaints, my comprehension is orders of magnitude better. Was it the change in environment? Just practice? Something else?

We’ll never find out. My life is an experiment I can only run once. But as I continue my climb out of depression and failure, I’ll know just what I’m dealing with.