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Reflections....

ayushkhaitanayushkhaitan Registered User Posts: 220 Junior Member
I have no idea why I'm creating this thread......but disillusionment is a powerful motivator.

Everyone, who has a desire to delve into the world of scientific or mathematical endeavor, wants to be the next Newton or Einstein- revolutionize human knowledge.
However limited my intelligence might be, I too dream of the same. This is perhaps demonstrated by my unhindered 'mathematical research' in high school- when most of my peers were struggling with embarrassingly easy concepts.

I've studied Caltech's course curriculum in much detail over the past few days. It seems to have just one thing in mind- cram as much as you can into the students' minds, so that they just MIGHT be able to use some of that knowledge for future scientific research. With the immensely heavy course load [lizzardfire says he spends 30 hours doing single problem sets], students perhaps spend most of their time doing homework, with little time or inclination left of independent thinking- or what the heck just ruminating!

It is perhaps someone's correct observation that the best years of undergraduate study are spent absorbing books and concepts. Only in graduate study should one start thinking about serious research. However, creative thinking perhaps is a result of continuous rumination and passion, and not an indulgence to be engaged in, in between hours of solving problem sets.

Although Caltech does have the SURF program, I do not immediately see the benefits of telling students to solve sums for the better part of the year, and then ask them to 'CREATE'.
As far as my limited intelligence allows me to think, I think the Caltech course is too streamlined and rigid, to allow any fair amount of creativity.

Most modern researchers, who are mostly products of tech universities like Caltech and MIT, study for the better part of their lives- until the post-doctoral level, only to try and tweak an enzyme in a stupid potato for the remainder of their lives. Although they might be awarded Nobel prizes at the end of such an endeavor, I definitely do not envy them.

Maybe I'm too immature. Maybe I have no idea what research really is. Chances are, I won't be the next Newton. But I really don't want to be a bin into which facts are discarded in large volumes for four years, in the hope that I might be able to do something with them. Please do enlighten me with comments, suggestions [rude?], etc

PS: I'm a Caltech applicant, who's only just stating his opinion of Caltech based on what he got on the website. I do not have any insider's knowledge. Moreover, chances are I won't get into Caltech anyway; so this just might be a pre-mature and unjustified attempt at rectification.
Post edited by ayushkhaitan on
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Replies to: Reflections....

  • MSGM16MSGM16 Registered User Posts: 117 Junior Member
    When Newton was discovering the gravitation law, he didn't need to know much Physics. In that times discovering smth was mainly the result of "independent thinking". But nowadays Newton's gravitation law seems "embarrassingly easy". It seems that all the "easy" discoveries have already been made. So to make new discoveries one has to gain much more knowledge than scientists had to a couple of centuries ago. Still independent thinking is as important as it was before. I'm sure that the knowledge Caltech gives during ug years is *necessary* to make discoveries later. I think you just don't realize (nor do I) how difficult it is to make a new discovery and how much knowledge of the field is required. I don't think that independent thinking during ug years would make one the next Newton. So I'd prefer to cram as much as I can during ug years (though it would be difficult for me, b/c I like independent thinking too).

    PS: I'm another Caltech applicant with only 17% chance of admission :).
  • lizzardfirelizzardfire Registered User Posts: 1,577 Senior Member
    Most modern researchers, who are mostly products of tech universities like Caltech and MIT, study for the better part of their lives- until the post-doctoral level, only to try and tweak an enzyme in a stupid potato for the remainder of their lives. Although they might be awarded Nobel prizes at the end of such an endeavor, I definitely do not envy them.

    It sounds like research may not be an ideal career for you (although really, I think it's hard to know until you try it). You're in some ways correct--as a researcher, my research may seem unimportant to other people. But this is sort of irrelevant, because my research is important to me. I am going to get my PhD in EE, and hopefully continue a career in research after that, because finding answers to the problems that interest me is what makes me happy. When I'm doing research, I wake up in the morning smiling on my way to lab. It's not just the logical connection I have to my work, it's emotional!

    I've never felt that I was constrained by the Caltech courseload. I felt that as an academically immature student, my mind was opened to things that it wouldn't have been to otherwise. I have been told numerous times by interviewers at fellowship foundations and grad schools that my diverse courseload is an asset to me, and it's something I strongly believe as well.

    I don't think that the course here necessarily stifle creativity, either. I've had plenty of courses with relatively open-ended problem sets, especially as I got further into my major.

    I have never for a second regretted attending Caltech for academic reasons. Ever. I feel that I have a much better preparation than most of my peers at other schools.
  • KamikazewaveKamikazewave Registered User Posts: 874 Member
    I can understand some of your points, but the essential part of your post was wrong.

    Independent thinking requires an understanding of the problem. How can you understand the problem when you've never learned the material? You wouldn't even know the problem existed. A thorough background knowledge is absolutely necessary for research. Also, if you can tweak an enzyme in a potato and say, double the crop yield of potatoes, that' some pretty intense research. You've just changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Don't belittle tweaking enzymes.

    Caltech does require a large number of required courses, as well as a lot of courses to get a degree in a major. But the end result is scientists with a great background in fundamentals. I will say that I wish Caltech core had slightly less of an emphasis on math and physics, and perhaps replaced one term of physics and math with engineering courses. I've never taken a single engineering course at tech, because I just jumped right into my major. However, what fits your definition of allowing independent thinking? Letting people take any courses they want? Letting people get a degree in physics without them having understand basic chemistry, or the reverse?

    Honestly, Caltech problem sets aren't your high school homework sets. There's no repetitive work. Everything's new and fresh. You have to think long, creatively, and hard to complete a set. That's why people graduate from Caltech and then find the problems they're faced with easy. If you can figure out one of Niles Pierce's finals out, you can definitely figure out whatever problem you're having now.
  • ayushkhaitanayushkhaitan Registered User Posts: 220 Junior Member
    Hey guys. I'm just a dumb high-schooler. So I don't really know much about 'real' research, as some of you have pointed out. This is just a culmination of a teenager's unhindered aspirations and frustration. I do have a lot more to learn. :)

    MSGM 16: Every new generation of scientists is faced with the fact that all 'easy' and obvious things have already been discovered. Even in Newton's time, physicists thought they had most of physics figured out as they had discovered the law of conservation of momentum about half a century ago, and had a rough idea of the law of conservation of energy. Everything worked out, specially with Galileo's observations. But they had still missed out on something incredibly tangible- gravity. Hope you get my point. :)
    There are still loads of 'easy' things left out there to discover, some of which might be important.
    Moreover, I think creative thinking at the undergraduate level incites both ability and interest in a major. Believe me when I say that I NEVER did any textbook problems in IB Math HL, and still did well.

    lizzardfire: I've always been a fan of your passion for science. I agree with your statement that a varied courseload does lead of greater creativity, preparation, and independent thinking. In fact, my background in History and English helps me understands the historical aspects of science better! However, don't you think that students should have SOME free time, when they could think about their own scientific ideas, rather than doing problems and ratifying facts from some textbook? Don't you think you'd have enjoyed that more? I mean.....heck that is how Newton discovered gravity! He had nothing else to think about...so he started thinking about why an apple fell on his head! :)

    Kamikazewave: 'Independent thinking requires an understanding of the problem. How can you understand the problem when you've never learned the material? You wouldn't even know the problem existed.'

    I never for once suggested that one should do away with learning. I only suggested that one should imbibe new knowledge in class, and then have some free time to ruminate over it rather than attack pre-set problem sets. That, I think, leads to a greater appreciation, if not greater understanding, of the way the world works.
    The 'tweaking the enzyme' example was a rather bad one- I only meant that loads of scientists today are involved in something which is not tangibly significant.....like creating conditions of absolute zero for the nth time!!!.....and then become directors of some research institutes. I don't think there has been any 'groundbreaking' invention for the last decade.......except the i-pad, perhaps :D. Correct me if I'm wrong.
    The approach to learning that you seem to be suggesting is 'understanding through problem-solving'. This was in fact a very popular method of learning at Oxbridge at the break of the 20th century. However, it didn't turn out to be too efficient. This was again reversed when professors like G.H. Hardy joined Cambridge [I read this in some undergrad math textbook by Hardy]. I stand firm by the belief that problem solving should only be coupled with a thorough understanding and appreciation of theory......though I may be wrong.
  • MSGM16MSGM16 Registered User Posts: 117 Junior Member
    My point was that nowadays one must have much more information and knowledge to make discoveries than people had in the past. By 'easy' I meant discoveries not requiring much knowledge to make. In that sense discovery of gravity was 'easy' and I believe there aren't any easy ones left anymore.
  • mathboy98mathboy98 Registered User Posts: 3,752 Senior Member
    Ayush, remember there are tons and tons of good schools for math and science out there. Ideally if someone wants to attend Caltech, the degree of depth AND breadth it gives you is important to you. For instance, that several things are required means you can bond with peers over that material, and certainly not be alone in the study.

    Take my own school as an example -- we can do pretty much whatever we want, and any requirements we have can be fulfilled by easy classes, so essentially our schedule is what we make it. This can be nice, but there is no unity among students in academics.

    And certainly, in today's day and age, it's good to spend the 4 years learning a lot. Even in grad school, a lot of your job is to learn a large piece of machinery, say in theoretical fields, and not worry as much about making your dissertation the absolute most groundbreaking thing to come, because simply, you have to learn more and more before that can usually happen.

    All said, I sympathize with your concern and personally don't learn best through massive numbers of problem sets, and prefer a few with plenty of wiggle room for my own inquiries. But that just may mean this isn't the school for you.

    It's definitely unclear that there's a logical set of curriculum that everyone "should know." Even within a specialized field, graduate schools often will have trouble deciding on what their students should share as a common ground, and different ones have different opinions. I think it's no different in undergrad, basically.
  • RacinReaverRacinReaver Registered User Posts: 6,610 Senior Member
    I think one thing you're also missing is that students here tend to get involved in things until they have no free time. If there's a light semester, they'll get involved in some research. If that research isn't taking up enough time, they'll get involved in a club. If the club isn't taking up enough time, they'll get involved in another club.

    Very few of the undergrads (and grads for that matter) that I've met here are the type that like to just relax on a Sunday afternoon.
  • HitManHitMan Registered User Posts: 798 Member
    Ayush, your point that there is still "easy" stuff to discover does not seem fair. In the 1600's Newton could have learned all of the present knowledge of physics in a couple of years (extreme generalization i Know but then again everyone in the middle ages only depended or Aristotle). Now though, there is so much more knowledge that must be understood before one can understand the implications of research. Sure I may clean our rat cages or Western blot some new protein for years but I will not truly understand the overall direction of the research until I learn the theory behind what I am doing.
  • ayushkhaitanayushkhaitan Registered User Posts: 220 Junior Member
    Hey guys. I'd like to clarify here that Caltech still remains my numero uno choice. This thread was in essence directed toward all tech schools like MIT [which I haven't applied to, in spite of peer encouragement], Caltech, etc. I do not completely agree with the teaching policies at any of them.

    MSGM16: See my reply to HitMan's post.

    mathboy98: I know. The reason I want to attend Caltech is that I have the core curriculum, which gives me breadth, and a greater understanding of the giant mechanism of human knowledge, although a little more flexibility would be great. The only thing I'm suspicious about is 'home work'.
    As far as 'unity in academic experience' is concerned, it is an observation of mine that when there's less common ground between students, students find in themselves more dedication to specialise in their particular course. For example, at my high school, different students had different spikes. As a result, they spent more time honing those speciailsed skills, and were quite good at it. In that respect, I find the University of Chicago to be different from Caltech, where [at Caltech] all students learn the same thing. So they don't, I think, feel that they're doing something 'special' which no one else is. This is obviously a minor point, and may be specific to my school.

    RacinReaver: Well.....I guess my lack of knowledge about Caltech is exposed again. But I'd definitely like a Sunday to relax......or go out, or something. :) Research is something which, I guess, every Techer [and hopeful] feels to urge to do. So it requires no special mention.

    HitMan: You will be surprised, my friend. Although your basic point seems to be fair, it is also necessary to get beyond the perception that I can only create something substantial if I have the whole science in my head. Advances cannot be made only in the most complicated peripheries of Quantum mechanics. Sometimes, Newtonian physics can be seen in a new light to do something cool. I know of some guys who've done cool things without 'knowing' the whole of Physics......
  • mathboy98mathboy98 Registered User Posts: 3,752 Senior Member
    The only thing I'm suspicious about is 'home work'.

    Homework is very healthy to get one acquainted with a subject though. The point at which it gets onerous is when one is looking at specialized material and is at the point of having a very refined philosophy as to how to study things.

    I'm *extremely* wary of doing large amounts of homework without a cause, believe me...but somehow find plenty of it would serve well in gathering breadth, because it gives a picture as to what it's like working with the ideas of a field. Too much homework is of course never good, and the crazy problem sets would hopefully die out a little past the first two years of college.

    I don't know how it actually is at Tech, but just am commenting on the educational philosophy here.
  • IMSAgeekIMSAgeek Registered User Posts: 374 Member
    ayushkhaitan ~ I would think seriously about how much you want to attend Caltech. You sound like you will show up here already halfway to being bitter about how many problem sets you have "waste time" on. I put it in quotes because whether or not they are a waste of time depends on who you ask. At Caltech, you will spend most of your time doing problem sets, at least for the first two years. Sure, once you hit Junior year, you have a lot fewer sets, (I have seven sets total this term, and I'm in 6 classes), but by that time you may already be angry that you "wasted" your first two years without having any "free time to ruminate over it rather than attack pre-set problem sets." If that's the way you learn, Caltech is not for you. Pure and simple. That's not the way things are taught here. I'm not sure how it is at other colleges. I know that some schools in Europe where people have studied abroad don't have any problem sets and you learn the material at your own pace until the final. But I don't think this is the norm in the US, and it is certainly not the norm at Caltech.
  • mathboy98mathboy98 Registered User Posts: 3,752 Senior Member
    I know that some schools in Europe where people have studied abroad don't have any problem sets and you learn the material at your own pace until the final. But I don't think this is the norm in the US, and it is certainly not the norm at Caltech.

    To give an example: I think Cambridge is supposed to be like this. Homework is not about fostering creativity usually, although sometimes in special topics courses, a professor's style will be to give a few interesting problems requiring creativity (which (s)he may not have answered entirely!).

    But I personally view homework and class in general as a way to get a nice, packaged set of material from a solid perspective. At schools in the US like my own, people may just not take that many classes, because they don't feel like doing all the homework, and just attend lectures unofficially and do as they please.
  • collegealum314collegealum314 Registered User Posts: 6,768 Senior Member
    I know that some schools in Europe where people have studied abroad don't have any problem sets and you learn the material at your own pace until the final. But I don't think this is the norm in the US, and it is certainly not the norm at Caltech.

    It's not the norm in the US, but the workload is so much less everywhere else that it's almost like learning at your own pace. MIT is the only other school with the firehose mentality.

    The OP has a legitimate concern, though. And I agree that the large workload can be good or bad, depending on the person and the circumstances.

    I remember an MIT undergrad in physics telling me that she didn't have time "to think big thoughts." I found that a bit unsettling.
  • ayushkhaitanayushkhaitan Registered User Posts: 220 Junior Member
    IMSAgeek:- The basic assumption in this thread is that the problem sets dished out at Caltech are similar to the ones given out at high school, which provoke a mechanized approach to problem solving with little space for thought and rumination. If that is true of Caltech, I don't think it is suitable for any science student! If the problem sets do allow a person to 'think', then a student will definitely grow as a result of that. That is akin to a more streamlined approach to fostering creativity and learning, and is the same as ruminating in one's free time. And I think to interpret my approach toward homework as a 'waste of time' would be unnecessarily harsh phrasing! :) As I've stated before, I will be going from Asia, which is fairly mechanical in 'homework' matters, to the States, which I'm guessing is not. So I'm willing to learn otherwise.


    mathboy98:- I completely agree with you. I guess the whole point of homework is to have the whole class move at a uniform pace, consisting of those who're motivated enough to pursue science in their free time, and those who're there just to get a degree, and might fail without some form of academic obligation. If the problems are creative, they might also help a person expand his horizons.


    collegealum314: Couldn't agree more with you. I'm just ultra-scared of being disillusioned and bored with science, like that MIT student.
  • collegealum314collegealum314 Registered User Posts: 6,768 Senior Member
    The basic assumption in this thread is that the problem sets dished out at Caltech are similar to the ones given out at high school, which provoke a mechanized approach to problem solving with little space for thought and rumination

    Well, I can tell you that this is not true at all. The problem sets are not rote repetition like in high school.

    Still, having going through it myself (at MIT), I am ambivalent about whether the firehose is the best learning model.
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