Sheng Li (gmachine1729) wrote,
Sheng Li

STEM and pseudo-STEM

Originally published at 狗和留美者不得入内. You can comment here or there.

I will say pretty bluntly that I am the type of person who reveres most genius, theoretical genius in the brainiest disciplines, like math and theoretical physics and the likes. They are much more worth idolizing than people who obtain great success in other ways, such as through entrepreneurship. After all, mathematics represents in some sense the pinnacle of human civilization, the peak of human intelligence. Every civilization worth talking about developed seemingly effortlessly crafts, music, literature, engineering (of the non-modern kind), but it took so long for us humans to discover those fundamental theoretical truths. The pioneering of the axiomatic method, which planted the seed for modern science, of the Greeks, is in many ways as significant and as epoch-making in the long run of history as the controlled use of fire or invention of written language. This was something other great civilizations did not develop. The Chinese, for instance, as remarkable as they were in the practical arena, did not develop mathematics of that nature, and scholars in the area are more or less in consensus that such was why modern science could not spring in China as it had done in the West. It is worth noting that Euclid’s Elements was translated to Chinese jointly by Jesuit Matteo Ricci and Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi in the early 17th century, but it did not have the impact on Chinese thinkers and scholars that it should have had.

In virtually every nation, students who study math and theoretical physics are commonly seen as the smartest. Those are the fields that are widely seen as only for the geniuses. They are abstract in a way that many if not most people who excel in more practical, concrete disciplines, such as engineering, cannot handle. For instance, I’ve seen many computer science students struggle with the delta epsilon definition of limit, despite trying very hard and having had it explained to them by people who understand the subject matter well. From this, one can only hypothesize the high cognitive threshold associated. There must be something about their brain structure that renders it impossible or at least very difficult for those people to form the mental process for accurately understanding that abstract definition.

There is hard science, where there are 100% objectively correct answers, and there are softer sciences, where there is a lot of bull shit and much subjective judgement involved, and lots of people things and politics involved. I’d put computer science unambiguously in the latter category, especially the software engineering side of it. Computer science, as far as I see it, is a very marketing driven field. It is not a hard engineering. It is not making a chemical plant or sending a satellite into space where there is essentially no human component involved. Needless to say, software is much easier to get right than hardware. Just about any country can make a decent search engine (if they buy the hardware), but very few nations can make a decent CPU. In this respect, America is far far ahead, with Intel, AMD, Nvidia. Making a CPU requires learning not only of the VLSI but also mastery of the fabrication process, which has some pretty cutting edge applied physics. (Okay, I know nothing about that, just saying what seems to be true to me.)

It is rather odd that people, or the mass media, associate “innovation” and “technology” so much with these soft engineering companies, those who make products for regular end users. Google, Microsoft, Facebook. I recall this guy with a PhD in solid mechanics, who later did compiler development’s saying that EE is so much harder than software engineering but pays less for economic reasons. In contrast, Facebook is just a website, but it makes so much money! It is quite obvious (or at least it should be) that most of the most cutting edge technology is firstly developed for or by the military, and military use generally precedes civilian use.

It does appear though that nowadays the smartest people are staying away from the hard technology and science because there’s no money in that. They’d rather do some bull shit work at a SV firm or work in finance because it pays. In hard STEM, there are so many high IQ immigrants from China, Eastern Europe, India, driving down wages. Some of those people are so brilliant and intellectually powerful and know it all that it’s hard to imagine competing with them. This I find to be quite a pity, because in the ideal society the smartest people should be working on the hardest problems.

People who are into real STEM are a very small minority. They ignore those in SV tech who don’t know a thing about real math and science for instance. Yes, there are people in software engineering or computer science who don’t know what an eigenvalue is or what divergence or curl are. Many of the people in that field are more interested in the latest app and the latest IPO than in actual science and technology. This is especially so in the US, where the math and science education is quite dismal, and where the society is very money driven. It didn’t take me that long to realize that the undergraduate requirements are quite a joke. Students, who come in with minimal knowledge of math, physics, chemistry, take general courses for two years and major courses for the final two years. In contrast, education in Eastern Europe is 5 years and the students there take general STEM their first few years and specialized courses after that, and when they graduate they’re already at a very high level. Of course, at the top US undergraduate programs, the students are much better, and some extremely good, but even there, many of them are ill-prepared.

I really dislike marketing and faking it, though I see the need for it. There are some things that are simply impossible to fake, and the more you try to do so, the more pathetic you will seem. Nassim Taleb once said that it’s easier to buy and sell than to fry an egg. Steve Hsu has also said, in response to a comment on charity and service to the community with regard to college admissions, that one can fake that by volunteering in soup kitchens but on the other hand, one can’t fake the SAT or fake math contests. Richard Feynman once said that nature cannot be fooled. I myself look down on those who insist on denying what is objectively true. When one does that, it’s impossible to argue with him, and one should just let history prove him wrong and make a farce out of him. In Chinese, one can say that 事实胜于雄辩, which means that [objective] reality triumphs over oratory.

Since truth cannot be indefinitely hidden, let us strive for a culture of honesty and openness. Let us create a society where such is the norm, where one can speak the truth without fear of repercussions. Only then will we have genuine free speech, not the pseudo one granted to us by the constitution.

Tags: 理工科文化

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