All posts by Vipul Naik

What attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Should this be encouraged?

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Tangentially related content on the information wiki: physics learning benefits and mathematics learning benefits.

Many of the high school students who sought advice from Cognito Mentoring were interested in mathematics, computer science, and physics. This both makes sense and is valuable. Mathematics has many benefits: it underpins a lot of quantitative analysis, and helps us understand the world. Computer science is also quite important for obvious reasons: programming in particular is directly and indirectly useful, and a deeper understanding of algorithms and the theory of computation can help with algorithms.

Physics, however, is a little different. There are some benefits of learning physics. In particular, classical mechanics is often people’s first exposure to using mathematical structure in a nontrivial way to understand and model situations pertaining to the real world. Nonetheless, unlike mathematics or computer science, the benefits of physics for people who are not in science or engineering careers are fairly low. I find myself using high school-level mathematical intuition on a regular basis (for instance, understanding the growth trajectories of various things, or interpreting graphs), and I find myself using basic programming-like intuition quite often. But I rarely find myself using my physics intuition in the real world. Moreover, I think physics quickly hits diminishing returns in terms of teaching people about mathematical modeling: I’d say that the returns from physics beyond classical mechanics, DC circuits, and basic thermodynamics are near-zero. For instance, I’d say it’s more beneficial to learn microeconomics rather than electromagnetism, even though the latter is often considered more prestigious by smart people. Similarly, I think that behavioral economics is more valuable than quantum mechanics.

It’s also not clear that learning physics beyond the basics suggested above (classical mechanics, thermodynamics, DC circuits) passes a cost-benefit analysis for people in the vast majority of science-based and engineering-based careers. Even the extent to which they crucially rely on these basics is questionable, given that most people don’t learn the basics well and still manage to go on to do decent jobs. I’d like to hear any opinions on this. On a related note, I recently asked on Quora the question In what ways is knowledge of Newtonian classical mechanics helpful to people pursuing biomedical research? and there were a few interesting answers.

So my question: what attracts smart and curious young people to physics? Are the smartest people too attracted by physics, relative to its real-world applicability? Does the intellectual stimulation provided by physics justify the attraction? Is there some sort of mood affiliation going on here, where the smartest people are pulled to physics to distinguish themselves from the crowd, insofar as physics is more difficult and repels the crowd? To the extent that people overvalue physics, does it make sense to push them at the margin away from physics and in the direction of computer science or economics or some other subject? Or should their interest in physics be encouraged?

Thoughts on your personal experience, as well as thoughts on the general points about the usefulness and attractiveness of learning physics, would be appreciated.

PS: In a video, Eric Mazur describes research related to the Force Concept Inventory: people often learn how to solve complicated mechanics problems by pattern-matching but fail to demonstrate clear understanding of Newton’s Third Law. Similarly, people can predict potential differences and current flows in complicated circuits using Kirchhoff’s laws, yet fail to predict that if you short a circuit, all the current will flow through the short. (The latter failure of prediction occurred in an end-of-course examination co-taught by Mazur to Harvard University first-year students, many of whom were planning to go on to medical school.

PS2: My collaborator Jonah Sinick’s Quora post (no login needed to view) titled Is math privileged for gifted children is somewhat related.

Quora as a great but underused resource for high school students

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Quora

I love Quora: there’s a large amount of valuable content there. High school students, who are just getting onto the Internet and beginning to explore the world of ideas, can learn a lot from Quora. But, despite Quora’s continued growth, many of the people who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring for advice simply hadn’t actively considered joining or using Quora for information. A few of them got more interested in Quora after we pointed them to Quora questions and answers relevant to their specific questions, and they then went on to explore the site to discover more. But it needed prompting from us before they decided to give Quora a try.

On a related note, we’ve got very few people visiting the Cognito Mentoring website through Quora, suggesting that people in high school and early college (who form the bulk of our advisees) aren’t using Quora as much as they can.

In addition to being a great place to learn stuff, I (as well as my collaborator Jonah) also think Quora can be an excellent place for people to start practicing the art of written communication and online interaction in low-stakes but still real-world contexts (as opposed to doing school homework). Even though I had extensive writing experience before joining Quora, I’ve learned about writing and interaction through my Quora participation. The gains for high school students just starting out in the world could be much greater.

In the Less Wrong post What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising, I noted that Cognito Mentoring got most of its advisees through Less Wrong, and many of them hadn’t used Quora. Some people in the Less Wrong comments suggested that the requirement on Quora that people sign up before they can fully explore the site is a major barrier to people, particularly young people, joining the site. What do you think? Are there ways of making people in high school more aware of Quora? Helping them overcome the laziness or reluctance to sign up in order to browse the site? Suggestions are welcome.

Academia as a career option, its social value, and alternatives

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related to the information wiki pages academia as a career optionsocial value of academia, and alternatives to academia.

Many of the high school and college students who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring were looking for advice were considering going into academia. The main draw to them was the desire to learn specific subjects and explore ideas in greater depth. As a result, we’ve been investigating academia as a career option and also considering what alternatives there may be to academia that fulfill the same needs but provide better pay and/or generate more social value. The love of ideas and epistemic exploration is shared by many of the people at Less Wrong, including those who are not in academia. So I’m hoping that people will share their own perspectives in the comments. That’ll help us as well as the many LessWrong lurkers interested in academia.

I’m eager to hear about what considerations you used when weighing academia against other career options, and how you came to your decision. Incidentally, there are a number of great answers to the Quora question Why did you leave academia?, but there’s probably many thoughts people have here that aren’t reflected in the Quora answers. I’ve also written up a detailed review of academia as a career option on the info wiki for Cognito Mentoring here (long read), and I’d also love feedback on the validity of the points I make there.

Many of our advisees as well as the LessWrong readership at large are interested in choosing careers based on the social value generated by these careers. (This is evidenced in the strong connection between the LessWrong and effective altruism communities). What are your thoughts on that front? Jonah and I have collaboratively written a page on the social value of academia. Our key point is that research academia is higher value than alternative careers only in cases where either the person has a chance of making big breakthroughs in the area, or if the area of research itself is high-value. Examples of the latter may include machine learning (we’re just starting on investigating this) and (arguably) biomedical research (we’ve collected some links on this, but haven’t investigated this in depth).

For those who are or were attracted to academia, what other career options did you consider? If you decided not to join, or chose to quit, academia, what alternative career are you now pursuing? We’ve identified a few possibilities at ouralternatives to academia page, but we’re largely shooting in the dark here. Based on anecdotal evidence from people working in venture capital, it seems like venture capital is a great place for polymath-types who are interested in researching a wide range of subjects shallowly, so it’s ideal for people who like shallow intellectual exploration rather than sticking to a single subject for an inordinate amount of time. But there are very few jobs in venture capital. On paper, jobs at consulting firms should be similar to venture capital in requiring a lot of shallow research. But we don’t have an inside view of consulting jobs — are they a good venue for intellectually curious people? Are there other job categories we missed?

All thoughts are greatly appreciated!