What makes me tick – Intellectual Curiosity

While walking recently (for exercise), I was thinking about me, how I live my life, and what keeps me going. One phrase comes to mind that is pretty descriptive. I would have to say that I am “Intellectually Curious”. That doesn’t mean that I focus to the nth degree, or that I am casual in my interests.

I have always read widely. If something catches my fancy, I will chase it down the rabbit hole until my curiosity is sated. Some examples will clarify.

Example 1: US History

In grade/middle/high school, (largely in the 1970’s) I had the usual classes and instruction in US history. Nothing surprising there, but it didn’t strike me as worth knowing. Of course, as public policy, we learnt the “victor’s” version of history, unbeknownst to us at the time.

Then my third year of college, to fulfill a general education requirement for graduation, I took a university level US history course. My eyes were opened. My thoughts at the time were that everything force-fed to me via the public school system in California at the time was complete, absolute, and utter rubbish. Key facts were omitted. Atrocities were whitewashed or spun in favorable light. In short, we were not merely misled, we were lied to.

If I had known or discovered this prior to entering university, I might have changed my academic proclivities to history.

Now, I read a lot of history, US, European, from the early middle ages, through the colonizing of the Americas to the present. I have learnt to not trust a single source, but to read a few different authors from a few different time periods.

Very intellectually rewarding. But frustrating. Watching the ignorant, yet very vocal people speak out about things that they know no more of than the brainwashing that was fed us during our public school days is maddening. I have given up refuting, and pointing these poorly educated masses to sources of true information.

I still read a lot of history, and I still enjoy it. I am not at the end of that rabbit hole yet.

Example 2: Control Systems

I work with a technology that is really cool. Atomic force microscopes. We literally can see atoms, and interactions on a scale that is truly mind-boggling.

The foundation of our technology is something called a PID control loop. PID stands for proportional, integral and differential. It is a system for controlling a process.

When I started here, I had a fuzzy idea of what a PID control system was, but it was clear that I needed more depth on it. So off to the research section.

First off, control theory isn’t really electrical engineering, nor is it computer science (as the earliest PID control loop systems were completely analog). It often falls to the physics department, or mechanical engineering.

Physics. Cool. I got my degree in that. Of course upon diving in, one quickly learns that it is tied to many topics in computer science. And immediately I run into a deficiency. Computers, numerical analysis, and processes modeled or run on them are essentially “discrete” systems. All my education, all my knowledge was centered around continuum mathematics. Yes, I had done some programming and numerical analysis, but I just hacked my way through things that relied on the discrete nature of computers.

But to truly understand control systems, to really grok what is happening with them, you must understand discrete mathematics.

Rabbit hole time. Fortunately there are plenty of sources of knowledge. A lot of the basics are around the foundations of mathematics, continuum and discrete alike, have the same or very similar vocabulary. You learn to think differently, you go back to basic definitions like what a function is, and domain/range etc.

Of course, you quickly delve into topology, and combinatorics, all key subjects.

But then my intellectual curiosity is quenched. I understand what I need to know.

Oh, and another of my passions? The history of mathematics. Fascinating, illustrating, and a worthy subject of inquiry.

Summary:

These are but two examples, but they are illustrative. At various times in my life, I have been taken by an intellectual fancy. I usually dive in to a surprising depth, but I always get to a level of understanding that satiates my curiosity, and then I back away.

The real problem is that there are far too many targets that spur my curious instincts.

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