The Imaginary Bird
Upon a journey to understand quantum hardware, algorithms, and theory among other subjects, the men and women behind what I study came into clearer view. Then, I thought, perhaps it is possible to be shielded from a storm by building a shelter with the very material that afflicts you.
“Happy New Year!” I typed into iMessage on my phone back in January, before quickly deleting it. “Here’s to a less dumpster-fire year?” I typed. Send.
It didn’t take long for the writer Maggie Mertens to deem 2022 the “Year of Practical Thinking” in an Atlantic article. Indeed, at this moment, I see many people putting forth a genuine effort to stay afloat, but one disruption after another can be so demoralizing, even to the point of erratic behavior. It’s hard to keep track of it all. This has been a trying quarter on campus, and now that final exams are over, I feel only faint catharsis. Sobriety and exhaustion seem to dominate. People seem pretty wiped out for many, many valid reasons, but I know I’ve been trying to stay positive. Easier said than done.
A lot of the weeks were such a slog, but it’s far from being all bad. I’m especially thankful for my French literature class, which might have been one of the best academic experiences I’ve had in college so far. Formally, the title of the course is French Kiss: The History of Love and the French Novel. Books we read included The Princess of Cleves, Manon Lescaut, Dangerous Liaisons, The Lady of the Camellias, Madame Bovary, and The Lover. The other courses I took were Computer Organization and Systems, Principles of Economics, and Introduction to the Foundations of Contemporary Geophysics.
So, what about the coming spring quarter? “Sun’s out, guns out,” they say. But more seriously, I also seek to better utilize the resources around me. That way, I believe, I can develop new study habits, knock the rust off ones that may have diminished during remote instruction last school year, and build a schedule that allows me to maximize my experiences in and out of the classroom. Of course, no one other than the seniors knows what spring on campus is like (current juniors were freshmen when the pandemic started and got sent home right as winter quarter was concluding), but they keep hyping it up. Better not turn out to be a disappointment!
The class that I’m most excited for is Human Behavioral Biology. It’s one of the most sought-after here, as it’s taught once every two years by an immensely accomplished and hilarious neuroendocrinologist named Robert Sapolsky. The only reason I got a seat in it was because I clicked the “Enroll” button as soon as it opened at midnight and luckily had a decent Internet connection. If you go to the official Stanford YouTube channel, you’ll see that the most viewed video is Steve Jobs’ commencement address in 2005, and essentially the remaining top nine are Sapolsky and Leonard Susskind, the latter of whom teaches a course called Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics that I’d like to take. Susskind is 80 years old and played an instrumental role in the initial development of string theory, which blows my mind. Really hoping I’ll get to meet him in my time here.
By finding a better balance in my college experience, I think that I’ll start to enjoy my activities and engagements more. After all, these are fascinating opportunities with fascinating people, I must remind myself, not chores. For example, I am currently co-leading a rocketry project at the Student Space Initiative, and our tests launches and upcoming competitions are adding extra pressure to what we do. One night,I started wiring a little flight computer to be attached to a laser-cut avionics bay and shoved into the phenolic tubing of the body of the rocket. Why? That’s what I ask myself as well. Why? Why? Why? There must be a way to determine when to release the first stage separates. Searching for a spare accelerometer, I was stung by the absurdity of being incessantly stressed and frustrated by something that I’m supposed to love. In reality, I think that there’s a lot of anger in my life and in the world generally that can sometimes end up misdirected.
As you can see, we have a huge bunker on campus in the Hansen Experimental Physics Lab, in which GPS was developed, apparently. It is tough act to follow up, but I do my best.
Meanwhile, it’s been more than a year since I interviewed one of the leaders of the Stanford Quantum Computing Association (SQCA) for an article I was working on at the time. As I have gained more clarity, I have reached out to this organization again this past quarter to learn more about the opportunities available to me. In the fall, I had already endeavored to further immerse myself in the field of quantum science and engineering, attending a startup founders roundtable hosted by SQCA, but this past February, I attended a course pathways event related to hardware, algorithms, and theory that have been recently updated on the group’s website. A lot to take in, sure, but hopefully it will be a helpful resource for future decisions I’ll make about my studies. Then, I had the privilege of speaking with the president of the group. It was a happy coincidence that I eat breakfast in the same dining hall as a friend of hers. The ball keeps rolling, and I’m so glad that I’ve been immersing myself in this niche. The Quantum Coalition is putting on QC Hack 2022 in April, and I shall follow it closely.
In parallel to these events in February, I also remember listening to an episode of The Daily that featured Peter Mcindoe, the founder of the Birds Aren’t Real moment. (I promise this tangent will make sense soon.) It’s a riveting story of what he called “ideological loneliness” that led him to a dark place in life, and one day he came up with a conspiracy theory on the spot. Suddenly, his message began to spread far and wide, even though it was originally a joke, one could say, or a mockery of the world he saw. During the interview, he described the movement’s growth, and how a “cacophony of comedy and absurdism” had the effect of diffusing evil.
Birds Aren’t Real is almost like an igloo in a snowstorm, if that makes sense. It’s kind of like a place where people can kind of make shelter out of the same type of material that’s causing the chaos, given that people can take misinformation and use it as a place to safely process misinformation. I think comedy is a very disarming form of communication. And it allows people to come together and laugh at these things that in everyday life, are terrifying. And there’s something about laughing at these things that kind of breaks the illusion of the monster.
Those words have followed me since. What a fascinating notion it is to fashion a shield from a storm by building a shelter with the very material that afflicts you. It’s a way to cope, as if holding up a mirror and laughing. It’s a way to be heard. It’s a way to be less lonely, less hurt.
People will come to these rallies in the hundreds. And I think that in some ways, it almost operates as a safe space for people. I don’t know. I feel like every day, I wake up and open my phone, I’m just seeing chaos. I think just kind of growing up alongside the Internet, just like Gen Z or anyone my age has just kind of grown up alongside it the whole time. And with that, there’s no real rules as a society of how to deal with something like the Internet. So I think with that just comes all the madness in our face at once. And I think a lot of people feel the madness and don’t really have a way to express it.
That might be one of the most important uses of a story: it gives us a common vernacular of emotions. Stories give us a way to see one another as complete individuals, with quirks, features, insecurities, hopes, dreams, the whole nine yards. These days, I’ve had more appreciation not only for institutions in the edifice of knowledge, but also the humans behind that knowledge. So many people contribute to the devices that I use, textbooks that I read, and food I eat on a daily basis, for example. When you acknowledge the humanity of someone or in something, it’s a powerful thing. You might not always agree or understand, but you can at least know for sure that they are also a son or a daughter or a mother or an uncle or an aunt and they have seen sunsets and they enjoy the scent of freshly trimmed grass and they have feelings and needs that are as real as yours.
So if there’s something that I’ve taken away from recent months in particular, it is to be kind. Give someone a call. Listen. Give someone a hug. They are more than their work. They are more than an image. Seek to understand where others are coming from. Text a friend. Remind them that you care and that they matter. Not everything is what it seems. You might not truly know what could be going on for them.
Compassion will not always be returned—or at least that’s what I’ve gathered from experience—but perhaps in the end it’s still a better policy to make an effort to listen and understand. The past couple of years alone are enough to see that society has become further atomized, in turn upending the idea for many Americans of “rugged individualism.” I almost desperately want to believe that more people will come to value human connection and interdependence. Do not lie to yourself. We need one another.