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One Foot In Engineering, The Other In The Humanities: Reflections On My Career and Interests

One Foot In Engineering, The Other In The Humanities: Reflections On My Career and Interests

by Hari Balasubramanian

A little bit of self indulgence – additionally a sort of preface to all the three Quarks Every day essays I’ve written.

I’ve all the time considered myself as somebody who’s extra drawn to the humanities than to math or the sciences. This could appear very puzzling to somebody seems to be at my profession particulars: levels in engineering and a profession in academia in a department of utilized arithmetic referred to as operations analysis. Even I’m stumped typically – how did I get so deep right into a quantitative subject when all my life I’ve held that literature (literary fiction particularly), historical past and journey are much better at revealing one thing concerning the human situation than some other pursuit?

Some comply with an ambition stubbornly wherever it takes them and regardless of the penalties. I didn’t have that type of resolve. Rising up in west and central India, I learn quite a bit English and American fiction – Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alistair Maclean – and determined that I need to turn into a author (English solely in fact for the mentally colonized, why would I write in Tamil or Hindi?). The ambition was robust sufficient to have grip on my ideas for the subsequent 20 years, however by no means robust sufficient to counter sensible considerations. Like many center class households, my mother and father felt I needed to get into an engineering or medical school since each provided the promise of monetary stability. I merely went alongside, following what highschool buddies round me have been doing. After toying with majors as numerous as electronics and metallurgy I lastly settled on one thing referred to as manufacturing engineering. In 1996, I left residence and attended what was then referred to as the Regional Engineering School, twenty kilometers from the south Indian metropolis of Tiruchirappalli: a semi-industrial, semi-rural center of nowhere sort of campus the place youngsters from faraway states of India got here and lived in packed hostels for 4 years.

The ambition to develop into a author, in the meantime, bided its time. All you needed to do was write one breakthrough novel, one thing like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Issues, grow to be well-known, then write full time: that was the naïve worldview that sustained me for a very long time.

In school, I largely ignored the engineering curriculum – one semester I used to be ranked 32 in my class of 40 – as an alternative I hung out typing up verbose brief tales and poems that sounded as if I used to be getting ready for the GRE (which I used to be). In any case, from the very first yr conversations in hostel corridors centered not on the legal guidelines of thermodynamics or how an antenna labored however on salaries at recruiting multinational corporations, the growth in software program jobs, MBAs, and funded scholarships at American universities. School was a passageway to prosperity however the curriculum itself appeared secondary.

It didn’t happen to me then that studying technical materials required endurance and curiosity within the classroom and labs, understanding issues rigorously, permitting a troublesome idea to slowly seep into you. Should you persist, you lastly contact the thriller that lies on the coronary heart of an equation or pure phenomenon, and this retains you coming again for extra. 4 years in school provides you time to stick with the troublesome ideas of engineering and arithmetic – I missed my probability and now it’s exhausting to catch up. I’m in a position nowadays to learn a posh literary work like Tolstoy’s Conflict and Peace, or get deep into the historic particulars of a specific place or individuals, however I discover it troublesome to open a physics, math or biology textbook and study issues alone – even when the textual content is Feynman Lectures on Physics, written by top-of-the-line science communicators of the 20th century.


In August 2000, a couple of months after ending school, I arrived in Arizona State College for graduate faculty. My main was one thing referred to as Industrial Engineering. As earlier than, this wasn’t a choice that thought-about my true pursuits; I used to be solely following the steps of my school pals, and the hundreds of scholars throughout India, who have been headed to American universities. In retrospect, it appears that evidently we have been all prepared pawns, flung throughout continents by the forces of globalization. I used to be impartial to what I specialised in; my solely objective on the time was to journey overseas as a result of I feared that if I took a job in India I might by no means get probability to see one other nation. Sure, such foolish concepts can inform essential selections!

Industrial engineering is the odd one amongst engineering majors in that it isn’t based mostly on bodily legal guidelines. It makes use of as an alternative a mixture of mathematical strategies, algorithms, economics and administration methods to enhance ‘systems’: that nebulous, catch-all time period that would imply something – a provide chain, an meeting line, a transportation community. These strategies, usually pitched for executives, managers and directors, have been and nonetheless are thought-about indispensable in any group. In all of the textbooks and courses, there was an unabashed give attention to effectivity, decreasing prices, and maximizing revenue which I discovered dispiriting; it appeared diametrically against the lyricism, magnificence and open-endedness that I sought in literature. I observed there wasn’t an in depth questioning of the consequences of slicing prices and maximizing income – the way it produced a harried tradition the place everybody was overworked, the whole lot needed to be obsessively quantified, and there was little time to mirror on what was occurring.

What stored me going, although, was the arithmetic – the arithmetic itself (once I might perceive the notation: it by no means got here simply to me and I nonetheless wrestle with it) was impartial to every part, it had a puzzle-like high quality that drew me in and stored me intrigued. The strategies of educating have been very totally different from India: American professors have been partaking, you possibly can deliver textual content books to exams, an intuitive understanding of the fabric was inspired and nothing needed to be memorized. For the primary time, I started to concentrate throughout courses. I wrote a grasp’s thesis and determined to remain for a doctoral diploma. It was an enormous determination that I used to be very informal about, however I wasn’t focused on becoming a member of the company world and staying on on the college was extra snug than doing anything. I lived in shared flats for six years and received by simply on a month-to-month stipend of $800-1200.

I favored graduate faculty as a result of it gave me enough time, in any case the coursework and analysis, to learn and write. On the time, I considered fiction as the very best type of artistic expression; nothing else was value it. However I had hardly learn something; I had simply begun to compensate for what is regarded as ‘serious’ literature: Faulkner, Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie. I assumed Rushdie’s Midnight’s Youngsters was astonishing in its inventiveness; it held me in its spell for years. I dreamed of doing one thing comparable. I attempted my greatest to write down frequently however was not profitable. My brief tales weren’t popping out properly; I discovered myself agonizing over authenticity, what sort of narrative voice to make use of, plot units, dialogue. I found why fiction is so arduous: the sheer variety of prospects, the various instructions in which you’ll be able to take a narrative can exhaust you.

The concept that literary fiction is the top of artistic expression began to fade in August 2004, once I learn Jared Diamond’s Weapons, Germs and Metal. GGS asks very grand questions: why did historical past end up the best way it did? why are some elements of the world extra developed (have extra ‘cargo’) than others? what defined the numerous variations between how colonialism and demographic realities performed out in Asia and Africa versus Americas and Australia? GGS crammed gaps in my historic understanding in a fashion that no different guide had achieved – it defined how geographic connectedness to different areas and ecological elements favorable to agriculture and domestication of animals had given sure elements of the world a head begin in creating complicated societies and dominating others. I used to be additionally startled at how illnesses beforehand absent in a single continent can abruptly seem and, together with relentless conquest and ethnic cleaning, wreak demographic havoc, as they did within the Americas and Australia. From mundane on a regular basis stuff like chilies which I assumed have been Indian however are literally Mexican, to extra sobering details similar to why there at the moment are as many Indian People as American Indians in the USA, GGS opened up a brand new eco-geographic means of taking a look at historical past that had been absent in all of the dry dynasties-kings-and-empires historical past I’d discovered. (Though Diamond will get lots of credit score for GGS, it have to be stated that he was solely placing collectively concepts that had already been articulated, however not in such a bestselling means.)

Across the similar time, I occurred to learn VS Naipaul’s essays and books based mostly on his travels to India, Iran, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Congo, United States, and Indonesia. GGS and Naipaul’s books – and later Charles Mann’s 1491 – seeded the concept maybe I too might mix journey with historical past, each cultural and ecological, and write one thing that had a brand new perspective. I definitely discovered it so much simpler than writing fiction. I traveled to American Indian reservations and to Latin American nations, hoping to put in writing a guide that contrasted the indigenous pre-Columbus historical past of the Americas – a theme that had intrigued for a very long time – with what had occurred on the Indian subcontinent. The guide by no means materialized, it was all too summary and weakly conceived, however the journey and analysis I voluntarily took on matched and even exceeded the trouble I put into my doctoral research in engineering.


This then was the twin life I led: on the ‘outside’, I used to be an Indian engineer within the US, engaged on his PhD, and that is what most individuals noticed; ‘inside’ I noticed myself as some type of literary individual, touring, studying and writing, and ultimately making this my main id. However the one writing that was receiving any exterior recognition was my educational work; my analysis papers, which I gave little significance to and even ridiculed, stored getting revealed. In Might 2008, I used to be provided an assistant professor place in Industrial Engineering on the College of Massachusetts, Amherst. I accepted it. I rationalized it with the thought that academia is the place the place I’d have time to do what I needed, notably through the summer time and winter breaks when there have been no courses. Certainly, regardless of the pressures of tenure – publishing, writing analysis grants, educating and mentoring doctoral college students – I set off in my early years on journeys to Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, nations that, in contrast to Canada and US, nonetheless had giant indigenous populations. Bolivia particularly fascinated me since, in 2006, it had elected an Aymara, Evo Morales, as president for the primary time in its historical past. I hoped to gather the journey materials in a e-book or a collection of essays.

However educational life had different plans for me and started to have an effect on me in an sudden approach. Educating particularly had an enormous affect; I took an actual liking to it. Tolstoy outlined artwork “as that human activity which consists in one person’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he or she has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.” Educating a mathematical idea, by this definition, is an artwork: it’s a must to first ‘feel’ the drive or great thing about that idea internally inside you; then, within the classroom – which I’ve come to treat as a stage the place one ‘performs’ – it’s a must to convey what you are feeling in order that your college students get contaminated and can expertise it too. I wasn’t all the time profitable at it, however the extra I taught, the extra I felt drawn to ideas in chance and arithmetic.

I additionally turned much more interested in science and engineering, the very stuff that I had ignored in school. Perhaps it was the campus conversations with teachers and nerdy varieties, or frequent visits to the Harvard and MIT bookstores, the place books on science had an equal footing with every part else. For the primary time I had the prospect, whereas studying Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, to let the immensity of Einstein’s theories of relativity sink in – I had solely recognized about Einstein’s fame not why he was well-known. The biologist Edward Wilson’s analysis papers on the group of ant colonies, biodiversity and conservation, collected within the guide Nature Revealed, instilled a brand new curiosity concerning the pure world. Till then, I had considered nature as lovely, however not as one thing that possesses that a construction that may be analyzed. As a result of I now lived in a small western Massachusetts city surrounded by woods and swamps, there was an opportunity to watch patterns in nature extra intently. Then in 2009, I began following three Quarks Every day and was immediately taken by the seamless mixing collectively of content material in science, economics, politics, literature and artwork.

A consequence of all this was that the a part of me that was drawn to literary fiction, historical past and the humanities not thought-about itself adversary to the half that was now drawn to sure kinds of arithmetic and science. I learn Russian literary classics throughout these years with the identical enthusiasm that I learn a textual content on chance or a e-book on evolution. Once I turned a visitor columnist on 3QD in 2014 – what a thrill it was to be chosen! – I made a decision I might not concentrate on one theme, however permit all my pursuits to precise themselves. That is why my columns have drifted erratically throughout many subjects, with no middle or focus: I’ve written on the science of queueing and ideas in statistics, then instantly shifted to subjects resembling linguistic variety and the ecological influence of beavers, and but different occasions returned to travelogues based mostly on journeys to Ecuador or Turkey. The items didn’t all the time end up the best way I needed, and typically they took on too dry or educational a tone, however the act of researching and writing each bit, immersing myself in a single matter then hopping to one thing else altogether, has been very satisfying.

In order that’s the place I discover myself now – much more snug with this arbitrary mishmash of pursuits than these years when there was all the time a rigidity to modify full time to literary writing. It’s a flip of affairs that an older, purist self would have discovered unsatisfactory however that self is lengthy gone! Because of the accident of a profession that I by no means actually needed and a longstanding curiosity within the one I did need, features of each the sciences and humanities have began to return collectively – and I hope it continues to be that method.

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