Are You Stupid?

    Posted on Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019
         If you read my last blog, I mentioned the use of @academicchatter. Well this past week or so, a 2008 Journal of Cell Science essay was doing the rounds of #AcademicChatter #PhDChat. The title was ‘The importance of stupidity in scientific research.’ I’ll put a link for the same at the end of the article. It was an thought-provoking and motivating read, and I thought I’ll add two cents of my own to the topic.

         I was listening to the telephonic interview of one of the recent recipients of the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine Dr. Gregg Semenza, and he said a beautiful thing ‘Unexpected turns are what makes science so exciting. You never know where your studies are going to lead you.’ It got me thinking, how often do we treat not knowing as stupidity and someone unaware of a particular information as stupid. And, here was this guy, a Noble laureate, pointing out about the excitement and opportunity in not knowing. Almost all of us forget that we were unaware of so much at some point of time and most certainly have forgotten the process by which we reached where we are. And sadly, all of us have made the mistake of judging someone for not knowing. Also, there is the small but essential caveat that since the journey of every individual is different, the process of understanding and learning is also different.

         The question then is, is being stupid, okay? The answer is no; it’s not okay to be stupid. But what’s okay is to know that you are stupid and then with that realization do something about it. In my opinion, the wisest person is the one who knows that he is stupid. I am sure there are many quotes out there on similar lines (this is me accepting my stupidity), but for now, deal with my opinion (you can tell me about the other quotes in the comments). One I could remember was by Albert Einstein, ‘As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.’

         So, what is all the above to do with our graduate studies or graduate life? There are two answers. First, it is to understand that it's okay that some class was challenging, and you couldn’t solve the homework. The reason you are taking the course is to learn and improve on your current understanding. Second, it's essential to help out a struggling classmate; maybe you figured out the answers to your stupidity alone, or with some help, it's still okay to help and also seek when needed.

         Talking of graduate studies, another type of stupidity that lot of research students struggle with is the tendency to believe that our research ideas are not good enough or not at the forefront of science and technology (sorry, I am STEM guy) or any other field. To all those out there please read this letter by Richard Feynman to his student http://www.lettersofnote.com/2015/10/do-not-remain-nameless-to-yourself.html?fbclid=IwAR2blTeKG0X8AeZMaLcMNxJkc9o-5wIGK-0_h7kLy2_MINSZXSKLVj0dwwY&m=1. If you can’t find time to read the whole thing, which I strongly recommend, the gist is: no question is a small question, as long as someone is out there needing to know the answer and as it happens you are the first one in need of that answer. Now, before you start questioning the coherence of the article, let me point out the just as I said that accepting your stupidity is the first step, it should be followed by the question what is that I don’t know and what I need to do. And you know what, no question is a small question (see, it’s all tied together).
    The whole idea is to accept your ignorance and proceed from there to know more and continue the iterative process. There is a saying by Lao Tzu, a 6th-century Chinese sage, ‘One who persists is a person of purpose.’ We can all live by that.

         Here is the link for the mentioned essay: https://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771

    ---Kunal Gupta
    Kunal Gupta is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


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