On Passing The Torch

Last October, Carlos Bueno gave a lightning talk called “Science Education: Refactoring Computer Science.” In that talk, he talked about writing “Lauren Ipsum” and how it was easier to teach children about recursion than binary numbers. Recursion is the event when a function calls itself, creating a new stack. Binary numbers are a base two number system, primarily used by computers by way of electrical signals between relays and switches. Recursion is easier to explain to children because the concept of stacks are a lot easier to comprehend than the abstract world of counting by base two. As adults, it feels like it is easier to learn the binary number system because the idea of counting is relatively easy. When Bueno explained this to us, I was pleasantly surprised and it started me thinking about how we can teach the next generation about other ideas.

When I read Oliver Sack’s new autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, that idea came back to me. Somewhere in the book, I really wish I could find the quote, Sacks writes about a colleague who died young and had a profound effect on Sacks that he must continue his life by writing about his work. I realized we continue to work through what others had to leave behind under unfortunate circumstance, whether it be circumstance or death. It is our duty to teach the next generation the ideas and worldview of the world so that they could carry them on and continue to improve them. Also, we don’t want the next generation to make the same mistakes as we do.

“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” — Oliver Sacks, op-ed in The New York Times on learning he has terminal cancer

When I read this quote, I think of what the holes mean. The holes are the missing pieces, the partial pictures, a sliver of the what the dead thought. I believe poetry is a fitting analogy for what is left behind. Poetry is open-ended, goes into much interpretation, yet it is condensed and full of meaning. Homer, and perhaps those before him, distilled down the Trojan War epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey into lyrical language. I believe the descriptors of the characters was to help abide the memories of the audience so they can pass these stories down orally. We see this in other literature and famous folks with King Arthur of Camelot, Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc and countless others.

Two weeks ago, I met someone who was heavily influenced by Buckminster Fuller. He met Fuller when he was a kid and wished he could ask him a question about his work. But as he was too young, he didn’t get to read about Fuller’s concepts and ideas until he was a teenager, after Fuller’s death. Even with a partial understanding of Fuller’s ideas, he took them to heart and worked in the forestry department. He tells me he tries to apply Fuller’s ideas about nature to his everyday work. I love this story because it is metaphorically passing the torch. It should be noted that there’s a book about Buckminster Fuller entitled “Fuller’s Earth: A Day With Buckminster Fuller and the Kids” where Fuller literally gives children his philosophy in words the children can understand.

I’ll leave you with this. Uncork your mind from its secrets and spill out the good ideas. Help people around you, and those after you, understand why you made certain decisions, your struggles and forays into problems, and help us all collectively understand the world a little more.