While coming home from school during Christmas break in 2007, I struck up a conversation with a very eccentric fellow on the LIRR after getting in on Jamaica, starting the last leg of my journey home. He wore a hearing aid, beat up sneakers,  an old pair of jeans, and a sweatshirt underneath an old jacket.

After sitting down he loudly asked anyone within earshot how long it would take to get to Mastic, a town on Long Island a bit further east from my hometown. I assumed that he was mentally retarded, extremely eccentric, or some combination of the two. As space cleared up on the train, he took a seat across the aisle from me. The conductor came by to take our tickets.

“I just came back from a very important meeting in India,” he announced in a loud monotone. “I delivered an important lecture and my flight back to New York was delayed by 5 hours.” The conductor smiled, looked at his ticket, and walked on, as she probably does 100 times throughout the day confronted with delusional passengers.

I don’t think I would have paid closer had I not I glanced down at the tag on his bag. It said “Andrew Beckwith” and listed an affiliation with a lab somewhere in the Midwest.

We managed to strike up a conversation – he asked me how much it would cost to take a cab from Patchogue (the last stop of this train, around 10 miles east of my home town) to Mastic. Eventually he told me that he was a physicist, and was returning from presenting a paper in India. He mentioned some of the work that he did, and claimed that Edward Witten (one of the few modern physicists I know by name—and a Brandeis alum!) was very arrogant. Soon enough I came to my hometown; he feebly shook my hand and thanked me for my help. I was on my way back home.

I Googled his name after getting home. He wasn’t lying; apparently he really was a physicist. In fact, he has quite a reputation on usenet. See here:

What I found striking about this interaction is that I can’t recall so obviously seeing such a massive gap between actual intelligence/brainpower and perceived social status. If I hadn’t glanced down at his bag and noticed this guy’s nametag, I would have gone on thinking that he was just your run of the mill Very Weird Person on Public Transit, which is what I’m sure most people who saw him that day perceived him as.

This made me think of Phil Greenspun’s excellent article on women and science. Below is an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

  1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
  2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT (“Course 18” we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley’s attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan.

It is the guys with the poorest social skills who are least likely to talk to adults and find out what the salary and working conditions are like in different occupations. It is mostly guys with rather poor social skills whom one meets in the university science halls.

What about women? Don’t they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I’ve taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my “medical school recommendations” directory.


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