The Why

So I’m sure everyone has heard about The Why. It’s a project where you look at the hidden motivations of what you do in life.

As an example, let’s take my research interests. I found it hard to grow up and become an adult for reasons that are of interest to no one but my analyst. So I wrote a doctoral dissertation on female Bildungsroman and its fixation on female resistance to growth. And then I grew up and loved it. I’m doing middle-aged adulthood a lot better than I did youth or early adulthood. So I lost all interest in the Bildungsroman genre.

Then the Recession came. My husband lost his job and immigration status. So I became interested in literature of the crisis. Then we figured out that situation, and I’m no longer interested in literature of the crisis.

Now I’m interested in the collapse of popular liberation movements and their transformation by forces of neoliberalism because, in a very tiny way, my worldview followed a similar trajectory.

It works in sciences, too. N is extremely preoccupied by the randomness of existence. So he’s a statistician who builds statistical models that try to bring order to chaos.

It’s just something that’s very interesting to think about.

What’s your why?

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8 thoughts on “The Why”

  1. What’s your why?

    I love to study deep structure that very few people understand. I sometimes wonder whether what I do has any connection with the real world, but it feels to me that it does. Not all my colleagues agree; many think it is just a very arcane game we play. But it clearly is important to me, or I would have stopped when I retired.

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    1. I’m not sure what my why is, but I know more now than ever how to identify myself intellectually.

      I’m a an applied mathematician: I want to apply/teach mathematics (and of course, statistics) and study mathematical
      models applicable whatever the context is. I’m not a physicist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in physics, I’m not an economist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in economics, I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in epidemiology, etc.

      So I’m not a topologist, nor a fundamental analyst (although I’m interested in normed spaces), and even more abstractly, I’m certainly not an algebraist (although I love linear algebra) .

      “I sometimes wonder whether what I do has any connection with the real world, but it feels to me that it does. Not all my colleagues agree; many think it is just a very arcane game we play. ”

      As an applied mathematician, I vehemently disargree with them. Of course, I’m not so interested in topology, and it’s not easy to see the connexion with the real world NOW, but clearly, it will be very useful someday. Everything that an applied mathematician (and of course, in the domains where mathematical models are used) does is the result of developments made by fundamental mathematicians like you, and I’m very grateful to those people. Applied mathematicians need fundamental mathematicians.

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  2. I’ve always been interested in how and why things work. And eventually the focus turned to smaller parts of things and how and why they worked, and then even smaller parts of things, and so on, and how all the smaller parts add up to the whole. I want to go into microbiology.

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  3. I’ve been asking all the people in my (very interdisciplinary) postdoc program (and other academics I interact with) about their “why” all year (I phrase it as “what is your motivating question that drives you to do research, not your specific research question, expressed as if you were 6 years old?”) – it’s been really fun to see how people view their research and its relation to their deeper driving questions. There’s some really interesting patterns that group disciplinary fields as well. For example, the humanists that I speak to all ask questions about how themselves or other people act and interact (“why do some people pretend to be other people?” and “how do you make your own path in the world?”), whereas the scientists ask questions about the world (“what’s under the sea?” and “why do people get sick?” and “where did all these interesting-looking animals come from?”). My engineering friends say things like “how can I make things in the world better/more efficient?”, and my personal favorite has come form an economist (“how should the world work?”).

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    1. Well, you aren’t getting very many responses to this post — perhaps it’s too deep for most of your obviously intelligent readership.

      It’s definitely too deep me for me. When I was a practicing psychiatrist, I had a number of patients who wanted me to help them figure out their personal “why,” and I did my job. But I’ve never asked myself “why” — just “how,” and proceeded accordingly. That question has taken me all over the world, and enriched me vastly, and finally brought me home to the Arizona desert.

      I’ve never thought that life had that much of a point, anyway. Just do what you have to, and enjoy the trip, and then get the hell out of the way.

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  4. A friend (much smarter than me) back in the 1980s pointed out how transparent one of our professors’ why was. This was an amazing lecturer I could listen to all day, but their specialization was about the evolution of certain sounds… and they had a very noticeable and weird way of pronouncing those sounds, that suggested a non-trivial amount of ridicule in childhood (there were other tells for being mocked as a child too).

    Once the idea was pointed out it was pretty easy to guess/infer the same for a lot of others.

    My own whys are related to the eternal question of why people think I’m so weird when they’re so weird.

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  5. I’m not sur what my why is, but I know more now than ever how to identify myself intellectually.

    I’m a an applied mathematician: I want to apply/teach mathematics (and of course, statistics) and study mathematical
    models applicable whatever the context is. I’m not a physicist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in physics, I’m not an economist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in economics, I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m a mathematician who studies mathematical models in epidemiology, etc.

    So I’m not a topologist, nor a fundamental analyst (although I’m interested in normed spaces), and even more abstractly, I’m certainly not an algebraist (although I love linear algebra) .

    “I sometimes wonder whether what I do has any connection with the real world, but it feels to me that it does. Not all my colleagues agree; many think it is just a very arcane game we play. ”

    As an applied mathematician, I vehemently disargree with them. Of course, I’m not so interested in topology, and it’s not easy to see the connexion with the real world NOW, but clearly, it will be very useful someday. Everything that an applied mathematician (and of course, in the domains where mathematical models are used) does is the result of developments made by fundamental mathematicians like you, and I’m very grateful to those people. Applied mathematicians need fundamental mathematicians.

    Like

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