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The Outsiders

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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When I was a kid, I always cried and made scenes in my first-grade classroom. After many failed interventions, the school principal came up with a solution. I could stay home for the rest of that school year… but I had to spend from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. – what would have been my school hours – in my bedroom. I couldn’t go outside or interact with anyone. Now this was a long time ago. And it was madness. But something happened during those hours in my room. I started drawing. And I fell in love with making pictures move. I made my first flipbooks. I started watching TV and movies in a new way (only before 8 a.m. and after 2 p.m., of course). When I finally went back to first grade the next year, I was still “different.” But I had something else – my own world that was mine and that no one could take away – and that bolstered me whenever I felt afraid.

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Young Jim Gates….

I don’t usually get so personal in these posts, but I felt so moved today because of Jim Gates. I was thinking about our interview with Jim and some things he said that were especially powerful:

“So, when I was a child, I had a tragic part of my life. My mother died when I was 12. And because of that event, I developed a very rich fantasy life, because it was a way to get away from the pain. So I read science fiction, I read comic books, I even drew my own comic book characters. I composed stories for these characters. And so, in my teenage years, I was still supporting my imagination by these activities, because it was driven by my emotional needs at the time. And so, now in my 60s, I find that I still have this element of imagination that some people describe as being child-like. And yet that’s the thing that allows me to look at a sea of mathematics – or a forest of mathematics – and see things slightly differently from anybody else that I know. It’s exactly the element of imagination.”

Now mind you, I’m not comparing the magnitude of anything I lost as a boy to what Jim lost – the most horrible loss a child can experience. I’m only noticing the similarity in how children can cope with sadness and loss… and how something good can come of it, something we can even use in our lives as adults. Jim explains:

“When one works in theoretical physics, one of the strange things about the tie between mathematics and reality is that it seems as though the mathematics, in some sense, exists before you get to it. It’s a very weird feeling. People often ask do you create the math or do you discover the math? It feels like you discover it. Like it’s just out there, waiting for someone with a particular mental mindset or point of view to come upon it. And so, in some of the things that I’ve done which are my unique contributions to the field… I tell people it’s because of my slightly cracked viewpoint that I see things slightly differently. One of my heroes is Albert Einstein, and he said it perhaps more elegantly, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said the outsider – because of the very disconnectedness they have from the group – sometimes has an advantage in creating new ideas, because the group-think doesn’t influence that person. And I’ve tried to maintain that in my career.”

So we salute Jim, who recently added to his many accomplishments by winning

the National Medal of Science . And we salute all the other outsiders.

And if you’re a young person reading this and you’ve suffered a loss – or if you just feel like an outsider – take heart. You’ll get through it. And some of what really hurts right now could make you special. Like Jim Gates.