MIT or Suicide !?

By Kareem Carr

The Peoples Archive was the subject of my last article article, and, as I said there, it provides a chance to get a really intimate portrait of what it means to spend your life doing science or mathematics and being a scholar. The discussions are unpredictable and often stray into deeply personal topics. I have watched many of the clips and they almost always entail moments that I find some resonance with, not just as somehow who aspires to do many of the things the participants have done, and not just as someone who has a similar scholarly bent, but also as a fellow human being, who sometimes finds himself mired in the ambiguities of daily life. There are so many predicaments that are at the same time mundane in their universality and so profoundly earthshaking when you experience them.

I am talking about, among other things, the reasons we end up putting so much effort into mathematics in the first place.

The reason I started writing this article is centered on a two minute and forty nine second clip in which physicist Murray Gell-Mann discusses his thought processes in deciding which graduate school to attend.

It’s somewhat ironic, because it comes across how very deeply he cared about where he would go and yet, all throughout the video, it’s clear that he approached the actual application process in a very perfunctory way.

As a young, ambitious physicist he applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT. He got negative answers from all of them except MIT. However, it becomes clear as he talks that MIT was his fallback school. He says “I just knew it wasn’t Ivy League. It seemed to me kind of a grubby. I imagined it was a grubby place.”

He reveals, “I seriously thought of suicide.”

He goes on to say that, “It occurred to me that I could try MIT, first, and then commit suicide. Whereas I couldn’t do things in reverse order: if I committed suicide, I could not then, afterwards, try MIT.”

He summarized wryly, “The two operators didn’t commute.”

Recalling the event, he laughs throughout but I think he is being quite serious and honest about his thought processes at the time. At the time, he was probably in the midst of a deep despair. I think this is a common attitude that is found among students. I believe it’s important to realize that the things you think while in the throes of melancholy might not be especially realistic – it is a distorted way of looking at the world. It’s also important to realize that this is a way of looking at things that many of us occasionally find ourselves stuck in. At such times, it’s important to do what Gell-Mann did, reach out to others for advice and perspective.

There are many ways in which to have a good, meaningful and even an extraordinarily successful and intellectually satisfying life. So it’s important to be adaptable and leave oneself open to new opportunities. This is evidenced by observing the many, many people in life who have done just that.

I think this an important topic to talk about and I invite you to share your advice for coping with the sorts of difficult and stressful moments that come up in academic life.

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