Book Review: The Idea Factory

This book is a history of Bell Labs, true, but perhaps more accurately, this book is a history of American engineering throughout the 20th century, since 20th century American engineering was the engineering of Bell Labs. From the telegraph to the internet, the span of innovation, experimentation, and discovery captured in the offices at Brooklyn and Murray Hill easily dwarf any other institution of that era. Perhaps no other company has so thoroughly touched our lives today, creating a new paradigm in the way we define ourselves in the information era.

Such great breadth of discovery is not easy to explain, but Gertner does a masterful job of doing so by encapsulating such technologies in the identities of their creators. From the infamous Shockley to the eccentric Shannon, to the ones who are unknown in general public spheres of the 21st century, this book is essentially a collection of biographies. Yet such a description falls short of the magnitude of what had occurred. These famous engineers and scientists, who thought into existence the ways that we communicate, think, and interact, were also in a unique environment provided by the Bell Labs from the 1930s through the 1960s. This book captures the culture of that time thoroughly, from the games that engineers would play when their supervisors weren’t looking to the rare disputes between management and researcher.

A possible criticism is that the book focuses too heavily on the lives of Kelly, Shockley, Bardeen, Shannon, Fisk, Pierce, and Baker. This is entirely valid – look at the 16 page insert in the center of the book that provides beautiful black-and-white photos of these Young Turks at work in Murray Hill. Yet the picture that such biographies provide is perhaps representative of what the Bell Labs of that era represented. These men had different, sometimes conflicting, personalities, yet Bell Labs was able to draw out of them true genius. Gertner deflects this argument, stating in the conclusion that “maybe this argument – the individual versus the institution; the great men versus the yeomen; the famous versus the forgotten – is insoluble. Or … perhaps the most significant thing was that Bell Labs had both kinds of people in profusion, and both kinds working together. And for the problems it was solving, both kinds were necessary.

Our understanding of innovation in today’s world is fundamentally different from innovation at that time. Look at the primary motivations behind shocking American discoveries in the 20th century, and you will find how remarkably institutional they were. The man on the moon was a result of the Space Race between two superpowers. The Manhattan Project was a result of over 600,000 scientists, engineers, and workers combining forces to develop the most terrible weapon. Discoveries and innovations of that time were in large part supported by academic institutions, by government, or by large monopolies like the Ma Bell system. Gertner raises the point that perhaps this was one of the fatal flaws that led to the eventual collapse of the Bell Labs in the 1990s. By working in a vacuum, protected from competition through explicit promises by the government, Bell Labs never had to learn how to compete in an open marketplace. By outinventing everyone else, they eventually led to their own demise, being unable to capitalize on their new creations of satellite and internet communications as many of the new startups in Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it is for the better that Bell Labs has given way to Silicon Valley, and that we have a new wave of discovery. But I find Bell Labs, and this book, incredibly enduring for imparting the sense of community that such a research institution had at the time. Sure, it was stressful, competitive, and intensive. Yet such stresses only brought everyone to reach higher heights and think bigger than any other place on Earth.

Book Review: True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen

I came across Bardeen’s name again while looking up BCS theory in superconductivity. To me, Cooper was always the big contributor, since Cooper Pairs are so frequently talked about in relation to Josephson junctions and other superconductivity phenomena. But that B of BCS was none other than Bardeen.

I knew of Bardeen – I had a poster of famous scientists in my room and his was on it, for his work on transistors. But transistors always seemed to be more associated with Shockley, the brilliant scientist who eventually went crazy over Eugenics in Silicon Valley. So how did Bardeen somehow hide away in the corner?

I immensely appreciated this book for it’s wonderful way of looking through John Bardeen’s entire life, and documenting his challenges, first at the Bell Lab working under the egomaniacal Shockley, then later with his semi-failed theory on CDWs. His life is inspiring, and his dedication to research is unrelenting.

The book itself was dry – it reads much more as a history of science report than a general science biography. Pages are filled with direct quotes, with a hefty 27 page bibliography of sources, and an even heftier 81 page notes section, sourcing each quotation. Some of the anecdotes are repeated through the book, which might make sense on a chapter-to-chapter basis, but induce a strong sense of déjà vu while reading. However, it’s clear that Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch are truly dedicated to presenting a complete picture of who John Bardeen was and aspired to be in this biography. Their dedication to details, especially on the minutia of scientific controversy and how Bardeen navigated through them, was brilliant.

Perhaps the greater travesty is that, despite Bardeen’s phenomenal life of research, this is the only book published about him. He has perhaps contributed more than any other American to our current standard of life in the 21st century, and yet books barely mention him. Indeed, even as a physics student, I have never truly heard of him exalted or commented on, besides the lessons in superconductivity labs. Perhaps that’s because of his choice of field – solid state physics and transistor circuits are not often introduced at an early stage of an undergraduate physics curriculum. But that really is not much of an excuse, for one who has contributed so much. His transistors are in every one of the computers that power the modern information age. And I believe that his theory of superconductivity, which has led to Josephson junctions, which has led to superconducting circuits used in quantum computing, will soon be the basis of another scientific revolution not too far off in the future.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is in the epilogue, where the authors spend some time dissecting Bardeen’s psychological profile and make an effort to understand the nature of genius. While I am wary of the tone of finality taken in the chapter, I found it surprisingly motivating, as if it was laying out a roadmap for the mentality that I should take if I ever desire to follow in the same footsteps.

I truly enjoyed the read, but do hope that we will see more of a popular science book written about Bardeen in the future, so that his story will become more accessible to everyone.

5/5 stars

Goodreads Review:

The Only Barrier

I never bought in to the entire cultural idea that success and change could come from thinking in a certain fashion, mostly because I still think that is pretty stupid. I mean, hard work and dedication brings success, not idea diagrams and meditation camps, right? People who are simply lounging around, trying to discover their true calling, appeared to be either too privileged to have this “burden” or too weak to put down real pen to paper, or hand to stone, or fingers to keyboard. It is the people who put in the hours upon hours that create the things that make our world a better place, not just the idle dreamers.

And yet, that mental paradigm has started to shift over the past summer.

For a myriad of reasons, this past summer has been one of the best so far in my life – and that’s not to say anything of the next five weeks I will be spending in Seattle and Shanghai. But thus far, I’ve been to the major cities along the eastern starboard, discussed papers with the brightest of minds, communicated with numerous top level officials, and learned more than I believe I have in any other summer. I’ve been a high-school mentor, a pub-quiz player, a dinner-party host, a regular-gym goer, a planetarium host, a first-time-teleconference-call member. I want to attribute the events of the past summer to my own success, but each time I try to do so, I find that I fail. Determination alone could not possibly account for all the blessings I have been given.

Despite all of this, I have found myself waking to existential dread in the morning, feeling inadequate as I browse through the dual cesspools of Facebook and Twitter, finding myself scrambling to meet hard deadlines, swimming lap after lap and watching as 60-year-old grandmas pass me in the fast lane. I have led telescope pointings while doubting if I have ever learned enough about the stars to be remotely considered as a fair educator to the public, and have stared at my computer screen for far too long, feeling at times as if the work that I am putting in is merely a momentary distraction and that it would never amount to anything. Hours have slipped through my fingers as minutes inch by, even as slow panic seems to accumulate.

For all of my newfound freedoms that I cherish deeply, I have found one thing that prevents me from enjoying them – the only barrier to my happiness is myself.

Which doesn’t make any sense, right! To subscribe to a ideology of hard work means that it doesn’t /really/ matter whether we are sad or happy. As long as the problems get done, the solutions found, and the papers written, success should flow. Certainly, there is luck, personal factors, and accumulated experiences, but the overall message is that things happen one at a time.

No doubt, this belief stems from my culture and my experiences. I witnessed my parents put in tireless hours to first get the best education, and then to apply it to their work. I have seen how our family has changed and grown over time, not just from my parents, but from my parents’ parents, to where I am today. This steady climb of humble dedication, treating others with fairness and kindness, will no doubt shape who I am for the rest of my life. I believe that the best parts of me come from this upbringing, and that my core character is strongly aligned with beliefs of equality rather than of innate talent. And yet…

I have come to understand that in all things, there needs to be a more equal balance. In my (short, uninspired) journey through life thusfar, I have noticed that the times when I was most happy was when there was most balance in my life, while my most stressed times was when I had thrown all of my chips into one basket, or put all my eggs in. Time passes quickest when I am doing something without thinking about why I am doing it, or if I find myself wallowing in the same rut of thoughts. Becoming stuck, refusing to look past the moment, leads to my melancholy blues.

But when I go back and examine all of my troubles and concerns, there is only one common denominator: myself. Who whispers into my ear late at night that I am not good enough? Who thinks that another person’s creation leads directly to the devaluation of my work? Who is the force keeping me from getting up, thinking that it would be pointless anyway? I am my own worst enemy; I sneak and sabotage my greatest thoughts while they are at their weakest.

There is a bright side to this. I am the only thing in this world that I can fully control. The winds and the tides may not care what I have to think, but I can persuade (gently, gently) myself to be more positive and to enjoy things. But it is hard. It is much easier to let the world take you wherever it wishes, and to simply be satisfied with whatever that is handed to you. Through those bouts of luck and random chance, a life can just fall into place.

I think that’s why I tend to have these “boom-bust” cycles in my life. Too often, I don’t take enough control of myself and tell myself what I really desire. Too often, I just let it go for my mood to be so quickly influenced by external factors. It isn’t that I want to master my emotions – I would feel that that is entirely antithetical to my point. Rather, I want to feel the world around me and still preserve my own voice through it all. I am learning to first break down the barriers I have once set for myself, and then to prevent those barriers from rising again.

I am boundless and free; there is infinite potential along the horizon. Wherever I look, there are opportunities and challenges, rewards and tribulations. If I am bold enough to push forwards, hungry enough to want something greater, and humble enough to realize that it isn’t all about me, then perhaps I will soon step beyond my only barrier. Perhaps I will soon step into the light.


I’ve finally realized that perhaps there is not enough peace in my life. Every moment seems to be going from one place to another, and there simply has not been enough time to sit and think – to reflect on what I am doing, and then to contemplate why I am doing it. Being pushed to go from one task to another is too much like running a marathon. There is no chance to slow down, because slowing down would show weakness and failure.

That isn’t to say that I have had no time for rest. On the contrary – I feel more well rested and happier than almost any other time in my life. Yet, there is a gnawing discomfort. Because even in the times when I am resting, my mind wanders to the tasks of the times to come. My personal time is spent still doing things, albeit things that are not directly related to some task that I was given. A secondary guilt complex even begins to kick in – I start to feel uneasy as soon as I truly have nothing to do. I begin to aimlessly rewatch old YouTube videos or re-read the same familiar stories.

Oddly, for the longest time, I’ve been meaning to write a blog on losing my voice, because I have had the sensation that I can no longer speak in the same way that I used to. Instead of broadcasting my thoughts freely and with wild abandon (as fifteen-year-old high school students do have a tendency to do), I’ve become much more reserved and calculated. It feels that even my blog, one of the most treasured parts of my personal high school experience, has turned into something else. With the banner displaying my official name, instead of my screenname, and with a in the domain name instead of the good ol’, I’ve become more hesitant in publishing my thoughts.

Bo Burnham has recently published a new comedy special, “Make Happy”, with many segments posted on YouTube. The part that seemed to resonate the deepest was when he talked about performance – he noted how everyone has been forced to become a performer, whether that is through witty tweets, accomplished Facebook pictures, or stunning Instagram photos, everyone performs constantly. And then everyone is forced to watch everyone else’s performance, evaluating and comparing how they have done.

Irrationally, I feel like that – as if my actions and words are being put out on the stage. Simple statements are cross-examined, to ensure that I am who I think I am. Without finding peace, it is hard to say if I really am doing what I want, or if I have deluded myself into believing that I enjoy what I am doing.

And yet… it is quite difficult to describe. At the same time that I worry about what my life looks like from the outside, I feel happier than I have ever been in the past. I’m able to explore new ideas and places at my own leisure, while engaging in interesting conversations and learning more about amazing people. I recall reading an article from a psychiatrist regarding this syndrome, where young adults in their twenties were showing up, seemingly without a single problem. They were college educated, had good white-collar jobs, and got on well with their parents. Yet, there was an existential void in their lives, where they felt unhappy, but had no idea why.

I don’t think I’m remotely close to that stage. I recognize that my happiness tends to be cyclic and irrational, and that I still have mysteries of life that I am content with figuring out slowly. But perhaps by finding a small area to slowly rest and rejuvenate, I would be more at peace with everything else in my life.

A Reflection on the Past Year

NB: Below is a letter I wrote to one of my scholarship granters as an update on my past year. I quite like the writing, so would like to share it with everyone here as well.

The coming of June always brings a mixture of feelings: nostalgia for the year that has passed, anticipation for the year to come. It has been just under a year since I received your generous scholarship to study at Yale. Actually living at Yale is very different from simply imagining it from home in Bellevue. The sheer number of opportunities and challenges that come my way everyday seems to constantly catch me off my guard: whether it is trekking up Science Hill to attend a Nobel laureate physics talk or using the Yale Omega Supercomputer Cluster to create a simulation of our early universe. Each day brings a new chance to push myself beyond my previous limits.

Arriving as a dazed freshman in August, from a 24-hour journey of bus, plane, subway, and train, I stepped onto Old Campus with awe and excitement. To imagine that these venerated brick buildings would be my home for the next four years was beyond exciting. What was less exciting was the muggy, 83-degree weather, with no prospect of air conditioning in our dorms. No matter. The next nine months would bring rain and shine, puddles and happiness, my first major snowfall (along with the required Freshman Snowball Fight), the first witnessing of a sunset and a sunrise (with 7 hours of frantic programming in between). Did I know that the year to come would bring me so many varied interactions, that I would grow closer with friends from India, Kenya, and Singapore, that I would find a stronger voice in both scientific writing and about the interaction of race in America, that I would find strength in midnight runs with friends to get greasy food, as we struggled to stay awake to do more work? Likely not. But I think that standing in the center of these towering elm trees, I got a sense of what was to come.

My journey into the field of my passion, physics, has been hard earned but very fruitful. I have been fortunate to take the most intensive freshman physics courses, teaching everything from classical mechanics to general relativity, as well as a smattering of electives, from learning astrostatistics and machine learning to attending a graduate cross-listed course on how to utilize powerful algorithms to process gigabytes of data. Mastering these subjects was no small task. Countless late nights of banging my head against my (too-thick) Electrodynamics book and just as many problem set sessions with a group of similarly-minded friends helped get me through the difficult course material. Through it all, I not only found a stronger sense of purpose in studying how the universe works, but also, a stronger community of friends and teachers. They helped me not only learn the material, but love every moment of it. So even when I earned my first B+ in my Astrostatistics course, my first non-A grade in 13 years of education, I was able to take it in stride and see it as an increased chance to improve in the future. This summer, I am working with the Yale Astronomy department to apply those statistical skills to use, analyzing the spectra of satellite galaxies in order to better improve cosmological models.

Of course, coming to Yale has many more draws than just physics. I have been fortunate to take several humanities courses, each of which deeply enriching my knowledge. By far, the most powerful course I have taken so far has been a lecture on Eastern Europe since 1914. This course, taught by acclaimed writer and historian Timothy Snyder, transformed my view of a classic large lecture into a stage where magic, through spoken knowledge, is performed. Each lecture brought brilliant insights into the underlying structure of how this little region transformed the world with its numerous political and social ideologies. I loved the feeling of thoroughly engaging in a subject that I had never explored in depth before. Similarly, my architecture freshman seminar gave me a new eye to see the magnificent buildings and monuments surrounding Yale. Although I may have annoyed my friends with my random architecture facts, knowing the Yale architects who influenced the modern city helped make this campus feel home all the faster.

Beyond coursework, I have found a diverse community to be thoroughly engaged in. From writing articles to running conferences, every single day is a new adventure with guarantees of interesting encounters. My primary engagement has been with the Yale Scientific Magazine; of which I am sending you three of our past copies. As the nation’s oldest college science magazine, I am proud to be an Operations Manager on the business team and a contributing writer. This past issue featured my quantum technology article on the cover! I have been able to speak with numerous research faculty and engage in bridging the gap between esoteric research and the general public. Through this work, I have woken a passion in scientific communication, to convey what I see as the beautiful message of science to the entire world. In addition, I have found more families with the TEDxYale, Yale Undergraduate Research Association, Society of Physics Students, and Ivy Leadership Summit groups. Each group has a different dynamic and different people, but I feel just as home in each one of them.

Through this exciting time, I have not forgotten about home, nor the vision I had just a year ago. As my parents visited me over this past Memorial Day weekend, I recounted my desires to apply this new knowledge to the future and to one day be a professor. Even though I can say with more clarity that the road ahead is not easy, I still strongly desire to become a physics professor and to conduct research at the cutting edge of humankind’s knowledge. I would want to inspire students as my teachers are now inspiring me.

A Warm Heart

What does it mean to feel at home, in a place thousands of kilometers from your official “place of residence”? How does one become familiar in a land and air so separated from one’s birthplace, in the warm embrace of some foreigner’s arms?

It all starts with a slow cooked dinner, aromatic smells mixing with dirty woks, filling the heart with a renewed sense of purpose.

That wasn’t exactly the image that I imagined going into Sunday afternoon, as I awkwardly called him “Xiang laoshi” as I first met him. He quickly responded: “But I don’t look like a teacher, do I?” (In Chinese, the word 像, which means “look like”, is a homonym for ““, which is his surname) This was the mentor of my friend Dawn, and he had offered to drive us to buy groceries, and to cook us dinner afterwards. As the nearest stop and shop is still about a mile away, which is quite a distance to lug a watermelon or two, we happily accepted his invitation, and off we went.

Xiang Laoshi is a visiting scholar from China, where he is a university professor in the field of pharmacology. He came to Yale for this year in order to work under Professor Cheng, who just happens to be one of the world’s experts in traditional Chinese medicine. (This is also where Dawn is doing her summer research, and the reason I met Xiang Laoshi). As we came back from shopping, carrying big bags of vegetables and fresh fruits, we stopped by Hong Kong market, where Xiang Laoshi picked up some last minute groceries to complete tonight’s meal. Next door to the market was a small Chinese herbal shop. I casually asked if the lab used any herbs from here, and to my surprise, Xiang Laoshi responded yes. He took me inside and showed me some of the herbs that they were researching, as they tried to determine some of the active compounds within these traditional Chinese formula and medicine. My curiosity satisfied, we drove off, returning to his home for a meal.

His apartment in East Rock wasn’t exactly as I had expected; it looked too similar to the place where I was staying. How could a visiting professor and scholar be living in the same conditions that I, a rookie freshman summer researcher, am in? But as he prepared for us braised meats and steamed vegetables, the distinction between “professor” and “student” began to break down. Although he had huge talents in pharmacology, he also loved telling stories. Over the course of the night, as we prepared papaya smoothies and tofu salad together, he shared with us the story of his time in China, the direction that his research was going in, and even stories from his parents time. Even though I had never investigated TCM before, his speaking was so smooth that I found myself enraptured by the ideas of synergistic compounds and bioassays. It seems that, fundamentally, all of science is a big story, one that shares the same traits as a classic adventure novel. There are big questions and proving experiments, researchers who have dedicated their livelihoods to think about new thoughts, outside forces of economics, public opinion, and, of course, funding. There were breakthroughs and let downs, diligent students and lazy post docs. All of these people and ideas had a role to play, making the story spellbinding.

The afternoon passed in a flash, as the sun set over East Rock and the street grew dark. We were still talking, now about entrepreneurship innovation, by the time when we should be getting home. With great food in my stomach and fantastical ideas in my head, I looked around the professor’s apartment again. Instead of seeing just another apartment of just another researcher at Yale, I saw somewhere that looked like home. The small cramped kitchen, with the sign saying “beware of rats!” intended to ward off potential renters, the sloping ceiling of the living roof loft. These were things that I found resonated with me, not because of physical similarity, but because of the warm feeling that I had experienced in them. It felt like home, where my mom would go on and on about her day at work or my dad would sit down with a go board and a book. Nothing changed physically, but the warmth of the heart had filled the space.

I write this on the eve of my parents coming to New Haven to visit me this weekend. It has been a few months before we have seen each other face to face, and this past year has separated us farther than ever before. With my studies at Yale, and business often taking my dad to China, the total distance of our three person family was spread off across two continents and three different coasts. I do not believe that we have been so far away from each other before, and it has certainly been a difficult time.

However, by a quirk of the telephone, sometimes my mom and dad’s telephone numbers would get intermixed. That is, I would call my mom, and my dad’s phone would ring. Then my mom would try to call in, and suddenly we have an impromptu conference call, spread out across the globe. Those small moments, of familiar chit-chat, always brighten my day. And tonight, we will be together again, our hearts filling up the space once more.

Why I Write

Staring at a blank slate, it is quite simple to go completely brain dead. An empty canvas has a sense of intimidation, as if staring into the void. Only, the void is made up of casual acquaintances, people who could easily look and sneer at your work.

Perhaps this is the sorry excuse I have given myself for why this entire school year is sandwiched between two blog posts – this being the latter one. My blog has been as dead as John C. Calhoun, although with much less buzz and much less discussion. Instead, I have jotted down incoherent thoughts on scraps of digital trash, in pithy tweets or on the bottom of long-winded English essays, to be hurriedly deleted before the final submission. Those thoughts, while greatly appreciated for clearing out my headspace, is just not the same as purposefully, artistically, creating something in the open. It is soothing to write for oneself, but it is empowering to write for an audience.

Writing for an audience requires several things:

  1. A calm, analytical mind to synthesize different ideas together,
  2. Time to reflect and time to compose, and
  3. An interesting life

All three of these things are in high demand, by me, for me. Summer life can quickly be boggled down in tedium and needless repetitive pattern, and without any motivation, I could simply get into the day-in, day-out groove of programming and data analysis. While this is more than fine, it would be more *fun* to really seek new experiences out every single day, to enrich myself in methods that I have not thought of before. Knowing that I need to write about (something/anything) every few days will keep me more aware. If nothing else, I would be more cognitive of my surroundings, looking for a story.

It is like looking at the world through the viewfinder of a camera versus just aimlessly gazing around. Through the peephole, you diligently search for the best vantage point, the best place to tell your story. Otherwise, your eyes flicker from sight to sight, never focusing on one thing and even perhaps losing the bigger picture.

Of course, the immediate counter-argument is that taking those photographs/writing those blogs subtracts from the pure, unadulterated experience of simply existing. But I believe that I have simply existed for far too long, and that I can do with a bit more focus. And after all, it is not as if I am super-gluing a camera to my glasses. Instead, it is as I am hanging a Polaroid around my neck. It gives me a tool to see the world in a new light, but doesn’t force anything on me.

Furthermore, I feel that my writing style has become… stilted in a way over the past year. Although I have been constantly producing work, it was in very different settings than a normal blog post or creative piece. I want to hone my investigative journalism skills, but I do not want to do it at the sacrifice of my own voice. I want my cake and have it too, and it just so happens that summer is the perfect time for that.

So starting from this upcoming week, I pledge to update at least twice a week, preferably by 10pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They could be short, slice-of-life moments that I want to document, or longer, more thoughtful #DeepDives about some topic that I want to have a discussion about. Whatever it takes to get those creative juices flowing again. And hopefully, by the end of the summer, I will have something to truly reflect about once more.

Treading Through Storied Grounds

The stones on Old Campus are jagged and uneven, ever the more evident after rain fills in the small pockets within. Traveling from one end to another, I fumble and trip over my clumsy feet, where my toes and soles have discovered a new crevasse in this sprawling lawn. The Earth whispers, who do you think you are? to run across this land of mystery and hope in such a panic, not realizing where you are?

On overcast days, it is easy to slide into the mud here, where life would be so much easier than trudging through stacks upon stacks of knowledge. But truly, there is no difference between the tombs of Sterling and the rocks of OC; the same people have contributed to both. These rough pavements were made rough by generations of students treading through storied grounds, adding (and subtracting) their own piece into it. I am not the first to stumble, and certainly, I am not the first to get back up. The tales that this campus can tell! I can only wonder – is my plight anything like Maya Lin’s, or Bill Clinton’s, or Samuel Morse’s, or Jonathan Edwards’s?

But walking today, with a pound of strawberries and lightness in my hands, I can only wonder. At the monumentality of the oaks, at the graciousness where the dorms touch the skies touch the students. I will keep my head lifted high, yearning for how these grounds will change me and how I will change them.

You do you

Wise advice is a dime a dozen here on campus, where all the upperclassmen rush to stop freshman from making their same mistakes. “Don’t take more than five credits.” “Keep a balanced diet” or “Don’t rub that statue’s shiny shoe; people pee there.” Seniors, shocked at how fleetingly their “Bright College Years” have passed, try to put as much of themselves into the school as they can. Upperclassmen, even sophomores, remember the neuroses that emerge as campus living begins, seeking to ease the fears with some sage words. But by far, the most valuable advice thus far has been: you do you.

As the moonlight rose in the woods of western Massachusetts, our FOOT group gathered around a dying fire and spoke truly from the heart. The mountains have torn us down and built us up, where the wild air mixed with smelly socks to create brotherhood between all of the campers. With the deep bonds that united us, we could speak as free as the birds in the sky. The conversation pivoted towards great regrets, and soon, this gem of advice emerged. If only I could have been more of myself during the opening days of school. If only I didn’t need to imitate others … if only I could be me … if only …

The most striking part of this advice was how different it was from everything else I had heard. Advice, by definition, is a recommendation on what to do in the future. It needs to come from authority or have some gravitas to influence someone else’s life, or even someone’s worldview. Yet, a recommendation to /ignore/ advice, to just be yourself? Instead of viewing it as a cliched phrase, seriously consider what being yourself means on a larger scale. It requires you to first understand your own identity, and then execute it in all that you do – quite the real challenge.

On several of my applications, I wrote that my biggest challenge would be my stubborness. When I believed that I was right about something, I would often charge blindly ahead, shutting out all those who were horrified by my abrasiveness or rudeness. It would be difficult for me to accept another opinion, and only after quiet and deep reflection, would I be able to come to terms with it. While all this is true, it is not my biggest flaw – though, flaw isn’t the best terminology to use. Instead, I hate most that I do not have a solid core identity, that I go with the flow, that I melt into the background, that I don’t speak firmly for myself. Rather than taking time to understand who I was, I would be much happier being the projected image of who I should be, according to others or even to who I wanted myself to be. Rather than creating original works, I would be much happier first understanding the work of other’s and then modifying it. Rather than use unique grammar, I would be much happier with repetition, because repetition was always clear, it would always be classic and right.

I had this epitome while I was meeting new students on campus, beyond the haze of awkwardness and self-evaluation. I would always be open and excited to meet somebody, anybody, for the first time, but it would be a struggle to stay with them for an extended period of time. I always thought myself as a social butterfly for that reason, but perhaps it is instead because I am a social recluse? Meeting anyone for the first time is a science that can be perfected, given enough tries and sufficient confidence. A re-imagined self emerges with each greeting, another facet of the soul. No single introduction is false in any way, but it picks up on the subtle clues of the conversation to be altered just enough to be comfortable. Continued conversation required real character. It needs a heart and soul behind the easy speaking of chitchat. I’ve written on getting beyond small talk, but ironically it seems like small talk is all I’m capable of any more. I’ve lost sight of myself in trying to make others feel comfortable. I’ve lost control of the motivations, the realness within me.

Rediscovering identity is an aimless journey of no benchmarks or markers along the way. It’s the most terrifying thing that I can imagine at this point, because whatever comes out from the journey, you’re stuck with. You can’t just choose to reject identity; you can cover over it, minimize it, seclude it, but never reject it. Identity is part of yourself, and it isn’t something that changes quickly. Perhaps I’m scared of what I would find when I examine that identity. Behind all of the labels and behind all of the accolades, who am I?

But perhaps this is a ridiculous question to ask. Noone exists in a vaccuum, so why am I obsessed with discovering such an identity? Literature exists in relationship to all other printed word, whether it be borrowing or creating. Books and style come only from time, as the good is nourished and the bad is pruned. Eventually, something would emerge, something with a mix of all the mistakes and eurekas of the past. In that distant future, these doubts and worries would blend and soften into a rosy image. Those bright days of the past! How quickly they would go! But living through it is a different matter – living with the self-doubt, the FOMOs, the awkward conversations.

But soon, I will be me.

Reflections upon Reflections

NB: A backlogged post from reflections prior to entering college. Written with a strong tone of Pirsig and an aftertaste of coffee. Enjoy.

Crystalline smooth surfaces have me staring at my face, even as I seek to gaze below the surface of the tranquil pond. The quiet of dawn, the inner peace found through nature, surrounds and calms me through and through. These past two weeks, I have been reflecting upon my past high school life, seeking to divine what the future has in store. But tonight, with the Perseids lighting up the sky, I reflect with peace and serenity.

Seattleites sure love talking about the weather, but it’s not hard to see why. The abruptness of a summer storm with dark beauty in its thundering clouds, sweeps over the region and raises petrichor from the ground. As the hail beats the dry caked ground, I look up in vain at the morose skies. Every astronomical event has been ruined by the glum Seattle atmosphere, every blood moon and meteor sighting. Now, just days away till I leave for a new haven, the clouds would block me out once more for the Perseids, a spectacular meteor shower made all-the-more better with the new moon. No matter. I would stay through the darkness, praying to catch a glimpse regardless of what I see right now.

Around 11, I get a message from David. “Hey did the meteor shower end?” he asks, just as I’m about to settle for a quick nap. “Not yet- hasn’t even started haha” I type back, hoping that he would be able to stay up and see these shooting stars. In a few more lines, my eyes widen. David is at Mount Rainier tonight, which is not only the most magnificently round dumpling in the Washington forests, but also the best dark sky area in the Pacific Northwest. Although jealous, I quickly guide him to the location of a star party at the Sunrise Visitor Center, hoping that he could get to witness this amazing experience. After all, that’s all I can do for all of my friends. All of us at Interlake have been together for such a long time that I have nothing but goodwill for each one of them as they journey forwards. I believe that Interlake doesn’t have the cutthroat competition that may be found in other top notch schools because we are all so intertwined in the stories that we have and the goals in our future. Now, as we scatter like dust upon the wind, I can no longer hold on to their comfort. But. I can always rely on them to surprise and cheer me up, in thousands of minute ways in the future.

I nap, trying to desperately charge my own batteries, but as 2 am swings by, I leap outwards. armed with sky charts and blankets, the inky black skies seem to invite me outwards with a gentle rustle and nip. The gloomy clouds have begun to clear up to become a truly beautiful night, the rare combination of new moon and clear skies. Perhaps the best that Seattle can ever get to. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I drag out my telescope onto the driveway along with the armchair and hot tea. Might as well bring out the big guns! But as I lug the giant polished mirror, too awkward for a single person, I struggle and think of the difficulties ahead. In a few short days, I will be on my own, without any loving parent to assist me. As I painfully piece together the assembly in the dark, I think of how there have always been gentle hands guiding me in the past. And as I discover, to my great dismay, that I am now missing a small but crucial adaptor, I am reminded of the care that mom and dad always had when things didn’t succeed. I sigh, and slowly disassemble and lug each part back. This will just be a calm observational night, no fancy pictures.

I kick back into my lawn chair, strategically placed to block out streetlights with the. It is 2:45, and I calm myself down in a half meditative way. Sky watching is a whole lot like fishing- you never really know where the next meteor will come from, so all you can do is to get a feel for it. You sit and stare and try not to strain your eyes in any particular direction, because you know that while the center of your eyes are good for color detection, it’s the sides that are important now for bright streaks. Sitting still and not falling asleep in the dark, I elect for a period of silence.

Truly, I had done so much reflecting over the past summer. From family in China to friends in the US, every exchange is markedly predictable. Am I ready? Am I excited? And yet, even after answering these personal questions nearly by rote, I’m still not sure where my heart resides. There is just a small hiccup, where my perceptions of the world just mismatches with its reality. And so, quiet reflection has brought up those emotions bubbling to the surface once more. They rise and set continuously, of confusion and adrenaline, of anxiety and peace. Before long, I realize that they are all two faces of the same coin. Or are they the same face of two coins? Does it matter?

Slowly, lazily drifting, a speck of light moves across my field of vision, bringing me out of my stupor. It’s far too fast for any plane or star, but several magnitudes slower than any shooting star. I watch it with amazement as this dot represents a miracle in engineering. Humans have sent so many satellites into orbit that Low Earth Orbit is as crowded as I-405, but I am reminded of the first satellite. As Spurnik slowly pinged across the world, families looked up in amazement, as a bit of humanity, a bit of us, has joined the heavens above. The satellite- I think it’s the ISS judging from its speed and size- moves with purpose but deliberation. Each part of the behemoth structure knows what must be done to further humanity’s probes into the unknown. I can only hope that I can follow such an example. Would I be able to have that kind of nonstop attitude, even as the fire dies down? Could I be a consistently hardworking student? Most importantly, could I do good (not well)?

Without warning, a flash catches my eye. The first meteor of the night- a baby, lasting just a second. While small, the intensity startles me. In usual stargazing sessions, one never gets these beautiful streaks. This is because it’s only after midnight that the majority of meteors are visible, as the earth finally faces in the right direction. This was worth the wait.

Soon, another. And another. And yet another. They fall, not as plentiful as rain, but just sparse enough to make each one a treasure of its own. Each one has a different characteristic- some streak across the span of several constellations, while others are more like an Iridium flare than a comet. If only we could view our own lives as short as a shooting star- but in the grand scale, we occupy a far shorter fraction of time. Looking up, I see that there is no shooting star that is markedly better than another. Each brings a different type of joy, a different type of sweetness. But every one of them shines bright. Oh, so bright.

As my natural eyes wander from constellation, I also have a digital eye watching, ready to capture. 3 am and I stir from the chair, ready to set it up for some star trails. Because as the Earth turns, the fixed stars stand still, calmly pointing humanity forwards. Yet, we have the audacity to believe that we are fixed and they move. In a star trail, a time lapse is taken over the course of hours, and frame by frame, an outline emerges. It is a view that can only be gained with the progression of time. A capture of both time and space in one single compiled photo. It is beautiful. Some things cannot be seen in the moment; they take time to build and build, each step infinitesimally small but ultimately creating an incredible product. It’s been said that true genius is recognize potential in a seed, but I believe it is true wisdom to patiently nurture that seed into a great tree. Nothing can beat time- to heal, to mature, to grow.

All will come in due time.

The hour hand ticks past four, and a rustle emerges from the house. A bushy head of hair pops out the front door, squinting in the darkness. My dad, with his superb sleep schedule that better fits small islands in the Atlantic Ocean than Seattle, wakes up and checks on me. In another 10 minutes, he is bundled up too, coming out to this rare and beautiful night to gaze with me. We sit in silence, with interspersed oos and ahs as streaks pass by. There is no need for talk; enough is said in the silence. This is the man who has raised me, seen me through the good and the bad. No need for small talk here.

What more is to be said to someone who had heard it all? Leaving friends is sad; leaving family is impossible. No matter how much bickering will ever exist, their blood runs through my veins, hot and heavy. Wherever I go, their influence carried me along, making me think harder, push farther, and love deeper. My first teachers, counselors, and friends, my family is always here for me. And now I must leave them.

We stay up far later than we should, late enough to see the rising of a deep winter constellation in mid Fall. Orion rises from the East, chasing after those mystical creatures, on the eternal chase of the gods. His jeweled belt was the first I ever recognized, as a young and impressionable kid in Knoxville. That first memory, of finally looking up and just seeing it’s shape, has always stayed with me. There is not a sensation more powerful than the first time you feel the infinite vastness of the universe before your eyes, and here it comes again. This mythos had carried me far beyond my imagination. I give chase after their secrets, and in return, they provide infinite more questions to ponder.

But the rise of Orion is simultaneous with the rise of a star far better known. It is 5AM, and our sun starts to make its way up. There is much time before the orb of light and life peaks above the horizon, but already, it’s effects can be seen. The dimmest stars of Perseus and Auriga fade, so slowly that I doubt the integrity of my own eyes at first. But there is no stopping it. We do not doubt the rise of the sun for two reasons: it has risen a million times before, and that out science has shown the existence of a ball of fire that our little rock slowly revolves and rotates around. My educational training will bring me to more explanations of the latter variety, but I take solace in the former. This is how it has been done for millennia; this is how it will be done for millennia more.

The bleaching of the sky wipes the stars out one by one, slowly at first, then all at once until only the brightest remain. The night has ended with the might of the sun, but that’s alright too. A new day brings different challenges, not better or worse. Just different. There will always be another dusk to return to the memories of the night; there will always be another dawn to bring back light. Is my departure the sunset of one journey, or the sunrise of another? But that’s just semantics. My heart is at peace- and that is enough.

Just as I head in, one more flash surprises me. An ambitious shooting star has raced against the sun, and won. It was the longest streak I had seen all night- brilliant and proud, the meteor refuses to go quietly into the night. It will be seen; it will be!

This night etches itself into my memory with the sharpness of an Exacto knife. It cuts in with emotion and reality, commanding me to live life. All my reflections are in the skies above; all the heavens are mirrored in my thoughts. As long as there are stars in the sky and wonder in my heart, I will be fine.

I will live.
I will love.
I will reflect.