Guest Blog Post : To Nerd or not to Nerd ? by Fadl Saadi
Ah, I’ve had writers block for the last ten days. With a messed up IT band, I haven’t run in a month now. And not running really depresses me. Although it has its advantages – my swimming has improved considerably and I did meet my first goal for 2012. Plus, I’ve realized that planning to visit ten countries in one year is a super-time consuming task. Anyhow, back to pseudo-blogging with a guest post by Fadl Saadi (he blogs here). Fadl did his undergrad at Stanford and is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Caltech. Fadl is one of the funniest and most outrageous people I know – and the first undergrad I became friends with at Stanford. Sharing a common name and both having spent a good part of life in Dubai, we got along very well. The fact that he hung around with a cute Indian girl, gave me all the more reason to become his friend. I recently visited him at Caltech when I was there for a race, and was mildly amused to see a transformed Fadl – from the chilled, carefree Fadl to a more mature and apparently nerdy one. Read on, to find out the story of a person who has had the privilege of experiencing not one, but two amazing academic cultures.
“Dude, are you going to have any friends?”
I heard that question many times that week. “I’ll figure something out,” I’d reply, smiling weakly. I had just signed my twenties away to perhaps the nerdiest enclave in the world-Caltech. Caltech is famous for its brilliance, as well as its complete disregard to the understanding of human interaction. The irony was not lost on me that I was being asked this question in another haven for nerds, Stanford, but there was a difference. Stanford was home to the entrepreneur nerds, the nerds that dreamt of one day being the next Larry Page or the next Mark Zuckerberg. These nerds believed that they could change the world by finding a good idea and just going for it. The stereotype of a Caltech nerd is not like that at all. A Caltech nerd is a recluse. He (for it is almost always a he) is uninterested in dealing with the outside world and scoffs at the idea of creating a start up. No, the Caltech nerd is interested in science and math, not technology and progress. For the past five years I had gotten along pretty well with these entrepreneur nerds, these ‘sexiest’ of the geeks but would I be able to survive at Caltech?
Of course, I had many reasons to be thankful for this opportunity. I had been given the chance to work for a leader in my field in a large, wealthy lab that was filled with nice and immensely brilliant people. This was a complete turnaround from the year before where I had been summarily rejected from every graduate school I had applied to. It had been an extremely humbling experience and it had been hard for me to get up and try again. Ironically, this also had the consequence of steeling my resolve to get a PhD. My professor had sat me down one day, after all the rejections had arrived and asked me what were the chances that I would have a PhD in ten years times. “100%“ I replied without thinking. He looked at me, smiled and said, “Good. Now get working on it.“
So when the time came, I packed my bags and headed off to Caltech and set out to make some new friends. Here is the point in the story where people expect me to talk about how silly generalizations are and how students at Caltech weren’t really that different from anywhere else. But I’m not going to because it simply isn’t true. Those stereotypes that I had heard? They were basically all accurate! These students were reclusive nerds. They were the type to admire and love science and mathematics over all else. They weren’t interested that Facebook went public or that its IPO was 5 billion dollars. They didn’t care that a full-fledged revolution had broken out in Syria or that Sudan and South Sudan were locked in an increasingly escalating conflict. No, what they cared about was science. At first, I scoffed at these ignorant people. “Nerds,” I would mutter under my breath as I shook my head at them. But the more time I spent with them, the more I began to appreciate their dedication. They truly loved science. It wasn’t some sort of vehicle to riches or a means to an end. No, they honestly just loved learning more about how this wondrous world worked, and there was something truly magical about that.
Did I change and become like them? In part yes, but I realized that I had been that way when I was younger. I recalled an essay that I had written to colleges back when I was a young boy living in a small city in the UAE applying to these, almost magical, places in America. In this essay I had talked about my love for chemistry and how I loved learning about the complexity of the universe. I had seen science as the most convincing evidence of the divine and was frequently in awe over how the world worked. These reclusive “nerds” at Caltech – they still have that rare, innocent curiosity of youth, and I believe the world would be a better place if we all learned a bit from it.
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? ~ Richard P. Feynman
If you’re new here, this is the fifth awesome post in the series of guest blog posts. This experiment has been successful so far because of people like you. If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear from you. You’re welcome to write about anything under the sun. The more, the merrier. Drop me a line, and I’ll get back to you.
Coming from a muslim background, I really looked up to Fadl for so many things related to religion at Stanford. I vividly remember meeting him first after Friday prayer outside the Old Union during my first quarter here ( I was super-religious back then ). And then as time passed, our discussion shifted from the classroom to sitting outside in the grass and then to our local watering hole – Nolas. We would spend hours talking about relationships (I was in a long-distance relationship then), religion, parents, science, department gossip… pretty much everything. He was the one who introduced me to In-N-Out and the comedy channel on Pandora. I remember wondering how I’d pull off the Splash Magical Fluids class and handle a hundred kids – but I knew that Fadl was on board and I could rely on him – and he was there every single step from buying corn-starch from to cleaning up later. If you ever get a chance to visit Caltech and have a couple of hours to spend, I highly recommend looking up this curious character. I guarantee you the most amusing conversations you’ll ever have.