Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.

“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

“Little Soldiers”: American Schools and Chinese Schools

Much has been written about the growing disparity between the test scores of Chinese and American students – especially in science and math. Yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News carried a preview of a new book titled Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I naturally checked Amazon for the book. I was pleased to find that the book became available that very day. Based on the impressive newspaper review of the book and the author’s obvious writing ability, I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it, soon.

Why am I so interested in the general subject of students and their education? For two reasons: First, I was fortunate to be the first in my entire family tree to attend and graduate from college – many years ago (B.S. Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, 1963). Second, my wife and two grown daughters all taught/teach school. Accordingly, I have a great appreciation of the benefits from a good education as well as the difficulties teachers, today, encounter in school classrooms.

What are those difficulties in American schools? The core of the problems centers on poor student attitudes toward school and learning and too much leeway given to students, their parents, and school administrators – at the expense of teachers, classroom discipline, and effective education. I offer a concrete example.

My oldest daughter teaches in grades 1-3 in the public schools. In each of her classes for the last three years, she has been saddled with a different and singularly difficult student, one who sapped much of her time and energy each day in class and after class. Each of these youngsters would, in past years, have been cited as special education students – students with significant learning/attention/ behavior disabilities. Today’s educational philosophies embrace the policies of “mainstreaming,” or “inclusion” whereby such challenged students are placed in regular classes as opposed to special education classes where small classes of special needs students are capably handled by trained special-ed teachers. The thinking behind this recent policy of inclusion? Immersion in a regular class will benefit the disadvantaged student by minimizing stigma while conditioning the other students’ understanding and empathy toward those with problems.

The reality? A regular classroom which accommodates a special needs student with significant learning/attention/behavior problems is often a nightmare for the teacher and a detriment to the learning environment for the other students. One such student my daughter has encountered continually disrupted the class with unprovoked behaviors such as screaming, throwing objects at the other students (and the teacher), kicking other students and sometimes bolting from the classroom. Heeding directives from the teacher seemed void of priority.

The moral of that story: One child who should not be in a “regular” classroom, is accommodated by today’s educational system in America at the expense of all the other capable students in the classroom who suffer from continual distractions and lost teaching time during the school day. Even a full-time aide who can whisk the child from the classroom when that student “loses it” cannot prevent repeated and significant learning distractions for the rest of the class. The best hope for the teacher: After many weeks have passed and a bureaucratic battery of tests on the student indicates obvious severe learning/behavioral problems, the child might be removed from the classroom. In China, the teacher with such a behavior problem would have full discretion to immediately and permanently remove that student from class – no testing, no bureaucracy, no parental approval required. The teacher in China knows what is best for the class as a whole, and that is what counts in China. This is the “Chinese way” of education philosophy. It brings to mind an old Japanese proverb which states that “the nail that protrudes, gets hammered down.” Needless to say, that approach is a 180 degree departure from the current American way which would admonish that “the protruding nail be protected at all costs.”

The author of Little Soldiers, Lenora Chu is the American mother of two young boys whose family is residing in Shanghai, China; she experienced, first hand, the highly reported, high-achieving school system in Shanghai when one of her sons attended school, there. One experience she relates in the book supports the contentions I raise in this post concerning the authority vested in China’s schoolteachers. Ms. Chu’s son was struggling with winter asthma attacks which necessitated a rescue inhaler to deal with his attacks. When teacher Chen was approached by Ms. Chu who asked where her son could keep his inhaler in the classroom, the teacher responded that the inhaler and its use in class would create unwelcome distractions for the class and thus was not allowed. When Ms. Chu asked what she and her son’s options were, the teacher informed her that she could leave the school if not satisfied. Imagine that in America! Ms. Chu realized that “going to the principal” would not change matters given the authority the system grants to classroom teachers in China. Fortunately, the boy’s asthma problem was resolved thanks to a home-administered preventative steroid inhaler.

Here are my conclusions regarding the discussion so far:

-American schools have suffered greatly from the growing lack of teacher authority in the classroom. Most of us retired folks recall our parents going into requested teacher/parent conferences ready and willing to relegate top priority to the teacher’s remarks and to their side of the story. Today, too many parents enter into discussions prepared to defend their student’s version of events despite what the teacher has to say: The “Johnny can do no wrong” syndrome is alive and well in America, but certainly not in China.

-American schools must reverse the trend and put the interests of the majority of students ahead of those individual students who require special help. I am all for funding special education classes and teachers who can help those students with severe problems, but does it make any sense to try to “include” them in regular classrooms when, by definition, they will not be able to keep pace there and will detract from the learning experience of students ready, able, and willing to learn? In that respect, the Chinese have their priorities straight.

-My family’s combined educational experiences, here, in California’s tech-savvy “Silicon Valley,” have shown that Asian and Indian students tend to display greater focus and discipline in their approach to school and education than do other students. I believe this is the by-product of cultural influences which emphasize a respect for learning and knowledge. It is an attitude formed primarily by parental and peer example and it influences students positively, especially at an early age.

-My two granddaughters are currently students in high school and junior high. They are excellent students who work hard and spend many long hours on homework assignments each week. I know that for a fact. They attend good schools which have excellent achievement records. They DO experience self-imposed and peer-imposed pressure to do well in their studies, but even their experiences likely pale in comparison to those students in Shanghai, China who face extreme pressure from home and from society to excel in school.

-I favor taking the best of both worlds which define American and Chinese education. I believe teachers in America should have much more authority in their classrooms and more respect from students, parents, and administrators. Accordingly, better pay and greater prestige for teachers should serve to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Students should come to class with a “learning attitude” which can best be nurtured at home; often in America, this is not the case.

-The Chinese system is too demanding and disciplined, overall. The fallout rate (failure rate for life, essentially) of students is unacceptable. Regrettably, the extreme discipline and enforced learning of the Chinese system can easily strangle student curiosity and creative thought, and the presence of those two key factors is the real key to an optimal educational experience for students.

I have only begun to touch upon the issues important in any discussion of students, schools, and education. So much of successful learning by students emanates not from the schools and teachers, but from parents/guardians and the home environment. Unbridled curiosity is the key catalyst for success in school. My book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning explores that concept in detail. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.
My book is not only for parents whose students are underperforming in school, but also for new and prospective parents who wish to instill a “learning attitude” in their children. And, yes, for you parents who are wondering, I write at length about the student distractions of today – namely cell phones and social media!

Click on the link below to find my book on Amazon:

Alan’s book at Amazon

A Lasting Presence Amid a Sea of Constant Change

Is it not a comfort to find something in this life of constant and rapid change that bucks the tide? For me, it most certainly is – but why is that?

The cloistered, open-air sandstone hallways of Stanford University contain a number of interesting things, but one unlikely candidate has left an indelible impression upon my sensibilities.

This finely-tiled drinking fountain was a gift of Stanford’s class of 1926. For almost ninety-one years, tucked away from view in a corner of the arched hallways which surround the school’s “inner quadrangle,” this little jewel has rebuffed the onslaught of efficient, modern, stainless steel replacement plumbing…and I am so glad for it. And it is still functional, reliably delivering a sprightly stream of cool drinking water upon command – despite its advanced age.

Linda and I had visited the nearby Stanford Museum (now known as the Cantor Arts Center) last week. As we walked from there to the campus bookstore, we cut through the inner quad, the focal point of the university campus. I took this picture as we turned into the surrounding hallway, and, as has been the case since 1960 when I first enrolled as a student, the fountain was still there, unchanged and right where it was supposed to be. The experience for me is akin to happily greeting an old, dear friend once again who is defying age and still doing fine – looking good despite the many years.

We First “Met” in 1960

I retain a somewhat fuzzy yet stubbornly persistent recollection of first encountering that colorful old fountain and pausing for a drink during my first week as a student in the fall of 1960. As I recall that Saturday afternoon, I was crossing campus on my way to the women’s dorm to pick up a girl named Virginia, my Saturday afternoon date to my first Stanford football game as a student. The University of Wisconsin was the opponent that day in the contest held in 90,000 seat Stanford Stadium, a half-mile walk across campus.

I remember pausing for a drink of water and subsequently encountering and greeting a recent acquaintance of mine who was passing by. As I turned to continue my journey to the women’s dorm, I cast a backward glance at the unusual, tiled fountain which had just satisfied my thirst. At that point – for whatever reason – I bookmarked the moment in the deeper recesses of my memory bank, and it has remained there ever since. Perhaps the euphoria of being a newly-arrived student on the Stanford campus on a football Saturday was the catalyst.

For sure, the memory of that moment and that location (the fountain) is still subject to immediate recall after, lo, these many years. I have always been intrigued by events of the past – the power of time and place in our lives, and that incident and that place have somehow stood the test of time – fifty-seven years, to be exact.

Hopefully, I can still manage to amble past that very spot on Stanford’s inner quad twenty years from now and renew my acquaintance, yet again, with that same unassuming, yet satisfying campus landmark. I hope it will remain just as it was and is in 1926, and 1960, and 2017, immune to the ravages of time and change, even though I surely will not be so fortunate.

Inclusion, Not Diversity: Martin Luther King’s Most Enduring Quote and Legacy

There is a new trend afoot in America’s racial/ethnic relationships which draws from the message inherent in my favorite quote of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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The new catchword in America today is “inclusion” as opposed to “diversity.” On one level, diversity in America is a good thing; on another level, it is not. King’s quote for the ages has been widely interpreted by liberals and conservatives, alike, often in support of their own viewpoints and agendas. I feel I can best express the point of this post by stating my own personal attitude re: King’s expressed hope.

For me, categorizing whole groups of people according to impressions or statistical norms is not where I am or where I want to be. Although that is not to say that well-documented ethnic socio/economic realities have no validity or value as remedies for social issues, statistical generalizations should carry no weight when it comes to one-on-one interpersonal relationships across racial/ethnic lines. Whether friend, associate, customer, salesperson, handyman, or casual acquaintance, my governing impression of another person centers first and foremost on their perceived character. Color of skin, accent, clothing, etc. have no effect on my relationship with that person once a level of mutual respect, good will, and trust has been established. Dr. King’s “content of character” phrase resonates loudly and clearly.

That approach, to me, is the very kernel of the meaning of “inclusion.” First and foremost, inclusion implies membership in the fraternity of all human beings possessing good character and a willingness to better themselves through hard work. Demonstrating those qualities should be – no, must be – sufficient to guarantee acceptance by all quarters of American society regardless of one’s race, or cultural background. Inclusion in that sense seeks to blur lines of division among us whereas diversity tends to emphasize or at least retain them.

The extent to which America can embrace Dr. King’s character-based vision or not will determine the future of race relations in this country. King’s criteria for judging people imposes a significant mandate on minorities as well as on mainstream, white America. While being other than white should never impose societal barriers nor foster discrimination, neither should it provide a convenient umbrella for sheltering those who would not measure up using Dr. King’s “content of character” yardstick.

I believe that a diverse America makes for a more interesting and dynamic society than does population homogeneity and that the historical roles of the Native-American, the African-American, and the great immigrations from Ireland, Italy, Poland, etc. should be an integral part of our country’s history. In that vein, such diversity should increasingly become more a facet of purely historical interest and significance and less a political wedge than is currently the case. And America must learn the valuable lessons inherent in that history.

The societal problems of America will not be solved by top-down governmental policies coming from Washington; lasting solutions can emerge only from a grass-roots, person-to-person embrace of Martin Luther King’s entreaty, that all our peoples will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Trumping even the central message of Dr. King’s great “I have a dream” speech is the (hopefully) governing tenet of all organized religion which beseeches us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

hr-icrcm-stools1In contrast to the social distinctions highlighted by focusing on diversity, a true national unity based on the spirit of brotherhood and the pursuit of common goals is necessary to carry the day. That is the message of “inclusion” as opposed to that of “diversity” which too often emphasizes our divisions.

Opposite: The original lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina where, on February 1, 1960, four black college students took their seats and demanded service at the then-segregated counter. More recently, the store has been a museum celebrating the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement which took place there.

The Coming Decline of College and Professional Football; The Resurgence of Track and Field

The decline of college and professional football as we know it is now underway and fast gaining momentum. The reality is undeniable – virtually a “no-brainer.” Here are the key reasons for the trend:

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Football, especially at the college and professional levels, is a dangerous sport. In the professional ranks, football played over a career lasting more than seven years often exacts severe penalties in the form of lifelong disabilities, minor and major. Listen carefully and heed the testimonials of many professional players who retire in their thirties and live the rest of their long lives enduring disability and pain from the injuries and general wear-and-tear suffered during their football careers.

The most recent data regarding the cognitive effects of concussions and repeated head trauma is the most damaging of all to the future of the game. “Better helmet design” is not a viable solution to this problem. One might be tempted to rationalize the problem by invoking the arguments that not all players suffer cognitive issues later in life, and there will always be professional athletes willing to trade the risks for a lucrative career. One might argue that embracing football’s risks is one of the grown-up choices one makes in life – let the athletes decide! But football’s dilemma is not that simple.

Here is what will happen – is already happening – that portends the decline of the sport: Parents will increasingly be unwilling to expose their young students, at the high school level and earlier, to the risks football entails.

Without active high school programs to function as a junior farm system for the colleges and universities, the pool of talented college athletes will diminish. Without enough good athletes participating in high-visibility college/university programs, the professional level will suffer. Simply put, the current popularity and “success” of football at the college and professional levels cannot survive a crumbling foundation at the high school level, and that is precisely the current trend as parents and students weigh the risks and order their life-priorities. The turn-out for high school football has notably declined in the past two years since concussion data has been made public.

MONEY: Yes, the root of much if not all evil! When is the last time you have attended a major college football game? Was it a great experience, well worth the individual ticket price of $40 to $90 for mediocre seats? As a life-long college football fan following, among others, my alma mater, Stanford University, here is a summation of my experiences with the college game:

-Very high ticket prices today even for mediocre seats, most all of which are now “reserved.” Gone are the general admission end-zone seats which were, until recently, readily available on game day for a family-friendly price of $15.

-Want to bring your youngsters to a college game despite the high cost? Gone also are the sun-drenched Saturday afternoon game days at places like Stanford Stadium, the setting for so many of my football memories involving great players and big games. Today, you and your children will more likely than not be filing into a college stadium for a 7 pm game on a cool fall evening – bed-times for your children be damned. For the first several decades of its existence, the old Stanford Stadium seating 80,000 did not even have lights!

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Stadium-goers can thank television, the sports networks, and big money for relegating the truest and most faithful fans to second-class status. Games today are scheduled exclusively for television and the big money the networks bring to the athletic conferences and schools.

-Oh, and speaking of television: For fans attending the game, expect, in addition to exorbitant parking fees these days, lots of dead-time throughout the game in order to parade the line-up of lengthy television commercials. Games today are drawn-out affairs because of this. Not so very long ago, the infrequent sight of television vans outside Stanford Stadium was exciting, indicative of national attention on a particularly important game to be played that afternoon. Today, PAC 12 conference games are routinely televised; no longer is that a plus for the fans in attendance. Rather, it is bad news for the reasons just cited. Bottom line: Too many games on television, too much exposure, too much money in the sport…just TOO much!

-The last, but certainly not the least of issues: The charade of college football as a sport played by “student-athletes” simply cannot be ignored even by the most die-hard of fans. The reality today is that many college/university football programs are more representative of an NFL farm system for aspiring professional athletes than a legitimate student-athlete endeavor. Graduation rates for football and basketball players are pitifully poor for many colleges and universities – even some “elite” ones. I am pleased that Stanford University is not one of those whose athletes are “in school” to play ball. Stanford runs an exemplary athletic program despite being caught in the cross-currents of today’s money/sports realities.

The Money

-A sure indicator of the excesses inherent in today’s system is the fact that the highest paid employee at the big football schools is…the head football coach! Salaries in the millions of dollars are becoming common. Neither the presidents of those same universities nor renowned Nobel laureate professors on the faculty come close to earning as much as the head coach at the big football factories. Success on the football field translates into big bucks for the school from influential alumni donors who live vicariously vis-à-vis football success on game-day, ethics be-damned. The whole situation is really quite pathetic and hypocritical! Click on the two links at the end of this post to previous blog posts of mine which cover the corrosive effects of money on football today in more detail.

Take Care of Your Body, Especially the Brain and Knees!

A00680F01[1]Have you ever sat in a doctor’s exam room waiting for his/her arrival and noticed the anatomy charts which are often present on the walls? Inevitably I am amazed at the miraculous intricacies that reside within the eye, the inner ear, and even the knee. The knee: A remarkable example of bio-engineering, is it not? Whenever I see the “knee picture,” I cannot help but shudder in revulsion at the thought of the damage a bad football hit can and very frequently does inflict on such a remarkable natural creation. Were I the parent of young boys, I would discourage them from playing tackle football for the sake of their knees alone. I am the grandfather of two young boys, quite certain that their parents will not support football as a sporting activity for either of them. What are the alternatives?

The Resurgence of Track and Field for Youngsters

I heard a news report the other day that high-school enrollments in track and field now exceed declining football enrollments for the very first time. Nothing could please me more as a former high-school hurdler on the San Mateo High track team…way back in 1958! The present trend reflects both the new concerns with football and a re-discovery of the virtues inherent in the sport of track and field. Youth soccer has already made great inroads as an alternative to football, but I see track and field as the long-ignored venue that offers even more variety and opportunity to young athletes. I was dismayed while watching the Rio Olympics that so many track events were run to less than capacity crowds. That never was the case in my day and probably would not have occurred in a European Olympic venue. Track has been off the radar screen for a long time in the USA, but all good things have a habit of returning to favor. I believe that track and field’s time has come again as a great alternative to youth football.

When I was in high school, track and field had an avid following in this country. In 1962, my father and I attended the two-day track meet held in Palo Alto, California between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition engendered huge national/international interest and filled the old Stanford Stadium to its 80,000 seat capacity for both days. I was thrilled to witness the Russian star, Valery Brumel, set the then-world record in the high-jump at seven feet, five inches.

500c3ff4d4f90.image[1]I was recently surprised when my eldest granddaughter, Megan, announced she was attending track camp this past summer. She has just entered high school this fall and plans to run track, possibly the hurdles – like Grandpa! Megan worked hard all summer on conditioning at track camp, and I was impressed by her dedication and the fact that other of her friends were also going out for track. I suspect Megan and her friends are fashionably riding the cusp of a new wave – the coming resurgence of track and field as a great sport for youngsters – boys and girls. Nothing would please me more.

My Favorite Track Event: The High Hurdles

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Me – Burlingame High Track, 1958                              Liu Xiang – Athens, 2004

 

Click on the links, below, to go to the post archives on my Home page for these pertinent posts:

-College Football Today: Running Toward the Wrong Goal (9/1/13)

-Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students? (11/1/14)

-Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports (2/2/14)