Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Atlantic Interviews Radia Perlman

Another wonderful profile. Once again, the excerpt is about her childhood:

Tell me about growing up. Were you always interested in science and technology?

Both my parents were engineers working for the U.S. government. My father worked on radar; my mother was a computer programmer. Her title was “mathematician.”

As for me, growing up near Asbury Park, NJ, I always liked logic puzzles and I found math and science classes in school effortless and fascinating. However, I did not fit the stereotype of the “engineer.” I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts.

I was also interested in artsy things. I loved classical music and played piano and French horn. I also loved writing, composing music, and art. When there were group projects at school, other students probably had mixed feelings about being in my group. On the plus side, we’d almost certainly get an A. On the minus side, I’d wind up making the project into much more work than the teacher was really requiring. So, for instance, one time our group was supposed to do a book report on something and I turned it into a musical puppet show, composing the music, and having the group make the puppets and scenery and perform it for the class.

But speaking of grades, for some reason I really cared about getting all As. This definitely wasn’t because of pressure from my parents. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much. Or if I’d gotten a B at some point I wouldn’t have worried so much about my “perfect record”. But because of this obsession with A’s, most of my studying consisted of doing what I hated and was really bad at…memorizing meaningless (to me) dates and names for history class. I’d extract all the “facts” from the reading that might be on the test, memorize them, with my mother quizzing me on them to make sure I knew them all. Then I’d do well on the test, and 10 minutes after the test my brain wisely “cleaned house” and all memory of any of it was gone. Then something might come up on the news and my mother would say “Oh, you were just studying that,” and I’d look at her blankly, because it was completely cleared from my memory.

Although I love writing, my obsession with grades made me more drawn into science and math, because I could control what grade I got just by knowing the right answer. English made me nervous because of the subjective grading.