Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Applied XKCD

When Facebook Questions first started, I had a crack at it, trying to provide some insightful answers for the community. I remember coming across the query: "What is the most important academic field for our future successes as a nation?" In other words, what should we study? As the topic was something I often asked myself, I was compelled to leave a reply.

In November of 2010, I suggested an answer: Politics. I went on to argue that we simply couldn't have "teachers, or engineers, or anything else unless the government is willing to support it ... [W]e need people to study politics, so that they can continue to create schools, projects, and policies that allow us to thrive. Once government is in place, we can move on to more advanced fields - education, sciences, arts."

Thinking back on that answer, I pause. It's not a bad argument; you can pretty much walk up to anyone and say, "You wouldn't have your job if the lawmakers hadn't structured our society the way they have." Engineers would have no bridges to design if the infrastructure wasn't commissioned, business couldn't operate without zoning rights and patents, etc. But surely politics depends, in turn, on other fields?

The train of thought got me thinking about an old XKCD comic. The panel essentially argues that mathematics is the purest field, upon which all else is based.

"Purity" by XKCD (Randall Munroe)

While I haven't quite reached Randall's artistic talent, I thought I'd take a crack at my own, improved version. I sketched in pencil, scanned, and did a bit of Photoshop touch-up. I either need to start tracing the pencil with ink before scanning, or get Adobe Illustrator with Live Trace, which I'm told converts raster line drawings to vector images (making my lines a lot smoother and taking out any unwanted smudges). Then again, I'm looking into getting a USB Graphics Tablet, which would allow me to draw right to the computer. For now, though, this is what I've come up with:

"Interdependence" by Peacelight

I have to disagree with Randall's linear portrayal; all of the academic fields depend upon one another. We could probably draw a web of connections from each point to each other; the politician cannot breathe without biology, but the biologist cannot complete stem cell research without approval. In our society, everyone depends on everyone else; there is no source, no purity. The sociologist at the start of the XKCD cartoon isn't looking off into the distance; she's looking back at someone else, and there's a big long loop going way outside the frame. There has to be. I refuse to believe that that one profession is going to supersede any other.

In fact, I'm becoming more and more sure of that. In recent discussions with friends and family, I've come to believe that anyone, working any job, is going to be capable of making a difference. You don't need to find the perfect career path to reach your potential; you'll reach that potential anyway. The most important people who have influenced our world have come from every discipline and background; scientists, activists, artists, everyone.

Yes, this all helps me feel better about my liberal arts education while the kids over at Tufts Engineering are off training to become high-paid specialists. But it can make them feel better too. Everyone who interacts with anyone, however directly or indirectly, will matter to this world. If any one of the stick figures dropped out of my circle, there'd be a big issue.

Of course, I expect the physicist to drop out first. He's the most likely to remember that gravity shouldn't suspend them all in the air like that.

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