LIFE EXPERIMENTS


“Experimentation is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that there is simply no way of knowing without trying something different.”  Sendhil Mullainathan

I read this in the New York Times, somewhat surprised by that Mr. Mullainathan had yet to perform the experiment that he said would be an act of humility.  The experiment was whether or not to change the diet soda he was drinking, that’s all.  He did mention an example of a brief tube strike in London; when it ended, about one in 20 riders had found different means to get to work and got there faster.  The others resumed their old ways.  I don’t consider changing diet soda’s being a significant life experiment, but then again, I’ve kept shirts for 25 years.

Experimenting is a life style choice, not necessarily a virtue: my wife has had two major interests, aside from me and our cats.  The first is horses, which has been as close to lifelong as could be possible; the second, radiology, she spent 40 years doing before retiring.  Many of the new things she tried were through me, but horses and films are her world, where she has been content and extremely competent in both.  She is exceedingly good at considering new alternatives when I bring up issues in my life, priorities, or time.  Her father took up hobbies of carpentry, gardening, sailing and golf.  He tried them long enough until he was comfortable with his competence, and then he did something new.

I’m the same way.  I admit it takes me a while to change computers, morning habits, or routes to places I commonly go.  Habits are an efficient way to get things done, and most of my life I have had to be efficient.

When it comes to experimentation, however, I go far beyond what kind of diet soda I drink (none, for I gave it up years ago).  I even go beyond the experimentation with becoming vegetarian, which was a big change in my life 27 years ago, but hardly the biggest.  Or doing without caffeine and even alcohol.

In 1984, I saw three bright planets in the sky, thought others probably saw them as well and might wonder what they were. I wrote the newspaper, asking if they were interested in an astronomy column.  Not hearing back, which didn’t surprise me, I wrote again and finally called, reaching a staff member who asked for 3 different length columns, which I submitted for consideration.  I ended up writing 750 columns, self-illustrated, over a 20 year period.  I had no formal training in astronomy, but I knew how to observe, write, and find answers to questions, even before the Internet.

A few years later, at 43, I decided, not on a whim, that I was going to take a 6 month leave of absence from a busy neurology-neurosurgery group to go volunteer for the US Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.  I was going to be away from home, in a place where I had no reputation, nobody I knew, and a job I wasn’t at all sure I could do but thought I could and would like.  I suspect more than one of my colleagues thought I would be back at the office in a month, but I found I could do the work, loved it, became competent, stronger than ever before in my life, and left somewhat sad, because I knew I had a very special experience, one I would never repeat.

I then did another experiment after I returned when I changed jobs at the peak of my earning power.  I left practice to become medical director of a hospital, a hybrid individual neither physician nor administrator, distrusted by both groups.  I stayed in the role 5 1/2 years, grew, became interested in quality improvement, rising to vice president in both state and local medical societies, respected for the analytical knowledge and approach I brought to my job.

Lest one think that I went from one high powered job to another, without any risk of failure, I then undertook, at 49, one of the biggest “experiments” of all.  I bet my career on being able to become a Masters trained statistician who was also a physician.  To do that, I had to apply and get accepted at an out of state university, review calculus I hadn’t seen for 30 years, and then commute nearly 300 miles one way, every week, to be a graduate student, about as lowly as a medical student, for two years.

Somehow, I got through the first semester of Mathematical Statistics, my happening to know (in class) one day the integral of log (x) dx*, which the professor, later my advisor, told me, “I realized then you were for real.”  School wasn’t easy, and every night I cussed at integrals, matrices, computer programs, at the same time as I was teaching two days a week and caring for my class.

When I got my Masters, alas, I had not taken a course in marketing.  I found minimal work discovering I could understand “no” by the sound of the disinterested voice on the other end.  I failed economically, but by then, despite my bitterness at the medical community, which took me 5 years to get through, I looked for new opportunities and found them in several other fields.

I became interested in medical errors, their similarity to aviation with the exception that aviation had a system where one could learn from them, and back then medicine did not.  I wrote two bills for the Arizona legislature creating a reporting system for medical errors.  The bills died, but from that failure, I was asked to write a monthly column for the medical society.  I became a writer.  I wrote three different monthly columns at one point: astronomy and reasons we make errors being the two others.  I won the Creative Expression Award for Human Values in Neurology in 2003 and my article “Astronomy for Writers and Editors” was a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Competition.

I brought my math to bear in the public schools as a ten year volunteer, before becoming a substitute teacher for four years in one district, my statistical and real world knowledge of math helping me immensely with the students.

In 2008, I became a volunteer at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, and two years later, after seeing my eleventh total solar eclipse with a German tour group, I decided to learn German. I had no idea I would teach people about cranes, see as many (17) total solar eclipses as I have, all over the world, and could learn, if only to the intermediate level, a foreign language.  I watch German Krimis (crime movies) for relaxation.

Life is to be lived.  I sometimes envy my wife, who is satisfied with a deep knowledge and love of horses. I have never been able to stick with an interest as long.  On the other hand, to any who might envy my interest in so many facets of the world, I say simply to keep your eyes and ears open, for opportunities are common but are not often announced.  Failure is a big, often recognized, opportunity. It is your life to live, and it is your decision—nobody else’s, unless you cede authority—to choose.  Finding yourself truly content is a sign you are probably living properly, regardless of whether you run “experiments.”

*log(x) dx is integrated by parts

u=log x; dv=dx

du=dx/x; v=x

From this, the result is uv-int(v*int(du))=xlog(x)-int(x*dx/x)=xlog(x)-x or x(log(x)-1) (+C).

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