As I was failing to get to sleep I couldn’t help but ruminate on memories of my last year in university. I failed monumentally during my final year and my dissertation was basically just a rambling document about why I didn’t do my actual dissertation work. That was not what I was ruminating about, instead I was remembering one of the modules I took that year: Quantum Information Theory.
In my entire educational career, from the first day I started school when I was 4 years old, to the day I graduated university, Quantum Information Theory was the only course I took which challenged me intellectually. Don’t think I am saying that to brag, I don’t think education really challenges many people intellectually. I was challenged greatly (perhaps beyond my capacities) when it comes to things like time management, reward deferment, patience, attention and other things of that ilk. Those things are in many ways far more important for daily life. Still it makes me sad that only once did I experience genuinely intellectually challenging work.
And what an experience! For most of school up until I was 14 or 15 I was genuinely under the impression that teachers asked questions in class in order to test you, or from my perspective, to give an opportunity to show off how I already knew the answers before we were told. It used to aggravate me that teachers told us the answers shortly before asking the questions, “how would they know” I thought “that I already know!” At some point I twigged the point of the exercise was to improve recall not to give me an opportunity to show off, but that I realised so late is I think tragic evidence I was not half as clever as I thought.
Likewise in university, even if I knew it wasn’t the point I spent the first year focusing all my energy on showing off. Once I felt sure everyone knew I was smart, I felt confident to slack off, my goals achieved – especially with the increasing workload and my general lack of self discipline in the face of such things. As such my grades predictably declined.
Quantum Information Theory was the one thing that broke the pattern. My grades were not great in Quantum Information Theory, because it genuinely stretched me to the point where it was hard. Not because it had so much tedious busy work, not because I had poor time management skills and left my projects till the last minute, but because the material made my brain have to actually work for the answers – they didn’t pop into my head immediately, the logic didn’t seem self evident as soon as I looked it up. I got what you could call a C in that class and I worked for that C. Because I had not got previous exposure to the level of mathematics required for the course I had some private sessions with the lecturer where he went through things with me (beautiful things about complex numbers and circles that I wish I could explain!) – and for a moment or two I felt like I understood, but it took effort, actual mental effort on my part.
That had never happened before, it has never happened since, but I loved that feeling, of slowly coming to grasp something, of reward in the face of struggle.
Now it makes me sad. I wonder if I will ever have that again. I wonder if anything in life can top – on an intellectual level – taking Quantum Information Theory in my fail laden final year. I am sure I will have higher emotional, social, probably even creative heights. But the joy of writing my first real proofs? Of understanding (however briefly) weird and wonderful things about numbers? Of struggling to understand something ever after it has been explained – but finally getting it? Those joys topped the joy of showing off a million fold.
After taking that course I dreamed of one day writing my own quantum algorithms, which of course seems laughable now. It would make as much sense for someone to use a quantum algorithm I wrote as to use a 4 year old who just learned to add up as their accountant. Quantum Information Theory was just on the cusp of my capacity, and it clearly wasn’t even completely that because I only got a C.
But I love that C more than any A I have ever been given, because I earned it.