What Makes You So Smart, MIT Professor?

Noah Davis talks to Scott Aaronson—named by SuperScholar as one of the 30 smartest people alive—about the unpopularity of nerds, the value of skipping grades, and why Shakespeare isn't the worst.
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Scott Aaronson is one of the 30 smartest people alive. He taught himself calculus at 11, graduated from Cornell in three years, and earned a Ph.D from the University of California–Berkeley in his early 20s. He talked to Pacific Standard about why nerds are unpopular, the value of skipping grades, and why Shakespeare isn't so bad.

What was your education like growing up?

I had somewhat of an usual story growing up. My parents were not scientists. My mom was a remedial reading teacher, and my dad was a science writer who then went into public relations. In the '70s, my dad interviewed physicists like Steven Weinberg and John Wheeler, and he wrote popular articles about physics and cosmology for various magazines. He would talk to me about those types of things. I was aware from an early age that there was such a thing as The Big Bang or the value of the speed of light.

Was that stuff that you were interested in?

Yeah. I had a phase where I wanted to build spaceships. Of course, for a five year old that means drawing a lot of pictures. You just figure that someone else will figure out how to build the engine [laughs].

My parents recognized that early on. They were always fighting for me to get into more advanced classes and to do anything so I could get more math. The local public school didn't have much, so they ended up sending me to a Hebrew Day School where they would let me take a math book and work on my own.

Scott Aaronson. (Photo: Courtesy of MIT)

Scott Aaronson. (Photo: Courtesy of MIT)

I was there until sixth grade. In seventh grade, I moved to a public junior high school. I was there for one year. I did more advanced math there. I also met a friend there [J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan] who has since become a well-known scientist. He's been my best friend since then. That was very lucky that he happened to be at the same school. Aside from that, I wouldn't say I had a good experience.

My dad's company moved him to Hong Kong for a year. I went to an American international school there. They promised us beforehand that I would be able to study on my own, but it turned out not to be true. I was basically stuck there. We put pressure on the school to let me skip to ninth grade. That was a seminal step for me. I would say that I was the main instigator of it. My parents supported me in what I wanted to do, but they were also very worried that skipping grades would create huge social problems, that it would make it impossible for me to date, and so forth, a lot of which turned out to be true.

WERE YOU BORED?

It was partially being bored, not learning much, and not liking what we were learning, which I think would apply to a lot of kids. There's an essay by Paul Graham called "Why Nerds Are Unpopular." It's a brilliant essay. I haven't found anything else that as precisely expresses what I felt like. It argues that nerds being unpopular is more or less a contemporary American phenomenon. You talk to Europeans, and they don't have the same experience. They barely have the concept of a nerd. Modern American suburbia created a need to keep kids in some confined space to stay out of trouble. There might be some learning that goes on too. Usually, a hierarchy will be based on something external: how good people are at doing something or whatever it is. The exceptions are places like prisons, Manhattan society life, and an American high school. There's nothing external, so the hierarchy is based on sheer chimpanzee politics. A nerd, in his definition, is someone who is in that environment but who cares about something that matters in the external world. If you're not figuring out how to climb this social hierarchy, you're going to end up on the bottom of it. That was a very crisp explanation of how I started hating life around seventh grade. If anything, being more advanced in math was a useful excuse. It was something that people would understand. I had to move more quickly through the schooling environment so I could take multi-variable calculus, when really what I cared about was simply getting out of that environment.

Once I skipped one grade, which I did in Hong Kong, I thought, "Why couldn't I do that again?" It was a way out of the high school environment that I didn't like. When we returned to the United States, I tried to argue that the ninth grade in Hong Kong was sort of like the 10th grade in the U.S., so I should be allowed to go to 11th grade. But I had a bad experience in high school in the U.S., and I had also run out of math to take. My mom asked them if they would let me sit in a room and take the distance learning course called EPGY that Stanford offers. She said she'd pay for it out of pocket, but they said no.

Using that as a pretense, I said that I had to go to college. I found out about a program in upstate New York called the Clarkson School at Clarkson University. They have a dorm for about 100 high school students who can live there and take courses for a year. Often, students graduate with a diploma. I did not because I missed phys ed. I didn't want to spend the summer doing push ups. I ended up getting a New York state GED. I never actually graduated from high school. But I found someone to supervise me doing research, so I started to get involved with that.

  I applied to college as a freshman from there. I had a bizarre background. I was younger than everyone else. I had mediocre grades because I couldn't be bothered with some of my high school classes. I thought that, because I had a published research paper and perfect SATs, I should get into any college that I wanted. It doesn't work that way. I got rejected pretty much everywhere, except Cornell and Carnegie Mellon.

I went to Cornell. Three years later, I graduated and I went to Berkeley for grad school. I finished my Ph.D. in 2004. And then, you could say I doubled back and figured out how to have a social life and how to fit into the world. It was only after Berkeley that I learned how to drive and started dating. Eventually things turned out OK, but I think I did it the opposite from the way many people do it.

Would you have done it any differently?

That's such a hard question. I've thought about that a lot of times. There's no doubt that skipping grades was very difficult socially. But I think for me the deciding factor was that I was having a terrible time socially even without skipping grades. [Laughs] At that point, the goal shifted to just get out of that environment as quickly as possible, to get into a place where I was able to do work that I cared about and that interested me. Things that actually mattered where I was surrounded by other people who care about the same thing. I thought that maybe once I was in the right kind of environment, maybe everything else would take care of itself. I think that it did ultimately work out that way, but it took a lot longer than I might have wanted it to.

I do have a very strong view that middle schools and high schools could be arranged a little bit more like universities. At a university, no one is going to say to you that you can't take a math class because you're not old enough. It's not a thought that would cross anyone's mind. You're not forced to be in a class that you hate. You have a lot of choice about what to take.

I'm a huge believer in that you should be well-rounded. You should take writing, history, philosophy, but I think, in middle school and high school, people get forced to learn things that they aren't ready for. It's the same thing as people being forced to do math when they aren't at a point in their life where they are interested in it. That's actually counterproductive and gets the opposite of the desired outcome. A person learns to hate the thing even more.

When I was in high school we did Shakespeare. We'd have to write five-paragraph essays where you get points for following the format and repeating what the teacher wants to hear. I wrote an essay about Othello and evolutionary psychology because I was reading about that at the time. I got an F because it didn't follow the five-paragraph structure. I got an opportunity to re-take the exam, and I wrote a parody of what my teacher was looking for: an introduction paragraph, "I am now going to introduce topic number two," etc. I got an A+ on that version. The teacher did not realize that it was a parody. It was only like 10 years after that where I was able to go back and look at Shakespeare again. And you know what? Shakespeare is actually kind of good.

Who should I talk to next?

J. Alex Halderman, my best friend from seventh grade. He's now a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who's internationally renowned for his hacking skills, and especially for dramatic demonstrations of security flaws in electronic voting machines.

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What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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