Forget What You Know by Jacob Barnett at TEDxTeen (Transcript)

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Jacob Barnett – CEO and Founder, Wheel LLC

Hey, I’m Jacob Barnett, are you guys excited?

All right. I am here to tell you why you guys should forget everything you know, right now.

So, first thing you guys need to know. So, suppose you guys are all doing your homework. Okay, you know, it’s something you have to do. And you’re doing great on your homework, you are getting great grades, you’re getting fabulous prizes, such as you know, Benjamins and all this great stuff. I’m here to tell you you’re doing it all wrong. That’s right. I did just say that. You’re doing it all wrong.

In order to succeed you have to look at everything with your own unique perspective. Okay, what does that mean? That means that when you think, you must think in your own creative way, not accepting everything that’s already out there. By the way, the people I’m showing you in the background are my little brothers Ethan and Wesley, one of them is a chemist and the other one is a meteorologist.

So, your perspective might be the only way you can see art or history or music, or whatever. So, let me show you one of the ways in which I can see math. So, for example, that’s 32 and the rotations represent: addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, et cetera. So today — my main reason of coming out here is to do some quantum mechanics, okay? So, today, what we’re going to do is, we’re going to do the Schrödinger equation, split it into time independent components, and we’re going to solve it for the boundary conditions of a lattice and a particle in the box. So, let’s get to work.

So, I have some lecture notes, which I’d like you guys to pass out. I’m going to split them into two rows. So, if I can have some people come up and get these? No, wait. Before you come up here I need to let you know about something very quickly. Okay, just stay there. I’m kidding. I didn’t — I did not come here to frighten you all with quantum mechanics — not yet.

So, let’s think about something simpler. How many of you here have heard about circles? Okay, good. So, why are circles important? They are the shape of cookies. They are the shape of skateboard wheels, and most importantly, they’re the shape of the thing that turns on your X-box 360.

So, what do we know from school about circles? We know pi r2, we know they’re round. Do we know anything else? Not really.

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So, let me tell you something cool you can do with circles. It’s called Johnson’s Theorem. It’s not really a theorem, it’s just, you know, a way mathematicians can think of stuff. So, what Johnson said was, “You take three circles, you overlap them in a way so that there’s six blue lines” where I call each of the circles blue such that there are six lines coming in one point. The other three points are in a circle of the same size. Interesting.

So, this isn’t just pi r2, this is something new. So because Johnson didn’t just think: “Oh, it’s got to be pi r2 and round, that’s it,” he created math. And he did it in his own unique perspective way. So, now I know not all of you are necessarily mathematically gifted, so — so, let’s move on to some more interesting stuff.

By now you might have heard about Isaac Newton in your High School career. You might have heard about him from prisms or whatever he might have done. So, in 1665, Isaac Newton was at the University of Cambridge. Now, for those of you who really know your history, at that time Cambridge had closed due to the plague. So, Isaac Newton, he didn’t have a way to learn. He had to stop learning, and he was probably, hiding in a dormitory with his cat running from the plague.

Now, while he was doing this he decided he had to stop learning, but he didn’t want to stop thinking. Okay? So, because of that he was thinking about this problem in astrophysics. And specifically I think he wanted to calculate the motion of the Moon around the Earth, so I sort of revamped that problem into the case of Mercury around the Sun. So, okay.

What he did was, in order to solve this problem he created calculus, Newton’s three laws, the universal law of gravitation, the reflecting telescope to check his work, and optics, and all this crazy stuff in that two years that he had stopped learning. So, I guess that was really good for us, because at that time Newton had to stop learning; but when he stopped learning he started thinking and he created science. And, okay, that’s just great, we now have a theory of physics. So, okay. He could have probably been some top scholar, he could have had a 4.0 GPA, he could have been on the dean’s list, he could have had his professors proud; but he wouldn’t have created anything if he didn’t stop learning. Newton needed to start thinking, and think of things out of his own unique perspective, in order to create his theory.

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So, now let me formally introduce myself because I did not do that at the beginning of the talk.

So, about 11 years ago I was diagnosed with this thing called autism. What that meant was I was focusing on things in such extreme detail, that it seemed I wasn’t thinking at all. Basically I’d be like, “Oh, look here’s this reflection of that light, so there’s light up here, but, oh, there’s my shadow, so there’s a light back there” and I looked over and it’s over there.

So, because of that people thought I would never learn because it just looked I was just staring into the opening; it looked like I wasn’t doing anything at all. So, people told me I would never learn, I’d never think, I’d never talk, I’d never tie my shoes, which — okay, they might have had a point, you know, I’m wearing sandals. You know, but however, at that age, I went to the Barnes & Noble, and I got a textbook, and from the data that was in that textbook I derived Kepler’s laws. When I wasn’t supposed to be learning or thinking at all.

So, basically from the other people’s point of view it wasn’t really looking too good, I wasn’t fingerpainting, or doing story time, or any of the other stuff the 2-3-4 year olds would do but what they did was, because — they took me to special Ed which is extremely special and in fact it didn’t educate me. So, during that time I had to stop learning because I didn’t have a way to learn, you know, I was just in special Ed. So what they would do is — so, I wasn’t able to learn anything at all. However, at that age I started thinking about things and sort of the way of all of these shadows, and I think that’s why I like astrophysics, and physics, and math today because I had to stop learning, I believe that’s why I do what I do today.

Okay, so let me continue about gravity. It’s a very exciting topic for those of us who are in physics. So let me continue.

Now, what happened was, about a couple of centuries later, the physicists had enough experimental technology to test Newton’s orbit. Now, Newton predicted that the orbit of Mercury was an oval, or as scientists like to say “an ellipse.” However, when we pointed our telescopes out, we saw that thing. For those of you who are scientists you know that’s extremely exaggerated, but — this was not looking good, Newton had failed. One of the greatest physicists of all minds had failed, he failed.