Full text of Forget What You Know presentation by Jacob Barnett at TEDxTeen conference…
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Forget what you know by Jacob Barnett at TEDxTeen
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.
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.
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.
So, we needed someone else, just like Newton had done, to forget everything they knew and recreate this. That man’s name was Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein, what he would — he was also — he was stopped in his tracks, he was not doing very well. He was Jewish and it was pre-Nazi Germany, so, he was not able to get a position at the local university. He had to work at a patent office which — okay, that’s not theoretical physics, and we’re talking about Einstein here.
So, what happened was, Einstein — he had all this time to think all of a sudden. He had to stop learning, but he had all this time to think and so, what he had done was, he liked to have these thought experiments and liked to think about all these different things. So what Einstein thought was — okay, he pictured himself on a trampoline with a couple of friends, which — they are actually — a failure of my sentence there, and the fact that physicists that’s usually a couple more than they had.
Albert Einstein was probably on a trampoline with one of his friends, and they were probably playing some, I don’t know, tennis or something. So, however, they are physicists, they don’t have very good hand to eye coordination, so they probably didn’t catch the tennis ball, and it went rolling around them; and Einstein looked at this and said, “Without friction, this is gravity!” He realized, “This is just gravity.”
So, afterwards he predicted the motion which is going to end up like that crazy thing but that crazy thing is exactly that other crazy thing. So, Einstein had solved the problem just by thinking about it in his own unique perspective, in his own unique way. He stopped learning, and he started thinking, and he started creating.
So now let me get back on the story, I wasn’t really looking too good, so I just kind of brush it over there.
So, about three years ago, I — okay, there was a calculus class I wanted to sit in the back of, so, I decided, in order to sit in the back of this, I am going to learn algebra, trigonometry, all this other middle school stuff, all the high school math, and first year undergrad calculus in two weeks, so I could sit in the back of this class. I was ten.
So, also at that time, proving this, I got accepted into the University; and yet again I was still ten. So, then I had to go to an entrance interview, that’s what you got to do, it’s a university. So, I had to go to this entrance interview, and because of parking, I had all these coins, and I dropped them all over the guy’s office making him think I had no common sense and he pretty much held me back for a semester.
So, I also had to stop learning at that time. Okay, what did I do? Did I stop learning and just start playing video games and stuff? No. I started thinking about shapes. And I was thinking about this specific problem in astrophysics that I was really interested in at that time, which I still kind of am.
Now, what I did was, over the next two weeks I started thinking about these shapes, I started thinking about this problem, and after a while I had solved it. So, I have solved this problem in astrophysics, which basically is similar to what’s happening with Einstein and Newton right now. I am not going to tell you the exact problem due to the fact that I have not published it yet. When my paper gets published, you may figure out about it for those who read scientific papers.
I thought about all these problems and I only has a 500 cheap thing of paper from Officemax and since I was thinking about these multidimensional things, it filled them up really quickly. So, then I moved on to white boards because I was out of paper. But the white board, it also filled up pretty quickly, so then I moved on to my parents’ windows. After that I got chased down by all this Windex and stuff and my equations would get erased by these horrible Windex creators but, so, because of that after about a month or so, my parents realized I wasn’t going out to the park, I was just drawing these weird shapes on the windows. And basically I was trying to disprove myself, I didn’t want to end up like Newton; I did not want to be proven a hundred years down the road, disproved. So, what I did was, I was going on the windows, I was trying to disprove myself, but to no avail.
After that, my parents, they figured I should be on the park, so they called some guy up at Princeton, and they told him to disprove what I was doing. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and he said I was on the right track; so, I’m not going to the park.
Then because I had to stop learning, I started thinking and I solved the problem. After that I decided to create a calculus video for other people who wanted to still do calculus; the three others out there, and, so that way they could also learn. So, I made this calculus video, people noticed that I was 12 and I was doing a calculus video. After that, the first people that noticed was the Indianapolis Star, and they put me on the front page of some newspaper and as you can see from this picture, I was eating a sandwich, it was really yummy.
After that, my calculus video, it went viral. At the time of this photo it had some two million views. So, first of all a calculus video going viral, who would have ever thought? So, after that it got translated into whatever this language is. Is there anybody who can tell me what language this is? I can’t read it. Okay, it’s Chinese, good to know.
So, then after that, I had some guy from Fox TV call me up, and I was able to draw on his windows, and he was Glen Beck. The thing special about that experience was that the windows were huge, 23 floors above the ground, and overlooked the Chrysler Building, so that was a fun experience.
Then after that I started having some really strange visitors show up to my house. I had Morley Safer show up, and he’s from CBS Sixty Minutes. Now, for those of you who can really see this picture very well, you may notice that I am wearing the same sandals.
Now, let’s sort of recap what we’ve done. Have Einstein, and Johnson, and Newton, and everyone I talked about, are they really geniuses? Is that really what’s made them so special? Is that really why they did all their work? Absolutely not. They, no! That’s not why.
So, what happened was, all they did was, they made the transition from learning, to thinking to creating, which by now the media has translated into genius. Now, I’m pretty sure they had relatively high IQs but as some of you may know, there are lots of people out there with high IQs who don’t create this sort of thing, they usually just end up memorizing a couple hundred thousand digits of Pi.
So, first of all, my question to them is: why not memorize a different number? Like, I mean, I am wearing Phi right now.
So, in conclusion, I am not supposed to be here at all, I was told that I wouldn’t talk. There’s probably some therapist watching this who’s freaking out right now.
I am not supposed to be talking, I am not supposed to be learning; but because I made that transition from learning to thinking, to creating, I am here today. And I am talking to some four hundred to eight hundred people in New York.
Now, what would I want you guys to get out of this speech? What I want you guys to do is, for the next 24 hours, I know you guys may have school or what not, even though it’s a Saturday — for the next 24 hours don’t learn anything. You are not allowed to learn anything for the next 24 hours. However, what I’d like you to do is, I’d like you to go into some field, I mean, you all have some passion, I don’t know about it, I’ve been talking to you for 11 minutes. I have no idea what you guys are interested in. But, you guys have some passion and all out there and you all know what it is.
So, I want you to think about that field instead of learning of that field; and instead of being a student of that field, be the field. Whether it’s music or architecture, or science or whatever; and I want you to think about that field and, who knows, maybe you can create something.
Thank you very much. I’m Jacob Barnett.