My name is Kimberly Hatch Harrison, and I’m the co-founder of Socratica.
We make educational videos about math, science, and programming.
I hope you can sense that we make our videos from a certain viewpoint - of optimism and hope about the future.
One of the reasons I’m doing this podcast is to give you a window into our sources of inspiration. What makes us think the way we do?
I’ve spent almost all of my life reading. I haven’t been picky, honestly. I read everything.
But out of the thousands of books I’ve read, there have been a few that appeared at just the right time and nudged me in a certain direction.
That’s what this podcast is really about.
I have to warn you, this is not your typical book review podcast.
There are plenty of those out there already, doing a great job.
Socratica Reads is a personal journey.
It’s an exploration of the profound effects that the right book at the right time can have on a person.
Today is the first day of Autumn. I always associate the Fall with going back to school. It’s another kind of a New Year. You re-enter school with a new identity. Now you’re a sophomore. Now you’re a junior.
It’s another chance every year for things to go differently.
The year I started seventh grade, I was 12, and deep in my ugly duckling years.
When I look back at photos now, I don’t quite see it.
But to kids my age, it was really obvious.
I wonder what was it that marked me as a social outcast. I had very heavy glasses (this was before they were making nice thin polycarbonate glasses - if you had a strong prescription, your glasses were as thick as your thumb), and even with my glasses I didn’t see very well, so that meant I was really clumsy - I was a disaster at sports. And plus, I was just a weird kid, I loved to read, I got along well with adults - so my classmates rejected me and at every moment reminded me that I didn’t belong.
We had a new science teacher that year. Brian Miller. He had thick glasses, like mine, so immediately I felt some kinship. On the first day of school, to break the ice, he asked the class what did we do over the summer. I said I had been to the East Coast to visit family, including a trip to New York where I saw some plays and musicals. One of my regular tormentors was sitting behind me, and she started chanting under her breath, “New York. New York. Yeah, I went to New York.” You know, the stupid stuff that bullies do, it’s never anything clever, it’s just incessant taunting. This was letting me know that nothing had changed, she still despised me for existing.
The next kid went, and the next, and my bully got a bit louder, enjoying the laughter of the kids nearby. But then she went too far, and Mr. Miller heard her. He yelled at her. “What the HELL is your problem?” he said. That was all he said. He motioned for my classmate to go on with their story.
My bully was stunned into silence, and I felt a strange sense of emptiness - but in a good way. The absence of taunting was like a vacuum - and who knows what was going to move in in its place. There was the POSSIBILITY, all of a sudden, of a new kind of life for me, one where I wasn’t being constantly picked on.
Now. What does this all have to do with the book we’re talking about today. Well, this wasn’t the only way science teacher Brian Miller changed my life for the better. He brought in a shelf of books into the classroom that we could borrow, and he put Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 into my hands.
There wasn’t any sci-fi section in the kids’ library that I usually went to. I really didn’t know anything about the genre. This was my first real sci-fi book. And it was all about how humans were capable of EVOLVING into something rich and strange. For a kid who desperately needed to grow up and grow out of her punishing environment, it was absolutely the perfect book at the perfect time.
I want to read you a quote from Arthur C. Clarke:
"There's no real objection to escapism, in the right places... We all want to escape occasionally. But science fiction is often very far from escapism, in fact you might say that science fiction is escape into reality... It's a fiction which does concern itself with real issues: the origin of man; our future. In fact I can't think of any form of literature which is more concerned with real issues, reality."
Science Fiction was a powerful new tool I was being exposed to. It was a way for people to imagine different ways of life, possibly better, possibly worse. This is so self-referential - my first sci-fi book was 2001, and the book itself acted like the 2001 monolith - it was showing me, working on me, to help my brain grow in new directions.
2001 was made simultaneously into a movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and the making of the movie influenced the book, and of course the book, as it was being created, was the source material for the movie. Now I can see this isn’t like your typical sci-fi book. There’s a bit of emptiness to it, like a scaffold that the movie seems to hang on. I’m not sure you’ll completely understand the movie without reading the book, and the imagery in the book is certainly enhanced by Kubrick’s movie.
I do think when most people think about 2001 they focus on the later parts of the story set in space, because of the incredible visuals provided by the movie. But I’m not here to talk about the movie. This is Socratica READS, after all.
So I mentioned the monolith, and it’s an image from the book that is inscrutable and unnatural and unknowable (is that a word)? We see the monolith allowing humans to leapfrog ahead in evolution. Later we see it act like another kind of shortcut - through time and space, a wormhole. But I’m most interested in what it does in the beginning of the book.
We meet a tribe of early proto-humans, who are on the brink of extinction. They’re not really hunter-gatherers, they’re just gatherers. They’re not going to be able to survive eating berries. But this greater intelligence in the universe has recognized that they have the potential to do more, to be more. And so one night a monolith appears to test them and to instruct them.
I’m going to read you a passage that just fascinated me when I first read it. The idea being - what would the most sophisticated teacher in the universe be like. Could we understand its methods at all?
Are you ready? Let’s begin.
They were still a hundred yards from the New Rock when the sound began.
It was barely audible, yet it stopped them dead, so that they stood paralyzed on the trail with their jaws hanging slackly. A simple, maddeningly repetitious vibration, it pulsed out from the crystal, and hypnotized all who came within its spell. For the first time - and the last, for three million years - the sound of drumming was heard in Africa.
The throbbing grew louder, more insistent. Presently the man-apes began to move forward, like sleepwalkers, toward the source of that compulsive sound. Sometimes they took little dancing steps, as their blood responded to rhythms that their descendants would not create for ages yet. Totally entranced, they gathered round the monolith, forgetting the hardships of the day, the perils of the approaching dusk, and the hunger in their bellies.
The drumming became louder, the night darker. And as the shadows lengthened and the light drained from the sky, the crystal began to glow.
First, it lost its transparency, and became suffused with a pale, milky luminescence. Tantalizing, ill-defined phantoms moved across its surface and in its depths. They coalesced into bars of light and shadow, then formed intermeshing, spoked patterns that began slowly to rotate.
Faster and faster spun the wheels of light, and the throbbing of the drums accelerated with them. Now utterly hypnotized, the man-apes could only stare slack-jawed into this astonishing display of pyrotechnics. They had already forgotten the instincts of their forefathers and the lessons of a lifetime; not one of them, ordinarily, would have been so far from the cave, so late in the evening. For the surrounding brush was full of frozen shapes and staring eyes, as the creatures of the night suspended their business to see what would happen next.
Now the spinning wheels of light began to merge, and the spokes fused into luminous bars that slowly receded into the distance, rotating on their axes as they did so. They split into pairs, and the resulting sets of lines started to oscillate across one another, slowly changing their angles of intersection. Fantastic, fleeting geometrical patterns flickered in and out of existence as the glowing grids meshed and unmeshed; and the man-apes watched, mesmerized captives of the shining crystal.
They could never guess that their minds were being probed, their bodies mapped, their reactions studied, their potentials evaluated. At first, the whole tribe remained half crouching in a motionless tableau, as if frozen into stone. Then the man-ape nearest to the slab suddenly came to life.
He did not move from his position, but his body lost its trancelike rigidity and became animated as if it were a puppet controlled by invisible strings. The head turned this way and that; the mouth silently opened and closed; the hands clenched and unclenched. Then he bent down, snapped off a long stalk of grass, and attempted to tie it into a knot with clumsy fingers.
It’s really tempting for me to just keep reading. I find myself rooting for this tribe, like they’re my distant relatives. You see the impact of these visions that are implanted in these pre-humans. They learn how to use three tools: the stone club, the toothed saw, and the horn dagger, and it’s up to them what they will do with them. They conquer hunger, they conquer their predator, and they conquer their competition, the Others. At some point, speech allows them to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. We know what’s in store for them.
At this point in my life, when I’m 12, I’m still being educated in grammar school, and a lot of the time I don’t know why I’m asked to do certain things - I don’t understand the methods or the reasons behind my schooling. But reading that passage made me crazy hungry to get my own monolith. I wanted my mind to be expanded and fiddled with so I could evolve into a better human. It planted a seed of something - a vision of a more direct way of learning.
There’s another passage later in the book that also made my heart go pitterpat as a kid who loved learning. We’re now with Dave Bowman, a man from our world, or one very like ours. He is a well-trained astronaut, but there’s nothing about him that makes us think we’re not just as capable of being chosen for his fate. We read this:
“Bowman had been a student for more than half his life; he would continue to be one until he retired. Thanks to the twentieth-century revolution in training and information-handling techniques, he already possessed the equivalent of two or three college educations - and, what was more, he could remember 90 percent of what he had learned.”
I am not surprised to re-read this and realize that I’ve been dreaming of a coming revolution in education my whole life. At least one part of this promise has come true - if you want, you can keep learning for the rest of your life. I know I’m not going to stop.
When I first read this book, 2001 was still in the future. Many of the technologies Clarke proposed are commonplace today. I wonder what it’s like reading this book for the first time as a kid, now. Does it seem quaint? It feels timeless to me. And so hopeful. I hope kids still get that sense that humans have incredible potential. I hope.