On my drive to the gym this morning, I passed right by Poplar Forest, which was Thomas Jefferson's retreat home. Just over a mile from my own home, Poplar Forest greets me during my drives to my place of work, Lynchburg College, as well as my trips to the gym. Today's pass by Jefferson's second home got me thinking more about him because he was born on the 13th of April in 1743 (because Jefferson was born before the 1752 calendar adjustment, his birthday is sometimes given as 2 April 1743). Can you even imagine what the world was like 270 years ago when Jefferson was born? I consider myself fortunate to have been born in the 20th century in a country that Jefferson played such a pivotal role in founding. Born out of the Philadelphia enlightenment of the latter half of the 18th century, my country has codified laws that protect our freedoms. We are free to think what we want and pursue happiness. Our founders, particularly Jefferson, saw the need to separate church and state, an idea integral to what makes my country great.
Another person I think about today is Christopher Hitchens, who was also born on the the 13th of April (in 1949). One of my favorite modern writers, Hitchens moved me to think about politics and philosophy in so many new and different ways. Though he died at the end of 2011, I continue to read his writings and listen to his speeches and debates (YouTube is a great resource!). I am in awe reading and listening to Hitchens because I know that it would take me the rest of my life to even be half as well read as he was. I recently read Thomas Jefferson: Author of America by Christopher Hitchens (get it here at Amazon). I can't recommend it highly enough.
The two aforementioned polymaths certainly had their flaws, but one indelible character trait they shared was a lifelong commitment to learning. I have found that I do better science when I exercise my mind in nonscientific arenas. Studying history, philosophy, politics, and so forth have helped me think in better ways about how I approach problems in science. Both Jefferson and Hitchens were well traveled. I did not take my first real steps away from my own country until I was 30 years old. Living in another country and visiting a half dozen other countries have opened my mind considerably. I've also learned how people in other countries approach scientific problems, which has benefited me greatly in the past decade. If you've never done so, I urge you to see how other people in countries foreign to your own live and do things -- it's well worth it!
Earning high school, college, and universities degrees are significant achievements. But I've always thought that degrees are merely the keys that open doors to opportunities to learn even more. Don't ever walk across a graduation stage and think that learning is finally over and you can relax. Too much enjoyment of life awaits you if you choose to keep learning.