Chatting With Our Brightest
"Are you really smart or really rich?" strangers ask when I tell them I go to Harvard. Last week's grade report settled the issue: from now on, I'd better be able to say rich.
Some of my peers, on the other hand, won't need Daddy come graduation. Erudite, accomplished and exceptional, these girl geniuses and boy wonders out-read Will Hunting, out-calculate Rainman and out-fly E.T. They're the best and the brightest of the best and the brightest. The crme de la crme of the cream of the crop. The smartest students at Harvard. Or something like that.
I will find them, I vow. And then I will find their secrets.
A few friends tip me off to an advanced-standing senior who finished most of the coursework for an economics Ph.D. in his three years as an undergrad. He was a TF in a graduate class in statistics taken by his assistant senior tutor. Adviser Marty Feldstein told him his thesis on theories of investment was a "home run."
"There was no reconciliation between what historically has been going on and what the theories predict," he tells me. "I was lucky with my thesis. The data matched."
The secret of his success? "I'm into the mathematical stuff which is why I was accelerated. Most people take econometrics junior year, but I took it freshman year." More important, he says, "I've gotten good advice throughout. My father is an economist so I had an understanding of the kinds of things that would be useful. Marty has been instrumental. [He's] been advising me since the fall of freshman year."
The fall of my freshman year, I sold my Ec-10 textbook to my roommate and shopped an English seminar instead.
By e-mail I receive word of a sartorial sophomore who makes GQ look like Roseanne. "At dinner," I read, "he had on a lovely sweater vest overtop (casual for him), button-down, an exquisite tie (Egyptian blue) with an intricate brocade down the center." I scroll down to catch the rest of the message. One phrase sticks out: "He's blind."
I call. "I have a rare vision condition called achromatopsia which entails acute near-sightedness and colorblindness," he says. "Corrected, it is worse than 20/200, which is the legal cutoff for blindness. It's genetic. My brother has it too. We are two of the three people in the state of Oregon who have it."
And the style? "I'm not really interested in fashion," he tells me. "For me, what colors go together and what matches aren't really criteria. I wear clothes that make me feel good. If I saw better, I might have inhibitions." I ask what he's wearing now. "Gray slacks and a gray blazer (but a different shade of gray, I think). I'm wearing a dark vest with a pinstripe and a watch chain; a silk paisley tie with some red, yellow and green; and some sort of black dress shoes."
I look down. A white T-shirt, khaki pants and running shoes with holes near the toes.
I tie my shoes.
Saturday night I meet a senior from the class of '99-'00 with twelve languages from Spanish to Swedish, Italian to Urdu, Punjabi to Persian at the tip of his tongue. (The other half-dozen are Hindi, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and, yes, English.) "I was born in India, but we left when I was six months old," he says. "Then we were in Iran for three years, hence the Persian. We speak Hindi at home, but my parents answer in English." Home? "New Jersey."
Soon, the other tongues babble forward. "My parents are ethnically Punjabis...Spanish was high school...After Spanish came French...Urdu spoken is not so different from Hindi...Mandarin I took at Harvard and then I was in Beijing for the summer...German I did at Harvard and I spent all last year in Germany...Swedish was at Harvard too...Portuguese I'm taking now." Next year? "I'm going to be a consultant." Ah, a Harvard student after all.
"I speak these things all the time because I'm fairly shameless," he says. "I have no qualms about accosting people and making myself friends with them if I feel they're nice people and I can practice with them. It's difficult to find Swedes! It really requires some ingenuity!"
I went to Hebrew school I tell him. Wanna hear the alphabet? "Nah. There's just something about Semitic languages that doesn't do it for me."
My CS-51 TF used to teach section in trochaic meter. For those who didn't take English 10b, trochaic meter consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (e.g., "Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night"). For those who didn't take CS-51, sections covered everything from high-level artificial intelligence concepts to low-level assembly language instructions (e.g., "move $t7, $0 addu $t2, $t2, 4"). For those who struggled through either the expository writing or quantitative reasoning requirements, suffice it to say that's tricky.
A week ago I heard Yahoo had bought his Internet startup for $135 million. I wonder what he says now.
Really smart or really rich?
Jeremy N. Smith '01 is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.