Situational Awareness, My Lack of

Situation Number One: Planet Fitness, today. I’m waiting for a guy to finish hogging the pull-up machine so I can do my one set and move on to the next exercise. I’m standing 10 feet from the machine, trying to make it obvious that I’m waiting to use the machine. But the guy is oblivious, which .just makes me more upset. He finishes his set of pull-ups and then leans against the machine while he fiddles with the playlist on his phone. He then proceeds to do a set of squats right next to the machine. While this is happening, another guy comes out of nowhere, just as the guy finishes his squats and asks the guy, “Mind if I do a set?” The first guy says sure, and guy number two does a set of dips.

Meanwhile, I just continue to stand there, wondering what just happened. Guy number one then does another set of pull-ups, and then guy number two jumps in to do another set of dips. At this point, I couldn’t take it any longer and just barged in, did my set, and walked away to the next machine.

It’s what I’ve heard referred to as a lack of situational awareness. Not being cognizant of what’s going on around you, since you’re so focused on your own little world. Both these guys were perfect examples of it.

I finished up my workout a few minutes later, and headed home, still upset that these two guys had caused my workout to be three minutes longer than it normally is.

Situation Number Two: Drexel University, 1987. When I got home from the gym, I started doing some cleaning up and came across an old letter I had saved from my grad school days at Drexel. It had to do with my upcoming graduation, providing a listing of those individuals who were going to be part of the stage party, along with some brief instructions on when and where to report. (I had been lucky enough to be selected as the student speaker for the graduate students’ ceremony. And it was all luck – I was told that the Deans try to rotate the student speaker each year among the various colleges, and that year was the business school’s turn. Since I was the only doctoral student in business graduating that year, the honor fell in my lap, by default.)

Anyway, I have a couple of clear memories from the graduation ceremony. First was the night before. I remember practicing over and over, with my wife filming my speech. As I watched the playback, I knew it was pretty bad, and so did my wife, but she was kind enough not to say so. I kept trying, but nothing was working. Finally, after watching myself for about the fifth time, I decided it was time to rewrite the whole speech. By midnight, I finally came up with something that at least wouldn’t ruin the family name, and my wife and I called it a night.

I also remember a little bit about the person who was the featured speaker, some guy who was receiving an honorary doctorate. I had no idea who he was, but I was seated right next to him on the stage. He gave his speech after mine, and I really could not follow anything he was saying, it was way over my head.

I never thought at the time to look up who the guy was and why he was receiving an honorary doctorate. I’m sure when he was introduced all of his accomplishments were noted, but I was busy replaying the speech I had just given to be paying attention. What did people think? Did I do OK? Was it memorable? (highly doubtful, given that I can’t even remember what my words were).

So as I looked at that letter from 31 years ago today, I decided to do a little research (much easier to do today than back then), so I could figure out who that guy was. But as I looked at the list of names, I realized I had no idea which person it was. Fortunately, a Google search came up with a copy of the front page of the Drexel newspaper from back then (shown above) and gave the details as to who the featured speakers would be at the various graduation ceremonies.

His name was Dr. John Wheeler, and here is just a small part of what Wikipedia has to say about him (it’s quite a lengthy profile):

John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911 – April 13, 2008) was an American theoretical physicist. He was largely responsible for reviving interest in general relativity in the United States after World War II. Wheeler also worked with Niels Bohr in explaining the basic principles behind nuclear fission. Together with Gregory Breit, Wheeler developed the concept of the Breit–Wheeler process. He is best known for linking the term “black hole” to objects with gravitational collapse already predicted early in the 20th century, for coining the terms “quantum foam”, “neutron moderator”, “wormhole” and “it from bit”, and for hypothesizing the “one-electron universe”.

Wheeler earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University under the supervision of Karl Herzfeld, and studied under Breit and Bohr on a National Research Council fellowship. In 1939 he teamed up with Bohr to write a series of papers using the liquid drop model to explain the mechanism of fission. During World War II, he worked with the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, where he helped design nuclear reactors, and then at the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, where he helped DuPont build them. He returned to Princeton after the war ended, but returned to government service to help design and build the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s.

For most of his career, Wheeler was a professor at Princeton University, which he joined in 1938, remaining until his retirement in 1976. At Princeton, he supervised 46 PhDs (one of whom was Richard Feynman), more than any other professor in the Princeton physics department.

Wheeler won numerous prizes and awards, including the Enrico Fermi Award in 1968, the Franklin Medal in 1969, the Einstein Prize in 1969, the National Medal of Science in 1971, the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal in 1982, the Oersted Medal in 1983, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize in 1984 and the Wolf Foundation Prize in 1997. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Academy, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, and the Century Association. He received honorary degrees from 18 different institutions. In 2001, Princeton used a $3 million gift to establish the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professorship in Physics. After his death, the University of Texas named the John A. Wheeler Lecture Hall in his honor.

So in other words, here was this bona fide genius sitting next to me, a giant in the world of physics, and I didn’t even acknowledge his presence. I sat there thinking that I was the star of the show when here’s someone who had worked on the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb and coined the word wormhole!

Talk about a lack of situational awareness.

So first, my apologies to those two guys at Planet Fitness. Who knows, they may have been Mr. Universe a few years ago; why should they make way for a 98-pound weakling…

But most of all, my apologies to Dr. John Wheeler. I know it’s too late for him to read these words, but thank you for the contributions you have made to our understanding of the world. I wish I had said these words to you 31 years ago, but maybe you’ll be happy to know you’re still teaching me a lesson today.

*Image from the Drexel Triangle student newspaper

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