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I've been thinking about American Ninja Warrior and the development of the atomic bomb.

Like you do...

The book I've been reading, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” was written by Richard Rhodes about 35 years ago. Many of the people involved were still alive and he interviewed most of them.

It won all sorts of prizes, like the Pulitzer and National Book Award, and I can see why.

I understand about 3% of it – he goes heavily into physics. My last physics class was in 1971 and happened to be during football season so I wasn't exactly giving it my undivided attention.

Sorry, Mr. Bakken.

Anyway, what I find really interesting is that there were all these strong personalities – people who'd spent their whole lives being the smartest person in any room. But over and over, as the science around nuclear fission was being developed and discovered, one of those geniuses would be confronted with evidence that their strongly held theories were wrong. And often, not only wrong but completely wrong. The most common reaction was, “Wow, this changes everything.” Then they’d dive back into the data to see what else could be discovered. It was encouraging to read about people willing to change their minds and to submerge their egos to a larger purpose. These days we seem a little light in both those characteristics.

What does any of this have to do with American Ninja Warrior? Not much, but it hangs together.

We binge-watched reruns of Ninja Warrior - a great show to watch from the comfort of a recliner, hopefully with access to a lot of snacks. In case you're not familiar, it's a competition between people trying to conquer a series of bizarre, challenging obstacle courses. Recently, we discovered there's a team competition between colleges. The specific match that caught our attention was between MIT and Oklahoma, which seemed like quite a mismatch. After all, Oklahoma State has been home to seven Heisman Trophy winners, MIT 101 Nobel Prize winners. But MIT beat Oklahoma and went on to do well in the whole competition. It made me recall something I'd read. The thing about MIT is that the whole place is full of people who were the smartest kids in their school. Yet, when the school tracked their graduates, they discovered that they weren't doing quite as well in life as they did in their classes, and it appeared that just being the smartest kid wasn't enough. For true success they needed to be able to work with others, to be part of a team. I don't know if it’s still the case, but for a while attendance at MIT required participation in some form of team sport. It could just be intramural flag football, but there needed to be something, some experience that would be of use when you took your shiny new diploma out into the real world and needed to work with others in order to succeed.

We've lost so much of that. I think it's swell that people embrace their individuality, but I wish strutting and bragging hadn't become such an art form. From a physics lab to a concrete pour to the halls of Congress, the best way to get anything done is to work together.

How did we forget that?

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson


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