I recently gave my very first Toastmasters speech. I’m rather proud of it. It certainly didn’t go perfectly but was a good introduction to Toastmasters for me, and a good introduction of me to my Toastmasters club.
For those who aren’t familiar with the process, everyone’s 1st Toastmaster speech is called an Icebreaker and is a way to introduce a new Toastmaster to the other members of the club. In my Icebreaker, I chose to introduce myself to my club by talking about just a few of the people who I feel made important historical contributions that paved my path to today.
The transcript and video of this presentation can be found below.
I like to describe myself as the kind of person who has a list of his favorite physicists and favorite mathematicians. The thought being that just knowing I have such a list tells you everything you really need to know about me. Today I'd like to tell you a little bit more about me, to go a little bit deeper, and tell you about me by telling you about just a few of the people on my list and why I find them so fascinating and so important.
We start in ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE. Democritus of Abdura develops a theory of the composition of matter in the universe that is based on what he calls "atoms". These atoms are physically indivisible, always in motion, and have a lot of empty space in between. He is the first person to develop a theory like this, of the creation of the universe and the existence of the universe in a way that is explainable, that is predictable, that we can understand. As such, may people consider him to be the first scientist. It is this reasoning, that the universe is knowable, that has made all technological advancement that we've had since, possible.
One such advancement came in 1842 so let's jump forward from the first scientist to the first computer programmer. Charles Babbage has created his Analytical Engine, and Ada, Countess of Lovelace, translates an article on using that machine to calculate the Bernoulli numbers which was a well known mathematical sequence. She created notes on this article that describes the inputs and instructions and the states of all the registers of the machine at each point in the process. This, deservingly so, is considered to be the first ever computer program. But more than even creating the first program, Ada Lovelace recognized the capabilities of these machines. She recognized that they could be more than just machines that analyze numbers, they could analyze anything that could be represented by numbers. She predicted that they could be used to compose music, create graphics, and even be usable in scientific experiments. This recognition of the computer as a general purpose tool, rather than just as a fancy calculator, is what made all of society's advancements that were based on computers and computer processing, possible.
There are many other people on my list that I'd like to talk about: Nicola Tesla and Alan Turing; Grace Hopper and Albert Einstein.
But there are really two modern physicists that played a greater role than any in my path to today. The first of those is Carl Sagan. Dr. Sagan had the ability to communicate in a very accessible way his almost childlike awe and wonder of the cosmos. He combined the resources and knowledge of a respected scientist with the eloquence of a teacher and a poet, and made science and scientific education available to an entire generation as it never had been before.
Perhaps the most significant reason though that Carl Sagan has become important to me, especially in the last few years, is that he reminds me, quite powerfully, of number one on my list, my favorite physicist of all, my father Hal Stahl, who passed away on this very day, two years ago. Dad's specialty was optics, he loved to play with light and its properties. He also loved math and its power to explain the concepts in physics. Like my father I love how math, especially calculus, make the calculations of practical things feasible. So much so, that had I recognized the power of physics combined with calculus, before I learned to make computers do my bidding, my career might have taken a slightly different path.
I hope I have given you a few insights into my worldview through the lens of those I idolize. I like to think that my list shows the value I place on education, especially STEM. It also shows that I recognize the value of collaboration and understand how much of what we do depends on those who came before us. Isaac Newton famously stated, "If I have seen farther [than others] it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." My list of the giants on whose shoulders I stand can be found on Twitter @bsstahl. To me that list represents just a few of the many without whom our work and our world would not be possible.