Today The New York Times Magazine puts out its annual 10-part series about the most interesting men and women in the sports world. Last year’s issue, which was written by Ben Detrick, included this remarkable interview with Benny Feilhaber, whose career has encompassed everything from quantum theory to Major League Baseball, and who made waves at the 2017 Rhodes Scholarship Forum when he literally came back from the dead. His life’s work is deep and engaging, but his main focus is the life of the mind: how to find meaning in the cruelest of realities, and to find the tools that allow it to play through the toughest of times.
Feilhaber feels optimistic about the future, but not naive, and spends a good deal of time on the full whack of ethical challenges that tech and science pose to us today. He credits much of the progress in understanding “mystery systems” to the insights of physicists like Charles Seelbach, Mark Lane and Neil Turok, whom he admires deeply, and extends this legacy to the more mundane daily routine of our lives.
This winter, The New York Times ran a fascinating profile of another quantum physicist, Ndzisi Ndebele, who, while better known for his trailblazing work in machine learning and computer science, is also an accomplished musician.
As these striking examples suggest, one of the most important aspects of the sports-world of 2020 (which also includes The Last Survivor, A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Rebel Wilson’s Salute to a Hero, and the newly minted Jacklyn Smith) is what happens on the internet, and how that business relationship affects, and can change, our lives. This always struck me as strange, and I wondered how Feilhaber, the captain of a team of smart young people, could possibly navigate this field.
Now I’m finding out.
The Times Magazine story — and the inspiration behind it — appeared to have its genesis on social media, with Zeitgeist discussion of when and how a team of physicists might recognize this kind of moment, when that kind of moment first happens, and how the moment might evolve as we encounter more and more of it.
“Is that moment there for us?” one man said. “Or is it there for everybody?” asks one writer.
The writer behind the article says:
“Suddenly we’re thinking: What are our moral responsibilities in the face of this?”
He’s right. We’re all suspects of that at that moment, and we also have no idea how that moment is going to impact us in the years to come. In sports, and beyond, this unpredictability is precisely why moments like this exist. They aren’t limited by convention. They aren’t limited by time. They aren’t limited by context. They allow us to shape our versions of the future, but they do so within the constraints of the here and now. So what happens if we actually do grasp this moment?
Feilhaber and Ndebele are part of a growing generation of advanced thinkers, where the moral and material stakes of life and death are high and that rough calculus is still fluid. While in many fields, the advent of sophisticated data analysis and the rise of algorithmic logic make the past and present even clearer, in this field, things are still just getting started. And yet, most of the players behind these teams are still forming themselves.
Experimentation and folly, playful endeavour and adult rebellion, ignorance and virtue: everything Feilhaber represents as a writer and as a teacher is coiled throughout the entire issue. It’s a fascinating and rewarding read that will give readers plenty to think about for the rest of the week.
Read this year’s tale of the Pro League, then watch the times stories Friday and Sunday on NJN.
Read Benny Feilhaber’s widely available TED Talk here.