The idea that he was trying to drive home was perhaps simple. It wasn't even new. It has been said before. Rather, it was the way he made us realize it that was impressive.
He started off by picking up a very simple thing, the position of a particle. Then he asked us what we meant by position. Somebody tried to define position in terms of coordinate axes. But then what is a coordinate? Some random mumbling on our behalf, or as he called it blah blah. Then, let me simplify it a bit, what is 'x'? Blank stares. Some more random mumbling. blah blah, tell me what 'x' is? This went on for quite a while. Any answer we gave was not good enough for him. Simply because we did not know the answer. He pushed us. He made fun of us. He picked out problems in our naive views when we dared present them. Yet he kept the pressure on. Kept pushing us to come up with something substantial, but mostly what we did come up with was just blah blah.
There were lot of smart people in that auditorium. People from physics, mathematics, computer science. From sophomores to seniors to transfer students. Yet all of us sat there, feeling completely stupid and realizing that we did not know the answer to the most simplest of questions. No one complained. No one felt bad that we were being insulted. We knew we deserved it. Every bit of it. And finally, when he did reveal the answer, when he did tell us what 'x' really was, I at least wanted to shoot myself. Because it was so simple. It was a simple question with a simple answer. But we did not know it.
People have always said that we must always concentrate on the fundamentals. Not just scientists. I have seen football coaches scream it out in practice, philosophers do it all the time, drill instructors at boot camps do it. I myself have always believed it - something I learned from football. I have never really understood how Quantum Mechanics - let alone Quantum Field Theory - can be taught by spending months on Functional Analysis. Something akin to what Feynman used to do. Daniel Hillis describes how he taught him, " "Don't say 'reflected acoustic wave.' Say [echo]." Or, "Forget all that 'local minima' stuff. Just say there's a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out." Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated."
Yet, when I went through our own little one hour boot camp, did I truly realize what concentrating on the fundamentals really meant. In the way Donald Rumsfeld would have said it. Before there were things I knew that I did not know. So I used to try to know them. But Huckleberry showed me stuff that I did not know that I did not know - the unknown unknowns. That was humbling.
Huckleberry also showed us the way to go about learning this stuff. He suggested that we always ask ourselves the "minus one question". If do go down deep into some field, we usually stop when we have answered the first question or the zeroth question. He said that we must go down one step more and ask ourselves the minus one question. Smart.
All I wish for is that we had lectures like this every so often, boot campish as they might be.