I could have been a logician

Dr 'Grand Master' Only 10,000 hours away?

Dr ‘Grand Master’
Only 10,000 hours away?

With medical jobs so commonplace, I sometimes fantasise about alternative career choices.

Three logicians walk into a bar. Says the bartender, “Would all three of you like a cider?” The first logician replies “I don’t know,” the second also says “I don’t know,” so the third one says “Yes.”

I got that joke immediately, which suggests I might have made a good career logician. Except I doubt such a career exists. Ergo, I’d currently be an unemployed wannabe and unable to afford cider.

Incidentally, my answer to the bartender would still have been correct; not my fault his question conflated the desire to drink with the ability to pay. Never lend money to a logician.

The thing about doctors is, in different circumstances most of us could have chosen other careers. Even interesting ones. I might have chosen music if I hadn’t jammed my left hand in Mrs Bell’s patio door-rail while attempting to escape a piano lesson early. In retrospect, it was my sliding door moment.

I was 12 at the time, and not bad at music; I could have given it a fair crack, assuming 10,000 subsequent hours of practice. Thirty-five years later, I remain equally not bad at music, having ignored 9,990 of those opportunities.

Many hundreds of those wasted hours have been spent playing chess. Could I instead have had a career in the pawn industry?

I have played more chess than anyone I know, and am now good enough at it to be certain I’m no good at it.

You see, if you just briefly dabble in something—let’s say, building rockets—you can never be sure you mightn’t really shine at it if you decided to down the Lego and pick up an aeronautics degree.

I have a friend still in that dabbling phase, a Hazara refugee who tells me she wants to be an astronaut. She doesn’t yet realise that her chance of joining the six humans currently in space is about equal to finding employment as a comedian with the Afghani Logician’s Society.

Who am I to tell her that, once you have given something a red-hot go, these dreamy possibilities recede? It’s the Heisenberg principal of fanciful career paths: only when your early momentum fades do you discover exactly where you’re at.

After playing a few thousand chess games—even learning the term ‘zugzwang’—I realised I was stuck indoors while all the seriously talented folk were out on the patio. The sliding door had slammed, and my hand hurt.

Chess is gone, but who can rule out a late-blooming music career? Actually, I know exactly who: my inner logician.

First published in Medical Observer, Nov 2015

About Dr Justin Coleman

Justin is a GP working in Aboriginal health in Brisbane, Australia. He is also a medical writer, editor and blogger. Further details at https://drjustincoleman.com/
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5 Responses to I could have been a logician

  1. Jan Coleman says:

    Ah, Justin, have a heart! It might be a great idea to begin an article or speech with a joke but this one just makes illogical people like me fall in a heap and fear to go on reading in case there are more unfathomables ahead. I don’t get it and neither does a friend who is a maths whiz.
    So that makes two of us – and we don’t like cider either!
    And more unnerving points come tumbling in: music – with more hours of practice than Vladimir Ashkenazy ever felt obliged to do; chess – that requires far more serious concentration that your average reader has time for and who’d prefer to be out in fresh air and birdsong. Zugzwang I can relate too, certainly. How often has one been cornered and forced to make a desperate move – right into another trap?!
    As for Heisenberg? Words fail!
    Your story of what-ifs does have a good ending, All those could-be’s merging in the nicest possible way. It’s just really that disconcerting opening. I’m off now to sharpen my logic.

  2. Yes, I’m afraid quite a few folk have told me that the logician joke needs explanation.

    To ruin a perfectly fine joke: none of the three knows whether their two companions want a drink. However, if they themselves didn’t want a drink, it would not be true to say that all three wanted one, so they would simply have answered ‘no’. However, when third logician answers, because neither of the first two has said ‘no’, it is clear that they must both want a drink. Therefore, the last logician can safely answer ‘yes’ (i.e. yes, all three of us want a drink).

    Logically, it’s a bit funnier if you’ve already had three drinks by the time you hear it.

  3. Well I loved the joke, and like Justin, got it immediately, which perhaps indicates that I too should consider becoming an unemployed logician who enjoys, but is unable to afford, a cider with like-minded souls. And anyone who uses the term “conflated” well, especially if in a witty follow up to a joke about logicians, earns my instant and long-lasting respect.

    I was, however, surprised by the “Heisenberg principal” reference. Not because the quantum mechanics behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are way too much for my limited brain (although they are), but because the great wordsmith appears to have the occasional homonym hiccup too (should be “principle”, not “principal”). Maybe he slipped it in just to make me feel better! (Context: I complained to Justin recently that as I age, my subconscious homonym slip-ups are increasing at an embarrassing rate).

    Bravo! Another wonderful column, Justin.

    • To my writing shame, Genevieve, I was done over by the homonym. Although I did for a moment there consider trying to convince you that I was referring to Heisenberg’s notoriously vacillating school principal.

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