To Blow Against the Wind

Noah Johnson

By Noah Johnson, 2016 Fulbright Scholar

The first time I ever heard about Fulbright was listening to a Paul Simon CD in the car with my parents when I was younger. The CD was Graceland and the song was “I Know What I Know”, a conversation piece between socialites wherein both parties try to play it cool by refusing to answer deeper questions about themselves. They instead keep a barrier of preconceived notions present by responding to each other’s questions with the phrase, “Who am I to blow against the wind.” At one specific instance the man asks the girl, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”, before she answers as before. With a slight gender reversal this ended up being a question that I was asked multiple times after receiving my Fulbright in March of 2017. And if I was not asked the question outright my mother was quick to inform you that I would be headed to Sydney for my Fulbright in August, an embarrassing moment for any 22-year-old boy wanting to be as cool as Paul Simon. So, I followed suit. I would nod my head, shrug my shoulders and respond, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

During my Fulbright program and after my encounters with everyone at the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, I realized I had made a grave mistake in my response habit. By trying to act cool and shy away from confronting preconceived ideas of myself, academics and the US, I was not utilizing the opportunity given to me and the questioner. This opportunity was a unique starting point that few are awarded. A point where we both could begin to share ourselves and our backgrounds. But also, more importantly, where we could actually begin to question and understand a vast range of complex and usually predetermined ideas, about things such as cultural identity, quantum physics, and the infamous Donald Trump. The wind does not stop blowing there though.

You may recognize the refrain in this Paul Simon song from a more famous American song written by Bob Dylan. Where Dylan, in similar fashion to Simon, poses and then answers a series of shrewd and philosophical rhetorical questions with the constant refrain, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” While Paul Simon represents the beginning of my Fulbright experience, Dylan played a more crucial role. In my personal statement I discussed how my adoration for Dylan’s lyricism led me to question how those around the world who originally did not speak English and lived in places far away from the political and historical context of his songs in the United States could also share that adoration. More directly I wondered, what allows ideas to exist beyond the boundaries of nations?

In my proposal I suggested that such a language existed and that it was mathematics. While my earlier habit was altered by my Fulbright experience, the latter belief remains true to this day. It was through my Fulbright experience at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology that I had the opportunity to work with a physics research group representing nine countries, witness the creation of an internationally unique quantum computing company in Australia, and witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding regarding quantum computing between Malcolm Turnbull and Emmanuel Macron.

So now I can confidently say, yes, I am the man who was recently given the Fulbright and I think that the answer, my friend, might be blowin’ in the mathematics.