Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Did A 'Heavy' Physics Load Cause This Kid To Crack and Kill A Fellow Student?

Ian Scheuermann
Ian Scheuermann, age 22, being held for investigation of second-degree murder.

When a university student kills another, it makes top news billing for the university town in which it occurs, in this case Boulder, Colorado - for the University of Colorado. Hence the news three days ago that a 22-year old physics major (Ian Scheuermann) killed a fellow student (Sean Hudson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate) has the UC campus abuzz as well as the tiny town of Boulder, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies.

How or why would a physics major - of all people - kill a fellow UC student?  Physics majors are supposed to be the epitome of rationality and judicious temperament. The story making the rounds is that the killer was acting "in self-defense" - having been tackled to the ground after an argument and punched in the head. See e.g.

According to the story, the physics student "told police that he cut the victim four times in self-defense after he was tackled to the ground following an argument." Which elicits  answers to the questions that inquiring minds want to know: 1) Why was he even carrying a knife - given Boulder has perhaps the lowest crime rate in the state?  and 2) What was this argument about to provoke such aggressive reactions - a tackling take down on a downtown street, and a knifing?

People can speculate that perhaps it revolved round who was pursuing the more difficult or all encompassing discipline. And maybe Scheuermann said something like "Well, you know the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual is just a bunch of fantasy crap designed to earn money for therps and keep Big PhRMA in business".

But somehow, I doubt even that kind of statement would have triggered being tackled on Pearl Street.

Even if it did provoke the Hudson psych guy to tackle Scheuermann, why would you need a knife to defend yourself? Don't you know how to fight with bare knuckles?  Anyone with good sense knows if tackled by some aggressive person you fight back you don't reach for a damned knife .....or a gun.

This account seems correct as the article in the Boulder Daily Camera further notes:

"When he got to his car, Scheuermann told police that a man he knew as "Jeremy" and two of that man's friends, including Hudson, confronted him. According to the report, Jeremy, who was not identified further in the police report, was still upset over an argument he and Scheuermann had two weeks ago over a shared ex-girlfriend.

Scheuermann said he apologized and said he did not want to fight, and said Jeremy was not physically confrontational, either. But Scheuermann told police that Hudson was being "physically aggressive," and that both Scheuermann's friend and Jeremy tried to break up the argument, according to the report.

At that point, Scheuermann said Hudson shoved him to the ground and began to hit him in the face, according to the report. Scheuermann told police that after he was on the ground, he took a knife out of his pocket and cut Hudson in self-defense and pushed him back. But Scheuermann said Hudson continued "coming back at him," so he cut Hudson and tried to shove him back several more times, according to the report."

So here we have the scene: A bunch of guys (at least 4) loaded with testosterone (and likely booze too) going at each other over a "shared ex-girlfriend" (Always a bad scene given a lot of chicks never want to make a clean break so the former guy thinks he can hang around). The physics junior gets shoved to the ground and maybe even pummeled by Hudson (the psych major) but because he never learned how to fight he reaches for a knife and the most extreme solution.

Another problem I have with these sort of scenarios of a weak kid armed with a lethal weapon appeared in yesterday's Denver Post, p. 1A, That is, that a number of states, including Texas, Arkansas and Kansas are now in the process of passing loose gun laws that allow citizens to pack concealed weapons when they go into public places - including parks,  college classes (in TX) and voting precincts (in AR).

What if some heavy set guy picks  a fight with physically weak gun-carrier  on the way to the voting polls (or on the highway)? Will the wimpy gun -packer reach for his concealed Glock and answer questions later? Or will they proffer the standard rejoinder: "I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six!"

Anyway, it is plausible all this was about a girl, but the extreme reaction of Scheuermann still elicits the question of whether another catalyst might have been at work. It is possible that now - given it's finals week at UC - the pressure may have gotten to him, perhaps to do with his quantum mechanics or E&M test and computer science exam too. We don't know, but we do know plenty of students can crack under exam pressure - or after failure - and go ape shit. Look at James Eagen Holmes (then at the Anschutz campus of UC) who mutated into "the Joker" - the alter persona in the Aurora theater massacre. We now know from a Denver 7 News report by Keli Rabon that Holmes failed a preliminary oral exam before pulling out of the UC neurosciences program.

My past experience at different universities also suggests it is at least plausible and needs to be considered as a distal - if not proximate - cause. Or even as a catalyst to precipitate action.

Looking at the regimen of physics courses needed to graduate at UC,  they are pretty rigorous - but about the same level as we had for students in the Physics Dept. at University of the West Indies. See, e.g.


The profs are apparently pretty tough at UC- Boulder as well - some with low marks on 'rate my professor' for being hard asses. (As I learned, this means you assign a lab report and homework the same night, and don't give Bs merely for turning them in on time.) But who knows what combination might have put the kid in a pressure cooker?

One may even rightly ask if Scheuermann was cut out to be doing majors in both physics and computer science. Maybe he bit off more than he could academically chew.

We will have to wait for further details from this sorry case to emerge, but it certainly hasn't done the university any good to appear to be harboring a physically and mentally fragile student, i.e. who can't take pressure, and another older grad student (pursuing a Ph.D.) who believes it's okay to jump a kid 4 years younger and wail on him in the middle of a downtown Boulder mall.

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