I have decided to take a break from my finals studying (because, quite frankly, if I have to look at my history or German shit one more time in the next two hours or so, I’m going to scream and then start crying and probably be arrested for causing a ruckus). Enjoy this journey through my personal history with science.
It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, sometime during the fall of my sophomore year of college. I’m sitting at a desk in Bessey Hall, one of many arranged in a lopsided circle around the room. Roughly half of the desks are filled with half-awake former ROIALies staring blankly at Professor Anita Skeen and the visiting artist (her name escapes me). We begin one of those intensely irritating “get-to-know-you” exercises, where you go around the circle and give information like your name, hometown, major, and then a random fact about yourself.
When it inevitably gets to me, I proffered the usual drivel. Then, it was time for the interesting fact. Thinking for a moment, I shrug and say, “I read physics books for fun.”
It’s currently very hip to be a “nerd.” In fact, the modern idea of nerd has fused with hipster culture to become something almost irritating. Let’s like something that’s traditionally socially shunned, because we want to be unique and pretentious. Also, those nerd glasses and pocket protectors? HOT. Take a long, hard look at the traditional nerd stereotype. Then look at hipster kids. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
So, old video games and computers are okay to talk about now. But physics? That’s still too weird to be cool. When you toss science into the ring, you immediately move from “cool nerd” to “let’s-beat-him-up-and-take-his-lunch-money nerd.” Say goodbye to your social circle, kid- some lines just can’t be crossed.
I’ve never cared much for the opinions of others, though, so I crossed that line. And, as I looked around the room that autumn morning, I could see people shifting in their seats uncomfortably, their eyes either straying from me or locked on me in an expression of absolute bewilderment. Not only did I cross that taboo line- I crossed it in a room full of arts students. I would find no kindred spirits in that crowd.
But I wasn’t always that weird artsy kid who was interested in superstring theory and quantum mechanics. I remember the days when general relativity did not set my heart aflutter.
The sciences were not stressed strongly in my elementary school in Cody. I think we looked at leaves and talked about trees a few times. I know I sprouted a green bean plant in a paper towel once. And I made a bitchin’ model of the earth out of papier-mâché (I hate French and it’s overabundance of accent marks). In my third grade enrichment group, we studied NASA for a while. That was the first time anything remotely related to science sparked so much as an inkling of joy in me- mostly because I’ve been obsessed with space since before I can remember. We also studied the stock market, but that’s a rather humorous story for another occasion.
Don’t get me wrong- I went through the same phase 89.7% of children went through where I wanted to be paleontologist. But I wasn’t interested in it from a scientific viewpoint (thus why I didn’t travel that career path, I suppose), just from an “oh my god, dinosaurs are awesome!” viewpoint.
So, when I moved to Greybull and they were studying kinetic and potential energy, I was immediately lost. And I never quite caught up, that final semester of my elementary days. School had always been so effortless for me, and here I was, struggling with concepts everyone else seemed to grasp with ease. I was upset and developed a stubborn hatred of science that persisted for years to come.
During middle school, we were forced to create science fair projects and compete in the district competition. I flat-out hated every minute of that. If I remember correctly, my lackluster projects had to do with alarm systems (I never even built the alarms- I just fudged the information and bullshitted my presentation and still managed an honorable mention) and some survey “project” about lightning (which I didn’t even bother to try on). My teacher was obviously disappointed in my lack of enthusiasm for the fair- he knew I was bright and wasn’t even attempting this with even a quarter of my potential. Still, there wasn’t much he could do about it, and I walked out of both fairs with an even greater detestation for the sciences.
Again, however, there was a crowning moment of scientific discovery in my life during these years. And that was my first dissection. Most girls squirm and gag and refuse to do the project. I was paired with a girl who almost fainted twice and then didn’t even show up for the second half of the dissection. But I was fascinated. I took great care pinning the little frog to the tray, to opening him up with as much precision as my unskilled hands could manage, to slowly removing vital organs and finally seeing firsthand how all the pieces of the puzzle that is a living creature came together.
But, as before, that small spark of wonder was smothered by my stubborn hatred of science.
When high school rolled around, I wanted nothing more than to tell science to stick it where the sun don’t shine. Of course, that was not an option. I was in science all four years (though by my senior year I was slowly breaking down my wall- more on that as we go). I started pretty basically, with biology. Nothing worth mentioning there, except that science tried to traumatize me when my teacher forced us all to do insect collections. I have a crippling fear of insects, so I couldn’t catch/touch any of them. I had to have my brother do it (and I abhor admitting I can’t do something), and when I tried to do it on my own, I broke a butterfly and had a breakdown on my kitchen floor. I cried harder that night than I ever had over a boy. Pathetic, no?
Then it was chemistry. I was as excited as anyone going in to chemistry in that I really wanted to blow something up by accidentally mixing dangerous chemicals. But this was a shitty HS chem class, so the most I managed to do was make an acetone derivative that ate into the plastic petri dish a little…
Botany was boring. Period.
Then it was time for physics. And here’s where things start turning around. Physics wasn’t a bunch of dry, regurgitated facts I had to memorize for exams. Physics was the application of everything I’d learned in math (a subject I adored). It was full of actual experimentation- I got to learn, hands-on, how the universe worked. How these laws described the forces that governed my world.
I had never been so excited over science. I could feel the wall I’d built years ago slowly toppling down.
Freshman year of college rolls around, and I’m in my only science course I’ll take at university. But it was a good one- an astronomy course. Finally, I got to study space. And I fell, hard and fast, for the logic and truth I now saw in science.
When I was younger, I always saw science as pointless- just a construct of man to attempt to describe the world around him. Scientific theories were always being overturned- I felt this was nothing but proof that we were wrong, we’d always be wrong, that our man-made descriptors could never encapsulate all that happens in the universe.
But then I wised up. Yes, the theories as they now stand are imperfect and incomplete. But don’t forget, our picture of the universe is so much larger and clearer now than it was even a hundred years ago. With every breakthrough, with every theoretical revision, we are putting another piece into the large puzzle of the universe. And yes, one day, I believe we will complete it. The ToE exists.
Back to the story. Freshman year was also the year I picked up The Elegant Universe, one of the few books I can say honestly changed my life. But why did I pick up this book? What would make me read anything about superstring theory? It actually began with Crichton’s Timeline, which introduced me to quantum mechanics. Was the book accurate? God no. But it did serve to get me interested in theoretical physics.
And, from there, one thing led to another, and I became serious with science. We’ve been together for four years now. It’s a very rewarding relationship, if a bit one-sided. See, I just don’t feel I’m doing anything for science. What is science getting out of this? Despite these nagging self-doubts, I am very happy with science.
I end this with a bumper sticker I saw in the Meijer parking lot today that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside: