July 30, 2004

Gettin' Personal

from - smijer

I started this bloggy thingy to have some measure of influence on public opinion - it's a public project. Since Howard Dean left the presidential race, I've found that I am increasingly interested in posting about personal stuff. This is going to be one of those posts... just stuff about me, and so what if I'm the only one interested by it?

I would never argue that I am as enamored of biology as Paul Myers, or Reed Cartwright. Biology is, to me, a spectator sport. It may be a spectator sport that I follow with interest similar to the baseball fan who knows the ERA of every pitcher in the major league, but I have no regrets that it is not me on the mound.

I can't say the same about theoretical physics (by which I mean theoretical partical physics and cosmology). It's a recent thing. I was interested enough to pursue a major in it, nearly a third of a lifetime ago, but I wasn't interested enough to actually work on the pursuit. Back in the present, when I read Sean Carroll's blog, and when he posts about physics, I read with real envy that he is doing something that I locked myself out of doing by poor choices.

What follows is me rationalizing to myself, out loud, about two things. The first is why I love physics. The second is why my blue-collar job has nothing to do with it, and why the wonderful opportunities that were handed to me in 1990's went to waste. I think some of the reasoning is the same for both.

My first exposure to partical physics and cosmology came from a National Geographic article from the early 1980's. The article explained the then-current (and to the best of my knowledge, still-current) views on the formation of planets. It backed up to explain the synthesis of the heavy elements in supernovae, and even big bang nucleosynthesis. For a moment as a pre-teen, I felt something not too distant from the joy of discovery, because I felt close to understanding some things that were at least nearly fundamental. The feeling of understanding something fundamental, and the desire to understand more, goes a long way to explaining why physics means so much to me. The fact that I picked this up from a National Geographic magazine laying around the house goes toward explaining my failure to properly pursue my interest. In my home, science was "interesting". Academics were "useful". The teaser was there to draw interest, but there was no reverence for learning where I came from. It was never more than a means to an end... and teen-agers are just not cut out to care about means to ends.

My next exposure to physics - mostly classical, now, - came from Larry Anderson, who taught chemistry and physics at my Georgia public high school. Nearly simultaneously, friends introduced me to the popular writing of Richard Feynman (whose obituary I read, but did not grasp the importance of, in Scientific American, July 1988). In this same time frame, I read the Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagels, and for all its failings, it did present a solved mystery or two in terms that made the mouth water for more mysteries to solve. Mr. Anderson taught chemistry and physics so well that one left the class having no doubt about one's ability to work out a problem from classical physics or chemistry, and with little doubt about one's understanding of quantum numbers and their relationship to atomic orbitals, and their relevance to non-organic chemistry. Dr. Feynmanm, in his popular books, validated the sense of elation that came with a sense of understanding and promised that the right amount of curiosity was all that it would take to keep unlocking those secrets that Dalton, Newton, Lavoisier, Rutherford, Einstein, and Bohr had decoded before us. These were the reasons that I decided to register my major in physics (instead of engineering, or some other more "practical" field).

But I had never gained the work ethic that is necessary for the rigors of a real university setting. I had a lack of confidence, and no-one pushing hard from behind (they had learned their lesson dealing with me as an only-slightly-younger adolescent). The only culture I had of learning and achievement for their own sake came from my own idle meanderings, and experiences that were too vicarious to be instructive in popular reading.

I won't have it said that I care less about physics than any of those who work in the field. I can only admit, with shame, that I didn't care as much when it mattered the most.


Posted by smijer at July 30, 2004 11:34 PM

I majored in physics also but in my 'mature' years I've found evolutionary biology to be fascinating. Great blog BTW.

univar.jpg Posted by ~DS~ on July 31, 2004 11:35 PM
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Even for people who figure out very early that they want to be physicists (or whatever), there are precious few jobs out there for people to actually make a living doing it. The good news is that you don't need to be a professional to learn about physics and keep up with the latest developments, and then help spread around the excitement through a blog! Too many people get turned off from science for good sometime in high school or college, so it's a great service to remind people how fascinating it really can be.

univar.jpg Posted by Sean on August 2, 2004 02:57 PM
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Thanks for the encouragement. I'm flirting with the idea of going back for a degree so I can teach high school science.

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on August 2, 2004 08:54 PM
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