Saturday, October 19, 2013

I (heart) Physics

Note: This program first aired on October 12, 2013.

Yesterday, I had something happen to me, that hadn’t happened in a very long time. I got a test back from a teacher, and I scored 100 on that test. I teach at a local institution of higher learning, and after years of wanting to take physics, I was finally able to fit it into my schedule this semester. My professor, and colleague welcomed me into the class, noting that no one had ever taken his class out of pure interest before. It was an auspicious start.

For the first five weeks of the class we studied kinematics, the study of motion without consideration of or regard for the causes of that motion (that’s the next part of the semester). Kinematics is the mathematical description of motion, it explains how positions change, what velocity does, and how constant acceleration affects the movement of a body. It is pure math, which I wasn’t expecting for some reason. The course I am taking is the non calculus based version of physics, but it turns out there is a lot of math out there that isn’t calculus. Algebra and trigonometry for example. I wasn’t expecting math problem after math problem, or having to pull the conceptual nuggets out of these equations and verbalize them on my own. And I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Physics is beautiful, in a way that biology is not. It is clean and clear and precise. The structure is relief and a comfort, with a set of coordinates I am oriented in space and time. The linkage of the abstract to the everyday is a revelation. And at the end of each problem, an answer.

For years I have used the word vector, without really knowing what it means. A vector is a movement that has both a magnitude and a direction. It usually is represented as an arrow, the longer the arrow, the bigger the magnitude, the direction of the arrow, the direction of the vector. If we put that vector on the Cartesian coordinate system (the x and y axises), we can learn even more about it. It turns out that it has an x component and a y component that are totally separate from one another. This separateness is the reason that whether I throw a ball horizontally or drop a ball straight down, both balls hit the ground at the same time. And here’s the truth, these words don’t do it justice, at all, not even close. You really have to see the math to understand how perfect this knowledge is. I don’t know enough yet to articulate everything I am learning, other than how powerful this experience is. Physics is an entirely different way of thinking about and experiencing the world around us, one that seeks to quantify and explain all physical phenomena in a language far more precise than English, or French, or any other language made of mere words.

I am in admittedly, physics kindergarten, but getting 100 percent on my first test in kindergarten was still a triumph. A triumph over all the tears and drama that accompanied my high school algebra homework, over the notion that women can’t do math, over the possibility that I am too old to learn something new,  and over the inertia that keeps us from seeing the world from an entirely new and wonderful perspective.