Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On polarization

With the third and final presidential debate behind us (finally!), I wanted to relate a story.

I voted already. The early voting here began last Wednesday, and Friday I made my way to the local early polling place around lunchtime, the sky a beautiful blue and the sun shining warmly among the freshly fallen leaves.
But voting was kind of strange. Here I was, standing in line with three dozen other people, and somehow all of us were laughing and joking and chatting, both with people we knew and people we didn't. Holding doors for others. Holding someone's place in line, even if we'd never seen that person before.

And yet the thing we'd all come there to do seems to be the most divisive thing in history.

It's all the more poignant that we were early voters - the ones who have already made up our minds, the ones who do not need to wait for the candidates to debate. We are perhaps the most fiery, the most stubborn, the most convinced (if not convincing). But we treated one another like the neighbors we are, warmly and with respect. Perhaps it is telling that we didn't actually discuss the election itself, but instead how many local candidates there were, or whether it was too early for a flu shot, or if we'd seen each other around town lately.

In the end, it was strange feeling that dichotomy. To know, firsthand, that we were there to purposely choose one or the other, to polarize the nation; and yet we were also human beings, not so polarized ourselves. It is an important lesson to remember: we are all human beings, no matter how much we disagree.
We are more the same than we are not.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nuclear fusion as social commentary

Good morning, starshine - the Earth says hello
You twinkle above us, we twinkle below...
If you don't know the song, well, you might as well go check it out. It's a bit weird. But I used to hear it all the time on the oldies station I listened to as a kid, and this morning on my daily jog it was stuck in my head (perhaps it's the nice weather). So I started to hum as I was running, and then stopped - are we really twinkling? With the presidential election looming, we haven't exactly been the sunniest of people lately.

But what is "starshine," anyway? Nuclear fusion is a violent and energetic process, by which billions upon billions of particles collide with one another constantly until a precious few are able to fuse, producing a new element and releasing energy to power the Sun.

And isn't that what we are, too?

Humans are particles, too, each of us with our own energies, colliding randomly with others, usually to no effect. But just often enough, we collide with another human particle and find we share a resonance - something that allows our combined efforts to exceed the sum of its parts - and we produce something great, something new, something that empowers. So human interaction does mimic nuclear fusion to a fair extent; the Sun twinkles in its way, as we twinkle in ours.

Good morning, starshine.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


It's that time again... Adopt-A-Physicist has begun for 2012 and will keep me occupied for three weeks. Communicating with these high school physics students always gives me hope for the future of science in this country - they're talented, smart, and eager to learn.
The one question that is always guaranteed to be asked in the online forum is some variation on this theme: "what prompted you to go into physics?"
Well, it just so happens I have an answer for that.

When I first became interested in science, back as far as, perhaps, birth, I wanted to work with animals. Later, around the fourth grade, I put a name to my future profession: field biologist. I wanted to live in the great, wide wilderness – yes, a little cabin in the woods – studying wolves. This desire outlived even the cruel joke that is middle school and those unpleasant days during sophomore and junior year when the hallways outside the high school biology labs smelled fearfully of formaldehyde. I dissected cow eyeballs, rat intestines, whole fetal pigs. I was determined. I even rescheduled the normal order of science courses so that I could take physics first and get it out of the way, leaving my senior year free for AP Biology. My afternoons were spent doing homework in front of the TV as my hero, Bill Nye the Science Guy, explained subsurface harmonics, biodiversity, and why the Arctic is so dry. I quit my summer job at the library and applied to work at the nearest state park. I read all of the material on wolves I could find, even wrote about them in other classes. And then I met Mr. Kern.

My junior year, during the algebra-based physics course, Mr. Kern (Herr Kern, as we called him, since he was a recent transplant from Germany) brought his wife's good china in and set it out properly on a satin tablecloth on the workbench in the front of the classroom. "She doesn't know I have this here today," he confided to us. We all leaned forward, our breath caught in silent anticipation. "I need you all to believe in physics," he said, gripping the edge of the tablecloth, knuckles white. Then came the agile snap of his wrists, and... he opened his eyes to behold the table setting just as it had been arrayed, except that the tablecloth was delicately draped from his clutching fingers. We cheered. I was trapped.

I signed up for the calculus-based AP Physics course my senior year. While we built rubber band powered catapults and laser-mirror mazes, my friends in biology memorized the names of animal cell components and made flashcards to discern between kingdom, phylum and class. We recorded movies about waves and friction, they watched movies on mammalian birth. There was no contest.

After graduating high school, I went on to a bachelor's in engineering physics, but once again found myself turning from the engineering and gravitating, if you'll excuse the pun, toward the physics. Graduate school was the obvious option. There was still so much more to learn, and I was inexplicably drawn to those most fundamental connections between all things which physics attempted so aptly to describe. I met a copious number of eccentric and exciting characters during my early years in the department, and the farther along I went, the stranger and, ultimately, better those friends became.

So... not much has changed. I study physics now, because it is a fundamental science from which all others are spawned and developed. But I never let go of my first dream, and the main emphasis of my original hope has been fulfilled. I do get to work with animals!