Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Physics?

This is a final post of something I drafted in late July, so if you are following closely then you'll notice that the description of what I was doing at that point no longer matches what I'm currently doing.  What am I currently doing, you ask?  Maybe I'll explain more later.

Original date 7/28/2010

I came to realize yesterday, while I was tutoring the non-calculus based summer session of physics 2 and wishing I could just say "cyclotron magnetic force is equal to qvB because it's the cross product at 90 degrees" and have that be enough to explain it, and later while I was pouring over a green building design book's section on weatherization in order to study for my hopeful second round of job interview...

For all that I want to do other things and not lock myself in a lab until I'm thirty-five:  I'd rather write about science, do photovoltaic or energy efficiency or weatherization work because that helps real people and makes a real difference, for all that I even want to go stick myself in the woods and read/watch/write about evolutionary biology or else just strap people in to fun playgrounds in the trees, I'm a physicist.

That means I know how to look at things and understand the principles of how they work.  And I look at things from that perspective all the time, giving me the confidence to do things like super-insulate my parents' house, change my transmission fluid in their garage, feel confident in the safety of a hydraulic-breaking zip-line, without having to sit through training on each.  Training would make that knowledge better, sure, and experience even better than that--so now I've seen a 75 pound kid do the zip-line and a 275 pound man do it and decided that anybody much heavier or lighter is not going to have a safe experience--what do you know, the factory weight limits happen to be 60 to 300 pounds.

For somebody who grew up like I did, a young woman who wanted to be creative and imaginative, not necessarily technical, who didn't work on cars or build robots but who did build weird things with an erector set and make her own plans for her treehouse on graph paper, who struggled endlessly with ratios and proportions but who excelled at learning foreign languages...this has been really empowering.  Because it turns out that triple integrals are kind of like grammatical sentences that you can spatially think about, taking percents is why God invented calculators, and specific numbers for specific situations can be looked up in tables.

That means when you hand me an equation, it's just not good enough.  Just like my tutee, I have to know why, and since she has that attitude maybe she should have taken the calculus-based version and spared herself the trouble of "sorry it's too technical to tell you the truth" explanations.

That's why when my research continues to yield no quantum-mechanically predicted line for no reason that we can figure out, I just can't let it go and I end up thinking that staring at temperature verses frequency plots between 9.2 and 10.6 GHz for four different planetary nebula in search of one particular bump among the many other bumps is actually interesting, why I find tutoring physics a fun nostalgic chance to do the kinds of problems that used to drive me crazy before I had all the tools to do them, why I thought my foray into an environmental studies major was too easy because it glossed over details.

It doesn't matter what else I end up doing, and I fully intend to eventually succeed at employing myself in the energy efficiency or renewable energy field because I am smart and technical and have great interpersonal skills to boot and I can write and speak Spanish fluently...

I'm always going to be a physicist.

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