I may possibly be the only living college-track student ever to graduate from my high school without taking either chemistry or physics classes. I did complete the required Freshman year of something called “CP Science,” a physics and chemistry mashup from which I remember only that there are protons, neutrons and electrons, and that…there are protons, neutrons and electrons. I think that’s chemistry; physics was about arrows.
I did not always avoid science. I loved biology in 7th grade, mostly because I had a teacher named Walt Van Dien, a small, spry, and gentle chain smoker with tobacco-stained fingers and a quick wit who loved teaching, loved us all, and really couldn’t rest until we were as excited about chlorophyll as he was. He kept Mourning Doves and other creatures in the classroom, and when I found a Ribbon Snake in our yard and carried it to school on the bus to show him (don’t ask), he was thrilled, suggesting that we keep “Delphi,” as I called him, to study for the year, before releasing him into the fields behind the school.
That year, I could have become a Science Student, a Biology Major, or even a Scientist, but that potential was dealt crushing blows first by the incredible tedium of CP Science, and then by an unimaginative martinet of a high school biology teacher whose main skill in the teacherly arts seemed to be the use of the “ditto” machine to make endless worksheets, pale blue on white, and redeemable only because I liked the way they smelled when they were fresh from the machine. The excitement of learning about how the Mourning Doves digested, reproduced and flew was replaced by “mitochondria is the ____________ of the cell.” (The answer, by the way, is “powerhouse”).
Science having become dead to me (math expired some time in elementary school), I was delighted when it became apparent that, since I was planning to attend a conservatory of music rather than “regular” college, I really didn’t need to take chemistry in my junior year, or physics in my senior year. (Actually, I just didn’t take chemistry in my junior year, so both classes were on the table by the time I was a senior). I knew, in the same vague, second-hand way that people know that you can’t swim after eating or trust a man with a limp handshake, that both physics and chemistry involved math, lots of math, strange symbols and hard tests, and in a feat unrepeatable in this day and age, I convinced my parents and my principal that instead of taking more science, I really needed the two hours a day to practice my cello, to study music theory, and to help my orchestra teacher work with the students at the middle school. Many days, I actually did one or all of those things.
I would love to say that I am often troubled by the resulting hole in my scientific education, and that I really, really wish I knew more about how things work in the universe. The truth is, that I admire the Periodic Table as an example of Cubism, and that I am grateful for the existence of gravity, but beyond that…I rarely give it a thought. This is (or should be) embarrassing because I am married to a man who sells math and science curricula. While I am impressed with the “Inquiry” method of science instruction on which his company bases their texts, I have not, thus far, felt an unquenchable need to pick up any one of the 70,000 books currently filling an upstairs room and spend some time learning about what I missed. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important, it’s just that there are so many books I want to read, and so many things I want to learn, (and, honestly, “House” and “The Office), and I just don’t feel willing to spare the time necessary to become intimate with physics. It’s probably also important to note that law school was (for me anyway) a period of three years during which I read nothing of any personal interest to me, and I do not feel that I have another brain cell or breath to sacrifice to anything that is neither necessary for my survival nor scintillating to my psyche.
Yesterday, sitting in a restaurant with my husband and my parents, I happened to mention that I didn’t know anything about physics, except that there was something called a “vector.” My father, a teacher by nature and profession, took the twin straws from his iced tea and told me that he was going to teach me what a vector actually was. Placing them in a “v” on the table top, he asked me to imagine that they were chains, one attached to an ox, and one to a truck. My questions about the age, gender and size of the ox, and the make, color and model year of the truck were ignored. I was, he instructed, to imagine that the two sources of power were being used to move a large rock, located at the joint of the “v.” I was distracted by the fact that the putative “chains,” were very clearly cocktail straws, and tremendously bothered by the absence of ox, truck or rock, but I focused very hard on following the next part of the story. In order to pull the rock in the desired direction, my father explained, it would be necessary to adjust the “v” in some way, due to the relative force of the ox and the truck. The line in which the rock traveled was The Vector.
While I was still constructing a visual in my head (the velvet-nosed ox with his wooden yoke worn smooth by the years, or could the ox be a “she,” or if it was a she, would she not be an “ox” at all, but something different, like “bulls” and “cows?” Was s/he well-treated? Was the truck one of those really cool vintage models with the cute front-mounted headlights that looked like bug-eyes, maybe in a faded pale blue?) my father and husband had gone on to other examples, one involving my brother flying his small airplane and forming a “v” with the wind, followed by an entirely incomprehensible example related to sailing into which I interjected my sailing vocabulary (“tack”) and was, again, ignored.
So I kind of get it. I even see a real reason to understand what a vector is. If, for example, one was moving a large rock, flying an airplane or sailing, one would need to have a firm grasp on the use of vectors, on “vectoring,” as it were. I have no plans to move large rocks or to fly an airplane, and I have long ago proven myself an incompetent sailor (in an incident in which my father had to row a boat into the middle of a lake to retrieve me and the boat I was attempting to sail, because I could not…tack). The laws of physics and chemistry are important things to understand, things that are fundamental to comprehending the workings of the world in which we live, but for the most part, I plan to continue being glad that other people understand them and feel willing to dole out tidbits of information to me on an infrequent basis. A very infrequent basis, if you please.