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What’s Your Vector, Victor?

lst-vector-diagram[1]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.

mitochondria[1]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.

Big_Rock_in_a_Field[1]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.

ox2[1]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 interjectedย  my sailing vocabulary (“tack”) and was, again, ignored.

Sailboat-1-main_Full[1]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.

41 responses »

  1. Oh, and I just cannot imagine a life without vectors…. ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Meal time is the perfect place to talk about science. You can hold up french fries and lemon wedges and show just how the universe is aligned. Billy can show Uncle Joe that just because it’s really cold outside, it does NOT mean that the sun is farther from the earth that day.

    Since I am mentioned here, I will use this opportunity for shameless promotion. If you a fan of sustained inquiry in the classroom, check it out.

    • Any time is a good time to discuss science. okay, that’s a total lie. Seriously, though, I am sure that if “inquiry” had been around when I was in school, I would have learned (and loved) much more science.

  3. I rather liked algebra, but mostly because it was neat and tidy. Solve for x? Why yes, of course I can do that.

    Biology generally smelled bad and I like to smell not-bad. Our high school actually frowned upon girls taking higher level math and science classes and pushed us to take “ladylike” classes such as home economics and French. I managed to escape the sexism by spending my junior year abroad.

    • I was only good at geometry. I’ve read that whether one is good at algebra vs. geometry is very telling in some way, but I can’t remember what it “tells.”

      Biology was smelly, particularly the formaldehyde. We did not, however, have any gender-based discrimination. That’s kind of awful. I don’t think we had home ec, come to think of it.

  4. Who needs physics when you can consistently write funny shit like this!!! um, funny stuff, I mean. oops!

    • Thanks, Eric, and don’t worry about the word choice – my mom can’t figure out how to get on the blog, and Sam just doesn’t read it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Oh, we did have home ec. I took it, but still cannot handle a sewing a machine (I mean, how hard could it be to sew 4 squares together?…turns out: really hard! I couldn’t get them to line up and the bobbin got all knotted up). Without home ec, I never would’ve tasted a snicker-doodle (the one cookie that no one would ever choose to make, or eat, unless there were absolutely no interesting ingredients in the house).

    I did well in both geometry and algebra (not sure what that says) until that last semester of Algebra II when they introduced the sines and cosines …(“huh??”) and my A tanked to a C. That was end of my math “career”. (And if it weren’t for Marty’s help, I would’ve flunked!)

    I remember Mr. Van D. fondly, too. What a nice man. (I can still hear him saying, “Doves do not defecate in flight!” thus reassuring the class!)

    I believe the vector is the relative force created between the computer and the t.v. pulling me (the object) in a direction away from doing something useful…

    • Okay, i believe you that we had home-ec, but I can’t even think where in the building it would have been?! As for snicker-doodles, you are DEAD right. No chocolate, no nuts, no coconut, no peanut butter, no…nothing.

      I (barely) got by in Algebra II (with a little help from Marty’s friends, actually) but was also mystified by the sine and cosine thing – they looked like some sort of code used by the people who came back from the future.

      As for the vector…best description ever. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • The home ec. room was down by the “shop” room (’nuff said?)…down a lost tangent of a hallway far away from the rest of the Kinawa world.

        There were 2 teachers: a “mature” women (sorry, I can’t remember her name), who was rumored to be the better teacher, and the “new” teacher that I had, who’s name was something like “miss tightly-wound-stress-puppy” one year, turned “mrs. smugly-married” the next.

        And thanks…(I weren’t hardly even tryin’…it just come to me)! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. “The answer, by the way, is ‘powerhouse.’ ” Cracked me up. Love it. You’re a good writer. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Michelle! The “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” has been my (one) science fact for over 30 years.

      • Mitochondria comes directly from our mothers, and not from our DNA…did’ya know that? (And ATP is the “power”. I learned this in college!)

        (Oh, and above…I meant to say “woman”…gah!)

  7. I took Algebra 1 & 2 and Advanced Math in high school but knew I had reached my limit and skipped Physics. My eyes still glaze over when someone tries to “enlighten” me about something like “vectors”. Liked your pictures though! North Coast Muse @

    • Thanks, Sally. I confess that I totally steal pictures, and then tell myself it’s okay because the original source gets traffic from my site…it’s an entirely flimsy (and possibly illegal) rationalization.

      As for your non-career in physics…I think it’s good when we know our limits. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. i love how physics and chemistry makes you look smart… but it takes alot to retain information about bonding and stuff.. from seven years ago :-o. vectors weren’t easy or me to understand either lol

    • I remember that! There were “co-valent bonds,” right? I feel smarter just remembering that! I admire you for having done the heavy scientific lifting, and thank you for reading.

  9. You didn’t miss anything by skipping Physics at OHS. Mr. Powers called it “varsity science” and it was full of football references.

  10. that’s I don’t know what my vector self

  11. Annie, you are a gift! This is absolutely hilarious! I have a similar relationship to high school and college science. My daughter inherited the same gene but didn’t want to pass it on, so she married a dude with a Ph.D in physics from MIT. They have a great relationship, but they don’t have many math/science discussions. He’s a professor who cooks, so who cares!

    • Thanks Kathleen! You might want to speak with my immediate family before buying into that, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

      My son got the genes – my grandmother was the first woman to graduate from the University of New Hampshire with a chemistry degree, and both my dad and my husband are able to embrace math and science, so he was safe. I kind of hope he marries an artsy type, though, so my genes will not be completely obliterated….

  12. This was a very interestingly written piece from a person who studied (and likes ๐Ÿ™‚ Physics and Math but branched off to Management. Your piece reminded me so much of Bill Bryson’s introduction to his famous book “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. It started with a quest for all things scientific and the output was this great book! Enjoyed your piece immensely!

    • A comparison to Bill Bryson. I really can’t think of anything much nicer. I really, really do think I would find science interesting if I studied it now (and that I could “do” math if I tried), but whether or not I ever find out remains to be seen. I figure I’m good for another 40 years; maybe in retirement….

  13. Your post is good, clear, and interesting. As a chemical engineering student, I feel that science, especially math, physics, and chemistry are the basic tools to solve our everyday problems. You see, most of modern utensils we use anytime are primarily discovered from science principles.
    I appreciate your choice to continue your study at music and art, but you may still improve your knowledge, and your passion of science. It works sometimes.
    Enjoy writing!!

    • I do hope you understand that I have GREAT admiration for all things scientific, and the people who work with them – I honestly think that engineers of all varieties do magic; I can’t think of much in my life that has not in some way been touched by the work of an engineer. I’m also a pretty serious cook, and have come to realize that everything I understand about how a cake rises and how the protein in meat breaks down or toughens up in cooking is…chemistry. I do enjoy writing, but I think the Science People are the smart ones!

  14. We can’t all be good at everything, but there is a fascinating social asymmetry between Science and Art (note capitals) which I would love to get to the bottom of. Its pretty normal at dinner parties for people to make jokes about how bad they are at science. “I have no idea what a proton is. I just know some chap with a terrible jacket tried to explain it at School. Aren’t I funny ?” Everybody laughs. Oh yes, me too darling. Subtext : You know I am a very cultured person and/or important banker etc, so we all agree that what we are good at is more important, don’t we ?

    You don’t find people saying “I have no idea who Beethoven is. Aren’t I funny ?”, and expecting people to think “oh me too darling, aren’t we the clever ones really“. People would say “well, ok but you’re missing out. Beethoven’s pretty cool. Check it out”. Possibly while thinking “Dork”. But not while thinking “I am glad you said that”.

    So I am not trying to put anybody down (honest !). Finding your own self-supporting peer group is pretty natural. And scientists (like me) can sometimes be annoyingly arrogant. I am just genuinely confused about why the behaviour patterns in these tribes are different. Maybe it betrays a geunuine defensiveness ? Hmm. Thinks. Perhaps the arrogant-scientist and patronising-humanities-type fit neatly together ?

    • That is an extraordinarily insightful comment. You are dead on about the easy acceptance (particularly if one is female) of protestations about being a math or science ignoramus, but I, personally would (and do) judge anyone who didn’t read real literature/know who Beethoven was/know about Cubism.

      As I wrote in an answer above, I come from a family speckled with scientists, and dated a biochemistry student (now a patent attorney) for many years. “Defensiveness” is the answer, yes (mutual intimidation) BUT while I believe that anybody can write if they just try, I am in awe of those who run assays, run cyclotron labs and develop pharmaceuticals. We do fit together, well.

      Thanks for reading, and please come back some time – your comment has had me thinking for days, and I quite like that.

  15. Loved the story. Good writing. I have a healthy interest in science, i just can’t get past the complicated math. Mainly because i haven’t learned it.

    • Daniel, I am attempting (secretly) to learn algebra correctly as my 12-year-old son studies it. So far he is a much better math student than I was, but I have this theory that I can do it, this time. It’s just hard to listen to his father explaining things to him while pretending to read or watch TV….

  16. Hello Annie

    Its the first time I reading your posts. Nice touch of humour.

    I completely understand your feeling about Science. Though I loved it till high school, I chose the Commerce stream. And was glad I did so wen I saw my friends growing white hair trying to find out the velocity of the third drop of water from a pipe that was turned off 35 mins ago.

    • I love your username! Thanks for reading, and for a good laugh. You never know, though, that third drop might be coming – I believe scientists have magical powers and can do things other people can’t do, like…conjuring water?

  17. I am sad that that is all you remember about physics classes. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ There are so many interesting things in physics. For example, almost all of an atom is empty space, the fact that you can pour water in an airplane, that things act like all of their mass are centered in a point, if you line up a whole bunch of balls and hit them with one the same size, only the last ball will move, etc.

    Frankly, I think there is a need for a less math centric class, one more concept based for the general audience.

    • I never had a real physics class, just a kind of “lite” introduction. I totally agree that if there had been a less math-oriented, more concept-based class, I would probably have loved it. I was, and am curious about how things work, and I’ve learned many things that didn’t grab me at the outset because they were taught well.

      I have, by the way, never understood why you can pour water in an airplane. I’m going to find out. Right now.

  18. Ann,
    I’m commenting again because my first comment was just fluff and after reading your post again, I identify closely with your experience. You know, I took 4 advance placement tests in HS–English, German, French and Biology. Ironically, I got the same score in English and German–a 3 (you and my sister both got the highest scores given, a 5, if I recall correctly). I barely got through Algebra II and only because I assiduously did all my homework which accounted for at least half the grading in that class–my tests were a nightmare. However, I achieved a 4 in French and Biology. I quite liked Biology because I loved the teacher (Scott Purvis) and it was a concrete application to something I could see and understand. Math, physics, chemistry, on the other hand were too abstract for my brain. I did read a worldbook article on the Speed of Light and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity once and could hold the concept and understanding in my head for only a few moments before it was gone again. I just think some people’s brains are wired differently and mine is just more attuned to learning foreign languages and music and others are better at grasping math concepts. Some people are really good at both–I hate them.

  19. Pingback: Ignorance is Bliss? « Forest Street Kitchen

  20. walt vandien was my Father in Law. This is awesome. I never met him. My Husband Charley loves to hear these stories

    • I am THRILLED to hear from you. Walt Van Dien was the best teacher I ever had, and my brother feels the same way. I knew Mary Helen, too. When i graduated from high school, 5 years after I had been his student, they both remembered, bought me a present (a necklace, which I still have) and brought it to my house. Your husband, being the product of such a magnificent gene pool, must be a wonderful guy!


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