Trials and error

I’m not really sure what week it is any more. The schedule has been rearranged so many times that it doesn’t matter. I keep revising my deadline dates in my planner, I tilt at the Windmill of the Evening until further effort is useless or needless, then I crawl off to sleep and take up a different lance the next day.

The pace of each course is fast, and I knew that going in. And each week, each professor reminds us as a class, “The pace of this course is fast, and there’s basically nothing we can do about it.” In physics, for example, the goal is to cover all of physics in one year. Then, as Professor Benjamin says, “You spend the next three years covering it all over again.” Keeping pace with it is similar to filing paperwork in a wind tunnel.

Kind of makes you wonder why that cat keeps jumping back on the treadmill, doesn’t it? Motivation towards a goal is often mysterious. It’s quite possible that even the cat doesn’t know for sure. (And if he does know, he’s certainly not going to tell us.)

I haven’t had much time for recreational reading (or recreational much-of-anything; sorry, knitting group!) lately, and to tell the truth I really should be reading physics or studying derivatives right now, but a few weeks ago I found a lovely little volume at Half Price Books called “Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings” (ed. by Thomas McFarlane, 2002) and I pick it up and read a couple of pages every once in a while. Today I read a pair of quotes that really resonated with me, perhaps because we’ve been discussing the concept of Error in physics lab.

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we make progress.
—Richard P. Feynman

In our world error is continually the handmaid and pathfinder of Truth; for error is really a half-truth that stumbles because of its limitations; often it is Truth that wears a disguise in order to arrive unobserved near to its goal.
—Sri Aurobindo

I have spent a lot of my life being afraid of Error, and trying not to bump into him in the hallway. I was afraid of what people would say if they saw us hanging out together; I had a reputation to think of! Conversely, I have made a living by finding Error where no one else could. Without him, I had no other marketable skills. Perhaps it is time for Error and I to rethink our relationship to be, shall we say, less confrontational. Maybe we can find a way to work together.

“Umm… Houston…..”

 

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Week 2ish

A wave of lecture-crushing illness brings me this unexpected block of time in which to write about the second week of classes. (Translation: My physics professor is sick and so far this week has had to cancel two lectures and this morning’s lab, so I don’t have much “third week” stuff about which to write.)

I’m running with the pack on calculus, and got an 18 of 18 on the first quiz. The second quiz is tomorrow afternoon, and since today’s class will pretty much be a review session for the quiz, I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m also current on the online homework, and since you get several chances (in many cases) to work each problem, I still have 100 percent on the homework assignments despite a couple of “how the BLANK do you DO this?” moments. I’m getting solid help from online and In-Real-Life friends who want me to do well.

Physics-wise I’m keeping up, but I really need to push myself to keep working on sample problems every day. I can’t trust my memory to remember anything for me — I have to KNOW it, and deeply, before I can access the information. That makes it tricky to acquire new information that’s difficult to understand…. but the “story problems” themselves help make the text something you can apply to real life. Remember how we all hated the story problems in the math book in junior high school? How upset we were when math stopped being a set of written problems and tried to come out into the world and be relevant and useful? Maybe my particular class missed that because of our particular teacher. He wasn’t exactly a cheerleader for applied math…. mostly I remember he was allergic to chalk.

Mr. Miller’s nightmare. Imagine if he could have used a whiteboard!

Astronomy update: my “free times” didn’t work out with the student who needed a tutor, so he’s been hooked up with someone else. But really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

In other news, the temperature wavered a bit, then finally dropped into the 30s at night. Wisconsin has crossed over into “WINTER IS COMING” even though it’s technically still summer. Tonight will be the night we all change back to the flannel sheets. I’ll probably warm them up in the dryer before I put them on the beds (I cannot tell you how much the kids are looking forward to this). And as soon as I’m done with this post, I will be knitting myself a pair of purple mittens.

That was the week that was

Wow, I packed a lot into one week. In that time I have done four online calculus assignments and one written assignment, and will have a short quiz this afternoon; learned how to compose (and break down, or “de-compose,” I suppose) vectors on paper and with Actual Lab Equipment; and finished the Uncertainty book.

It’s not rocket science. Yet.

In the student job I’ve learned some new procedures for handling the paperwork that we do every day. And at some point in the future, those procedures will change again; and at another point in the future we’ll be moving everything to our new location and hoping everything gets set up properly so we can keep those papers moving.

I was also asked by last semester’s Astronomy professor to be a tutor to one of her students this semester. I think I may have a couple of free hours per week here or there (the current hour being one of them), but I’ll have to see if that aligns with the hours the student is available.

The schedule this semester is definitely heavier, and the content is definitely more challenging, but I do keep telling people, “It’s Week Two and I still want to be a physics major.” Yes, it is challenging material, but it’s very interesting and it inspires me to work hard.

I met the other second-degree Physics major (hi, Nate!)… turns out I’ve been sitting next to him in Introductory Physics. We are two of a kind on the university printout of demographics by degree. We both have the feeling that we have one shot at this and we just need to do our best.

And one funny thing….yesterday I got a call from the Beloit Department of Corrections regarding an open position as a Parole and Probation Officer. It took me half a minute to realize this call came as a result of my scores on the Office Support Test I took in late spring. (I called them back and declined as politely as I could.)

It’s time to do some homework and study up for that calculus quiz. Onward and upward!

Learning to fly

I really wanted to put together a post before I had taken any of my fall courses, in an attempt to capture the pre-semester jitters of a 45-year-old physics fan. However, that just didn’t work out. NOW is when I have a few spare minutes, so NOW is my writing time.

I have a busy schedule. I am working 16 hours a week in my student job. Part of this involves helping faculty members pack for a move into a renovated building; part of it is helping move my own office stuff into the new building. We’ll be on the fourth floor of Laurentide; that’s a lot of stairs involved in my anti-elevator vow.

I am also taking Calculus I, Physics 180 (intro to physics for engineers and scientists), and Physics 190 (current topics in physics) for 11 hours of coursework. Each contact hour of class implies another 2 hours of time necessary for studying and doing homework, so that’s 49 hours of university contact time every week. If I don’t see anything to do, it means I’ve lost my glasses.

My goals are to stay on top of the reading/study schedules for each class, and to watch other people silently wash out as I make my next sets of flash cards. I have a pleasant commuting companion in the late Richard Feynman, whose mid-1960s physics lectures I am accumulating on my iPod. He is awesome and funny, and listening to him will help me be able to attack physics from all sides.

Wil Wheaton loves this book, too!

In the background of my regular course reading, I’m almost done with a book on the discovery of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In contrast to some of the books I read last year, this one is very cleverly written. The author’s asides on the private lives of some of the world’s most esteemed physicists and mathematicians make me want to hole up with a year’s worth of biographies and just read, read, read.

Summer vacation, part 5 of 5

A mere few weeks remain before the fall term starts on September 4. Ironically, I won’t be able to attend a full day of classes that day and will probably have to miss Calculus class. September 4, in addition to being the first day of school for myself and all my kids, is also the date of the follow-up appointment for my middle son’s ADD/ADHD assessment at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. The actual assessment will be on August 28… September 4 is when I will find out the results. So it’s kind of a big deal. I’ll want to meet with my Calc professor in advance to let her know what’s going on.

I haven’t been able to work this month, as I’ve been busy doing Mom Duty all day. But here and there I’ve been buying notebooks, losing and recovering my student ID, and thinking about buying this year’s parking pass. Haven’t actually purchased it yet, but I am thinking about it. I also had a panicked moment when I thought I had forgotten the combination to my padlock at the Non-Trad Pad… but it turns out that I did still know it.

When I do find spare time, I need to start filling it with physics.

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Doubt

Is it helpful to write about the moments when you’re not sure you can do what you’ve set out to do?

Does writing about doubt give it the energy to overcome you?

Is it empowering, later, to look back upon your progress and see that you doubted yourself and nevertheless overcame your obstacles?

Isn’t doubt a realistic part of every big dream?

Does acknowledging doubt give power to your detractors, who will now always have something tangible to point at when they say, “I told you you took on too much … I told you this was crazy … I told you you couldn’t do it” ?

Is a moment of doubt merely an opportunity for reflection, a time to synthesize the goal into your life as a whole and make the necessary course corrections?

Is expressing doubt a way to communicate to your friends that you need their support?

Is doubt a touch of reality creeping back into the fantasy, poised to shatter it?

Is doubt the expression of lack of confidence, which can only be overcome by harder work and more success?

Doubt in the face of the status quo seems to be an essential element of good mathematics and good physics. It’s the acknowledgment that things don’t make sense to you the way they are supposed to — the way everyone tells you that they should. It’s the step before creativity, before experiment, before speculation, before breakthrough.

“I’m not sure I can do it” oft comes just ahead of “I did it!”

Summer vacation, part 4 of 5

I did get myself a few nice things for my 45th birthday — all additions to my geeky-ass bookshelf.

First and second of all, I searched the Half Price Books website on a whim, looking for the other two volumes of the physics texts I’ll need for Physics 181 in the spring. Did you know they have an online store, listing books from all sorts of locations? I found one for 99 cents (the first edition, but it should do), then searched for “Feynman” and found Volume III of his Lectures on Physics for 99 cents as well (a library discard — shame on them!). Coincidentally, it was printed in July 1966, just the same as my Volume I that I found at a local store for something like 25 or 50 cents. I love getting every volume in the same edition in a set. Look out, Volume II!

Collect them all and get a free set of bongo drums!

I also found a used copy of the other Physics 181 text that was missing, from Amazon.com. While I was there I picked up a lovely-looking book, Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, that is not only a consolidation of two Feynman texts but also includes an audio CD of a talk he gave in 1975 about his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project.

One more Feynman bio — really two in one.

So yes, I treated myself. I also received a Kindle Fire and was pleased to see that everything I had on Kindle 1 was, magically, already present on Kindle 2. Hello Newton, hello Copernicus; good to see you again. I will try to spend as much time with you as I will with Angry Birds.

Work-wise I’m staying busy at my student job. All chaos broke loose on my missed opportunity for full-time work in terms of it being offered to me again, but since I had already registered for all those classes in the fall and agreed to take on some really interesting projects with my current employer, I decided to stay the current course and gear up for finishing the degree on time rather than in 20 years.

94-year-old college graduate Hazel Soares