28 February 2011

A Physics Lesson

Grey day. Rainy, drizzly, damp.

A bit of color sparked up from the sidewalk – a patch of oil shimmering on a puddle.

I took physics in high school. Everyone did, we were nerds. Do non-nerds take physics? Maybe everyone takes physics; I just don’t remember it that way. Our teacher seemed always on the brink of losing control of the class. Notes winged across the classroom, chaos erupted in the corners. He wore coke-bottle thick, black-rimmed glasses, and couldn’t see very well. “Legally blind”, we heard. And, “has tunnel vision”. Ah, tunnel vision – that might account for his inability to see objects tossed blithely from one side of the room to the other.

I remember nearly nothing from high school physics. I can’t remember what I got on the Regents. I’ve internalized some core piece of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, but that could be from having grown up listening to Flanders and Swann singing “heat is work and work is heat”.

You know that song? It’s excellent. Here, have a look:




Back to physics class. I guess I learned something about waves and periodicity. Surely we talked about gravity and velocity. Amps and ohms must have been on the syllabus, along with Planck’s constant.

Picture by John,
from the Wikimedia Commons

But the only thing I really remember? Thin film refraction. That’s what you’re seeing when the rainbow glints off the oily splotches in the road.

I said it to myself this morning – “thin film refraction” – as I walked from the subway to the office, and I thought about Dr. Goutevenier and his thick glasses, and about how you may learn things and you may know things, and how it’s really about the learning, not so much the knowing, because if you know how to learn, you can figure out the knowing.

Because honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on in that pretty oily rainbow – I just know what it’s called. But I can look it up.

14 comments:

Mary said...

My best friend and I still laugh about our high school physics class. The teacher always tried to intrigue us with demonstrations that would inevitably fail. And then I got a sassy haircut late in the school year and the physics teachers approached me about who cut my hair. I went to school one morning and my friends were chuckling but wouldn't tell me why. The teacher got my identical hair cut. That's what I remember about physics.

Kyla said...

I am dreading physics...it is coming for me soon! But the rainbow effect is pretty.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

"If you know how to learn . . ." So true.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Physics was my absolute favorite branch of science, but I never took the class. I'd been looking forward to it and then I moved and I heard the teacher at the new school was awful. I didn't want someone to ruin physics for me. I did not know about this song, but I love Flanders & Swan. I'm glad to have heard it!

Lady M said...

In college, there was a "Physics for Poets" class so that "fuzzies" (vs techies) could get their science requirement completed.

FreshHell said...

I never took any of the "smart kid" classes: physics, calculus, statistics. I limped along in my basic science and basic math classes, such was the super genius I was. It's made me the super genius I am today.

Gina said...

There may have been some non-nerds in my FIRST year of high school physics, but the second year. Um...no. And my college physics courses? HAHAHAHA

De said...

Glory be! I can't remember taking physics class per se, but all those references in your post are familiar, so unless learning by osmosis is a more viable theory than it has been made out to be, I... I guess I did. I'm rather looking forward to the refresher courses as my children progress through school.

At some point in our lives, different for each of us based on a combination of our personal interests and our age, we rely more and more on external resources. However, last night when I simply could not make any further progress on the Sunday Crossword and actually "cheated" by googling something, being able to look something up was a weak consolation for my bruised ego.

Anna said...

i love this look back to h.s. physics, not that i really remember anything. to be honest, i wouldn't even know that the rainbow shiny thing could be explained by physics vs. one of the other branches of science.

Anna said...

you inspired me to go google my hs physics teacher, and i happily report he was my alma mater's teacher of the year in 2010. it was a nice story to read, and i thank for giving me the reason to find it.

Bron said...

Dr. Leon Goutevenier - I remember him fondly. Nice guy and good teacher. Poor fellow not only had tunnel vision but was also color-blind in the vision he did have. His clothing reflected this - lots of bright clashing colors, hence his nickname Neon Leon.

I was not a good physics student until David K, brilliant next door neighbor friend, tutored me. My grades shot up so dramatically, that Neon Leon asked me to retake several tests in front of him, alone in his office, just to make sure I hadn't cheated the first time round. He was sheepish about it. I aced the tests. Thanks, David. And thanks, Neon Leon, for your sweetness, focus and wacky dress sense.

mayberry said...

Love that photo, and the memories of Neon Leon that prompted this!

ann said...

My memory is in bad shape too. I vaguely remember his name, but I think I may have taken physics in college, not high school? (someone tell me if they remember me in that class!) All I can remember of physics is an extraordinarily riveting film of a bridge (in California? galloping Gertie?) that was doing a standing wave - a moment of absolute open-your-mouth-in-shock.

abby said...

My high school Physics teacher let everyone cheat off of anyone and said "too many bong hits" every time he coughed. Maybe that's why I'm now a teacher.

By the way, I'm teaching some basic Physics now and don't know what thin film refraction is. However, I now have incentive to find out if it may be the one thing my students remember.