Physics is phun

I got a sticker in physics class tonight. I slid the paper name card out of the plastic name card holder and added a green florescent “great thinking” to the pink and yellow glitter “WOW” I won last time. This week I asked a question about distance and acceleration. Last month I was the only participant to take out a notebook and write notes. I am not the only student with stickers though. A few people in the class did their extra credit and have three.

I would not have signed up for this class if I had been left to my own momentum. I do not spontaneously consider gravity or make casseroles for sick people or plant vegetables or buy handbags. These activities are not in my nature. I had made it through various levels of school with vague notions of an apple falling on a guy named Newton’s head. I had wondered why they named a fig cookie after him and not an apple cookie. That was the extent of my knowledge of physics. I am proof that math and science are not essential to function as an adult. I have assembled a world solely from narrative language, intellectual abstractions and pretty furniture.

But parenting has ways of pushing the boundaries of patience and fortitude. I thought the late nights, the diapers, the tantrums, the constant wise cracks were trial enough until my teenager submitted my husband’s and my name in the lottery for a place in the “Physics for Parents” class, a program at his high school. Of course we were chosen. Of course we would not be “supportive” if we did not leap at the chance to sit through four two-hour sessions with 50 other parents.

I had been cranky all day about attending. It is absurd, really. I am unspeakably busy in my grown-up life right now—drowning in expectations from all sides. If I had two hours to spend on anything, it should be to catch up on work, or perhaps unpack my suitcase from a trip eight days ago, or even sleep. But learn physics? A waste of time. Yet, we slogged to the school in dark, zero-degree February weather after long days at work, to set some higher example for our children, who stayed home watching Survivor and CSI in our absence.

Tonight’s class was about motion.

The class operates like Barnum and Bailey meets Penn and Teller meets Bill Nye the Science Guy. If teachers believe their teenage students have limited attention spans, then they must assume their parents to be several bouncing balls less-focused. There are four teachers—two men who have shared the role as ring leaders for over ten years and two younger women who are newer to the show. With surprising charisma, all of them flit from demonstration to video to story to demonstration in minutes, a blur of simple gadgetry and “do not try this at home” contrivance that introduces and reinforces myriad of physical laws. The parents sit in desks, some in rows, some pushed together as “love seats.” I dragged my husband, who I have not seen for more than seven consecutive minutes in the past two months, to a “love seat.” We watched the swirl of activity at the front of the room with incredulous interest.

We were asked what would happen when a dart is shot at a stuffed monkey dangling from a magnetized plate in its head; when liquid blue Jell-o in a pie plate is swooped from side to side suspended on a string; when raw eggs are thrown at a sheet stretched across one edge of the room; when a cart with a lead block is pushed into a calico bear; when straws filled with clay are catapulted across the room; when the fishing “Bob” in the glass jar filled with water is spun on a turn table. I always guessed wrong. I found myself watching more intently, more curious. I struggled to understand why two balls, one shot horizontally and one dropped vertically will fall to the ground at the same time. Why wouldn’t the extra distance add time to the horizontal ball’s journey? The formulas were lost on me, but I began to see in the various slow motion shots and the grid drawn on the slide show, how horizontal movement has the same acceleration, but vertical velocity increases as it get closer to the ground.

There was a clearing in the fog, like Helen’s hands furiously signing under the pump. It was begining to make sense. I guessed correctly that a penny dropped from the Sears Tower would just bounce off my head rather than exploding it. I learned that to increase my odds of survival after falling out of an airplane, I should extend my arms and legs to reach terminal velocity sooner (aiming for trees helps as well). I jotted down the optimal angle to get the most distance when being shot from a cannon. The physical began to take a more solid shape and structure. The world felt freshly comforting. I could predict that the same action, no matter how many times repeated, would always be the same.

Now, everything in physics class applied to me. I see that my life is stressful because I am moving with no friction. I will keep moving in the same direction until an opposing force redirects my compulsive drive. What external force could slow the inertia? Maybe a vacation? Because I have not been exercising, my mass is large and my acceleration is slow. I will need a serious force to get myself to the gym. How about reading the scale? The more I push my children to do stuff, the more they ignore my nagging—object A exerts force on B and object B exerts force back on A. It explained so much.

I realized that the teachers were crossing a kind taboo, revealing secrets to universal magic tricks. What was mysterious was now explained. Unlike the disappointed child who now knows what can be up a sleeve, I found myself surrounded by magic redefined. Four people so passionate about their subject matter that they perform well into the fifteenth hour of an average work day. They invite us to share and yet make it clear that they are having Physics Phun whether we make the effort or not.

I learned tonight that to change momentum I would either need to be hit with a big force for a short time or a small force for a long time. I wonder how I would categorize the impact of my class tonight. I drop an M&M and a crinkled piece of paper from the edge of the table and guess the result correctly. I slow to a stop, smile, and toss another M&M into my mouth, a perfect parabola.

10 responses to “Physics is phun”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    A perfect parabola…and a perfect post!

    If you even get time for leisure reading, I recommend Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos. After reading about Einstein’s theory of special relativity, travel will never seen the same…the time-space continuum is some crazy stuff for sure.

  2. Rachel says:

    “I am proof that math and science are not essential to function as an adult. I have assembled a world solely from narrative language, intellectual abstractions and pretty furniture.”

    Oh, Pandora, this is so terrific. When I told E. that your son put your name in a physics lottery, she said, “Was he mad at her or something?”

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Just yesterday, my fourteen year old daughter (with a 3.95 ave.) asked how well I did in my physics class. Physics? Hell, I had to cheat to pass the class. Ok, maybe I didn’t cheat, and maybe I don’t have a driving curiosity for science, but I did (and do) think many aspects of physics was interesting. Thanks for the post.

    And *ahem*, I got a “C+”.

  4. Stephanie Wells says:

    This might sound a little strange, since this is not a particularly emotional post, but when I finished reading it early this morning I found I had tears in my eyes just from the sheer beauty of the writing and the perfect construction of so many of these sentences and analogies. It’s so inspired, and absolutely inspiring–even more about writing than about physics. I loved it–thank you.

  5. Demosthenes says:

    I really enjoyed your post today. You did a great job taking such a boring subject like physics (at least I find it boring) and making really interesting. I love how you applied the physical laws to your life. Excellent post.

  6. MF says:

    PB: I love this post. I, like you, thought physics would be perfectly superfluous to my liberal arts life. But, when I got mono 4 weeks into horticulture, I had to drop out and take another lab science the next term. I chose physics because it seems easier than chemistry. Mark E had to talk me through nearly every problem set, but in the end, I really liked it.

  7. Stella says:

    This is so great – and the Fig Newton question made me laugh out loud.

  8. AW says:

    I had very little interest in science as a kid, but when I started studying it as an adult, found it very intriguing and even enticing. It was so much fun to know how the world *worked*, and just to know *stuff*–facts about the planet and universe that I had never known were important before. This post brings the delight of all that to mind.

  9. Dubya says:

    PB, I have to tell you how swelltastic this post is — so good, it’s stuck with me for days. The writing is sublime. And MF and I were quoting you this weekend as I was eating M&M’s and trying to parabolic-ly pop them in my mouth.

  10. Karen says:

    Enjoyed your comments about the class. One of those crazy teachers is our son in law and we are well aware of how much he enjoys his students and the physice phun for parents class..