Friday, 6 January 2012

How Schoolboy Physics Improbably Came To Lie Behind My Work In Progress


I hated Physics at school. Even though I loved Chemistry.

Partly because the Physics teachers weren't cool, in their creased corduroys and pipe tobacco scarcely concealing their body odour. Chemistry teachers seemed normal even ranging to cool. One of them played a high level of semi-professional cricket.

Then there were the classroom-labs themselves. In Chemistry your head could sink to the surface of the bench where your eyes would rest on the exciting potential contained within the bottles of acids and alkalis ranged there. In Physics, what did you have as an equivalent? Gas taps for bunsen burners, which was odd since I don't remember ever doing an experiment involving heat in Physics. Oh yeah, there was Boyle's Law I think...

So probably it came down to the fact that I understood Chemistry, whereas Physics I couldn't make head nor tail of. I could never get to grips with solenoids and circuits because I had no idea what electricity or magnetism actually were. Where they came from. And I could never get past that incomprehension of first terms. The only part of Physics I understood was radioactivity and let's face it, that's chemistry anyway!

I was obviously aheaded down the path of Arts curricula rather than Sciences, but was advised by sciency older cousins to continue with Physics to exam level rather than Biology. I was happy to duck out of Biology before I had to take up a dissecting scalpel, so I took their advice.

But then I had to confront the same conundrum as before. A complete dearth of understanding of the subject. I was advised by the same cousins that both curriculum and exam exactly mirrored the very good textbook, Abbott's Ordinary Level Physics 4th Edition. They counselled me, all I would have to do is learn the textbook from cover to cover (except the radioactivity section, cos I understood that).

And so I did. Like times tables and Latin suffixes, I learned every page by rote. Still didn't understand a single blasted word, but I could regurgitate it in an exam. I achieved a bang middle of the road unspectacular Grade B and took my path down the Arts subjects English & History and promptly forgot every bit of Physics I had committed to surface memory. They wouldn't let me do Chemistry without either Physics or Maths, so my third A-Level was the lamentable pseudo-science that is Economics which I hated then and now looking at Governments and Bankers, doubt that it is any kind of credible academic discipline whatsoever.

After University, somewhere along the line I started reading the odd bit of popular Science. I really can't remember how I developed an interest, but it could just have been down to Stephen Hawking, whose book "A Brief History Of Time" was a real best seller that adorned bookshelves probably unopened up and down the land. I stumbled my way through it and gleaned very little understanding. But I continued plodding along with Richard Dawkins and Steven J Gould, about 2 or 3 titles a year max.

I had a trans-Atlantic flight and decided to give "A Brief History Of Time" another go for its duration. This time I grasped most of it, until the String Theory stuff right at the end which made my head feel like it was full of spaghetti.



From that point on, Physics held less fears, though I couldn't claim to understand all of it . But Stephen Hawking had cured me of my antipathy towards Physics through his wonderful writing. Complicated thoughts expressed with crystal precision and unafraid to offer a metaphor to aid understanding. Quantum Mechanics and sub-atomic particles seemed to offer me as a writer some wonderful metaphors I could employ in my writing and gradually this has all coagulated into the idea for my current work in progress. Based around the notion thrown up by Quantum Physics, that the observer influences what he/she observes, whereby my main character is involved in surveillance for his job.

And the weird thing that emerges from this new project? I bought a copy of my old school textbook, Abbott's 4th Edition and I will be reading it for research. I wonder how much will come back to me and how much I may understand this time round.

7 comments:

Virginia Moffatt said...

What a great story. I was always more split Science/Art. I loved Physics for two years with an eccentric and compelling teacher.Unfortunately at O Level I was taught by a woman who was the doppelganger of Dolores Umbridge (though she did stop short of carving liar into our hands)so I got my B and gave up. But I love Physics, even though I think there is something rather Emperor's New Clothes about subatomic particles... So I'm glad you've recaptured the love and look forward even more to reading the work! I recommend Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries if you haven't read it. Marvellous

Virginia Moffatt said...

What a great story. I was always more split Science/Art. I loved Physics for two years with an eccentric and compelling teacher.Unfortunately at O Level I was taught by a woman who was the doppelganger of Dolores Umbridge (though she did stop short of carving liar into our hands)so I got my B and gave up. But I love Physics, even though I think there is something rather Emperor's New Clothes about subatomic particles... So I'm glad you've recaptured the love and look forward even more to reading the work! I recommend Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries if you haven't read it. Marvellous

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks Virginia, I have read "Gut Symmetries" as I have with all Winterson novels because of how she slides effortless between scales of things in her metaphors. I do feel a slight resentment that my Physics teachers couldn't inspire me like my History & Chemistry teachers did, but then maybe consistently having great teachers in 2 subjects is more than many get.

marc

alisonwells said...

As you know I have an interest in Physics and a capacity similar to yours in the subjects ability to turn my head to spagetti (although I did study it to Leaving Cert exam level (seven subjects), receiving a Higher Level C, my worst result other than Maths.) The reason I admire it too is the power of it's metaphor and the particular topic you've chosen is a favourite, really looking forward to reading and glad of the particular Winterson tip, one of hers I haven't read.

Dan Holloway said...

Happy reading! I always loved physics though at school it was our biology teachers who were cool - one of them was a marathon runner and a local yard of ale champion.

My love of physics definitely came from Carl Sagan rather than school, though - endless experiments with tickertape timers somehow never did it for me.

Sulci Collective said...

I think you're right on that Dan. Classical Newtonian mechanics, optics etc just aren't as sexy & thought provoking as quantum mechanics and general relativity. Would such high concepts have distorted the warp and weft of our tiny minds? Probably, but worth a shot I would have thought

Dan Holloway said...

They may well have distorted the space-time of my mind, but they may also have persuaded me to take the subject beyond O-level, at which point such defects could have been ironed out. As it was, I decided that "school physics" was obviously very different from the exciting stuff I read about in books and saw on tele so I ditched it for History, Latin and English.