A Meandering Path

It may not look too terribly glamorous, but this is how we replicated the Millikan oil drop experiment: we looked at a screen that showed what was going on inside the little oil chamber where we manipulated oil drops with electric fields. #PHYS228

Class at 8:30 is infamous in the winter, but it was fated that I have a class that time: Analytical Mechanics. It’s next on the grand sequence towards the major I am certain of declaring: physics. This past Wednesday, our professor brought up a couple pictures on the projector. One picture was a lone tree, pine needles and all; the other was an idyllic forest vista, a river meandering through it. Bill (we are on first names at Carleton) went on to reiterate a point on the syllabus, one that’s become much clearer in the past five years I’ve been exposed to physics in the classroom. Something like this: that the lectures and lessons and notes will focus a lot on single topics of detail, but in the end are all connected and part of a bigger picture. Or: we’re taking a look at a lot of trees – admiring them too along the way – but in the end we need to remember it’s all part of the bigger forest. Macro-perspective and micro-perspective. My eyes open at the realization, the revelation of the moment. I’ve found another reason to cherish what has been, like the river in the photo, a meandering path towards what I hope will be a worthwhile career and life in physics.

I’ve been on a river once: the end of June last year saw me on the Cannon, the river that passes by Carleton, and even if I did know the path of the river on the map, you wouldn’t truly know what to expect until you paddle your way to the points on the map. Maps don’t tell you what you’d actually see, from the two bald eagles we saw float above, or the old creaky metal bridge we passed underneath, faded and forlorn. Whatever navigation I had in life didn’t tell me what I’d see for sure. They sure didn’t tell me I’d want to study the things I’m studying now.

I was accepted to a high school with specialized offerings in STEM and vocational and technical trades, back in the ancient days – so far away, aren’t they? I was enrolled as a student in Engineering, an idea I didn’t also know I’d consider, or at least did so without enough complete thought. Nonetheless, I found myself in a physics classroom, with engineering applications, my sophomore year. And what a year that was. I could list so much, but I will simply say that our activities beyond note-taking and homework, and my teacher, got me thinking about physics that year. A defining moment for how we engaged with our lessons was a moment in our school’s indoor pool, testing latex-coated cardboard boats that had to be self-propelled. Besides the nice dip in the pool we got to do with our projects, the greatest benefit was that the time we spent there was to truly work on applying the theories, their relation to us as people and their relation to the world at large. Buoyancy never came more alive as an idea beyond just the Archimedes principle until that moment in the pool.

Come to think of it, it was so amazing, I kept on thinking about physics all throughout the five years since. I still want to understand and want to do something with it, even with a few rapids on the river. My junior year was spent in a higher-level class that wasn’t taken seriously by either class nor teacher; the next year, I spent the next level online because nobody wanted to move on, mostly because of the aforementioned experiences. It did get tough – but by then, physics was what I was telling people I wanted to do with my life, though I knew not how.

Enter the Carleton days. I probably should have been done with physics because of how much more complex the concepts have become over the past year and a half. Some people may consider the following two experiences “signs” they should stop dealing with physics:

  1. Learning about special relativity in your freshman year. I’ve likened the effects of motion at the speed of light as “trippy” because it just is: it isn’t as intuitive for you to consider how things behave when they move that fast as opposed to those classic “football” kinematics problems lots of high schoolers and some intro college physics students may face. I remember leaving the final exam feeling very burnt, because I couldn’t understand everything.
  2. Modern physics. My fall term this year was spent cramming the last century’s discoveries in ten weeks, from Planck to Feynman, and many details in between, but admittedly too many bases to cover. Not to mention a few nasty experiences writing up lab reports and learning how to do laboratory work. Plus, the intuition was again, different, for this time now you talk briefly about quantum mechanics. And as before: I couldn’t understand everything.

I did understand a lot of things, actually. We replicated the famous Millikan experiment in the fall for my first laboratory experience, working with an apparatus that moved oil particles through an electric field. This process a century ago discovered the fundamental charge – essentially, how small you can divide an electrical charge. With precision! My lab group and I didn’t get that precision – we weren’t meant to – but I will remember this: just like that moment in the pool years ago, I saw physics at work. It was in the tracking of motion on a little screen of the smallest speck of oil we had to follow, and in the numbers we found after some mathematical and computational massaging. I saw how we understood the world just a little more, and – from a liberal arts perspective – the history and legacy we are left to work with and build upon, from Eratosthenes to Newton, Faraday, Heisenberg…

And who said the path was meant to be pretty? It was meant to meander some, in a good way. I’ll never forget the advice of a friend of mine who’s a physics major: you don’t have to necessarily get it right away. Not all of physics is immediately understandable. Schrödinger’s equation, relativistic mechanics… all of them we were meant to wrestle with. And there is no one “right” path anyway to learn, nonlinear, like a river.  Thankfully too, nobody ever has to understand it alone. You can see it in the culture: our physics department always promoted collaboration on homework and review, and I find myself learning more when I get a chance to try to talk about an idea from a lecture, or seek help from colleagues, who probably face the same straits I was in understanding. Maybe in a different way, but we all knew it was never easy. Yes, you don’t have to get it right away – although you do have to get it in time for the exams and projects! Working smartly is still the name of the game, but I know that the atmosphere here towards learning physics is just all the more conducive for me to keep on going.

I’m probably still wondering why I still want to pursue the physics major. I’ll definitely keep asking myself. At best, it’s a good idea to keep asking because I could always use a self-made reminder why I ultimately want physics. The same thread has followed, from the high school pool, to the labs, and hopefully in my Mathematica programming. It’s just that natural urge to make sense of it all. Not a very specific idea, but I know I want in, and when one can take a look at all the trees along the river path, all separate and together, details and the big picture – it looks like a very nice life to paddle through.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17