25 March 2011

The willingness to fail

Calculus has been stressing me out lately. I actually went into preterm labor the day of my midterm (and thus missed it). This was only partly due to the stress of the class itself (I have lot sof other things going on), but it gives you an idea of my freak-out level.

I said to my husband that I was only going to give myself twice to fail the class before I decided it was a sign that I just am not cut out for this science stuff. But in the back of my mind, I was already thinking that maybe I just couldn't do it and should think about going back to something I KNOW I can do. I actually started researching what it takes to become an editor.

But then I had a particularly bad day, in which I mostly ignored my children and surfed the Internet. I came across a quote that really struck me. I think he was talking about science, and John Backus, inventor of FORTRAN, said, "You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don't work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work."

I really suck at failing. I've never done it, I've never been gracious about coming close to it, or even losing a GAME. But if I'm going to be a scientist, I have to learn. SO much of science is trial and error and error and error. If I can't stand to fail, I will never make it as a scientist without being completely broken.

So calculus might be a good place to start practicing. I'm going to try like hell not to fail. No scientist goes into an experiment or observation or calculation hoping it doesn't work out. But if it doesn't, they pull themselves up and try again, fixing whatever went wrong the first time. And that's what I need to do here. If I fail, I'll try again, I'll work harder on the things that kept me from passing (because, see, I UNDERSTAND calculus, I can even DO it, but looking at a problem and figuring out what calculus I need to do - getting started - I struggle with), and I'll do better the next time. My spirit won't be broken, and I sure as hell won't quit.

27 January 2011

More on Starting Calculus

Yes, Calculus. Well, I dropped it last semester before it even began, because I was busy getting pregnant and being a little hormonal. The first trimester was rough on me, and I'm glad I dropped my classes, because there's no way I would have been able to give them the attention they required.

But now I'm a week in, and so far feeling ok. I think the hard part will be remembering all of the Trig I crammed into my brain over the 8-week summer semester and promptly forgot during the fall break. Limits, I get, and according to my professor, that's all Calc I really is. Derivatives and Integrals are just fancy limits.

I used iTunes U to help me prepare for the class (there are a couple of calculus semester lectures there), and now I'll be using it to fill in the gaps left by my professor, who tends to ramble and go off-track and not always explain everything completely well.

I'm still a bit nervous - the majority of the grade is TWO tests (midterm and final exam), he doesn't really award partial credit, and I'm always screwing up something stupid in my algebra when I do complex problems. But I think I'll understand the concepts ok, and that's the most important thing here.

13 August 2010


I haven't written here in almost a year (though I have one post in draft from six months or so ago), but I have been plodding along, working my way up the stairwell from the underground onto level footing to begin my degree. I've finally started "coming out of the closet" regarding my major and professional goals, and it feels good. Now if I can just live up to those dreams...

This will be my last semester of classes I "should have taken" in high school (algebra-based physics and calculus I), and next semester I'll begin the real work of pursuing a physics degree. I managed to ace college algebra and produced a very respectable B in a condensed-session trigonometry course.

But in two weeks, I start calculus, and I'll confess, I'm terrified.

My friends who took calculus in high school or college tell me it's not as hard as it looks, that I'm smart and I'll be fine. My brother-in-law took calculus three times before earning a C and he is now employed as a mechanical engineer. I know on an intellectual level that I'll probably be fine. But as one of my favorite authors has said, "Intellectual understanding does not always bring visceral belief." (Orson Scott Card, Xenocide)

I have an irrational fear of drowning in calculus. Maybe it's just a function (ha!) of how math-terrified the general population is, of how calculus is whispered of as though it were a medieval torture device. But even having had two semesters of precalculus and having done well at them, I look at my calculus textbook and it is a foreign language.

This is a big step for me. Much as I held precalculus as a marker of my probable success, calculus fits that role even more so. If I can't do calculus, I can't do physics. Calculus is the language of my chosen profession and if you can't speak the language, you can't be a physicist.

I'm determined to speak the language, one way or another.

20 November 2009


It's a good time to be a physicist. CERN started circulating particle beams today at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the date acquired from the particle collisions will be phenomenal.

Unfortunately, I'm not yet a physicist.

I notice, though, since I full-on decided to pursue this course of education, all of a sudden, physics are everywhere. I wonder if this is some sort of cosmic message, or just the Yellow Volkswagen Phenomenon. You know... when you buy a yellow Volkswagen, suddenly you start seeing them everywhere. It's not that everyone else bought one as soon as you did, just that you're more aware now.

Of course, I'm aware of what's going on with the LHC at CERN because of my interest in physics. Other things, though... I started reading the His Dark Materials trilogy last week. As I was listening to them discuss "dust" and their theories of multiple universes, I couldn't help but think how much it sounded like the ideas about quantum physics I'd been reading lately. And, as the story progressed, I found physics was exactly what they were discussing. Next week's episode of House, MD (my biggest guilty TV pleasure, which I reward myself with while at the gym) involves a physicist. Those things are less an awareness and more a coincidence.

Or maybe it's the Universe's way of telling me that I'm on the right path here, that this is where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I find it ridiculously ironic that, as I'm preparing to become a scientist, I'm also waxing philosophical about everyday occurrences.

But that's part of what I love so much about quantum physics, astrophysics, and cosmology. At this point, it has all the intellectual appeal of modern science and the spiritual appeal of theology. I can get my preternatural fix without resorting to the supernatural.

I never have been happy with a boring life.

19 November 2009

Patience is a Virtue

The problem with making life-altering decisions is that you get impatient to get started. Or at least I do. Halfway through the fall semester (when I'm not taking classes), I came to the conclusion that I want to study physics and astronomy at a respectable university. In order to do that, I have to take several semesters worth of math and at least one course each of physics & astronomy.

But I have to wait until next semester to start.

Next semester is TWO MONTHS AWAY.

I also made the mistake of following a twitter search of "physics OR astronomy" on Tweet Deck and lots of people are talking about their physics and/or astronomy homework, which just makes me more jealous. I feel like my life is hanging in balance, and that I'm holding this lofty goal in my mind without really knowing if I can even hack precalculus.

I need to get these math courses under my belt before I can feel confident actually stating my goals (what? I haven't even told YOU my goals yet, beyond an undergraduate degree? see, I told you I'm self-conscious about them) out loud to anyone other than my husband, and I am impatient to do so.

13 November 2009


Do you ever feel silly just talking about something?

The idea of ME as a physicist seems to me like something one would picture when confronted with a boggart and yelling "ridikulus!" whilst brandishing a wand.

It took me ages to get up the courage to write my acknowledgements post, mostly because it seemed silly to even consider the idea that I may one day be pursuing a doctorate in physics. I mean, ME? For one thing, I've always hated math and I was never any good at science (part b: I'm an artist). For another thing, I change my mind weekly/monthly/yearly about What I Want to Do When I Grow Up (Newsflash: I'll be 30 in three years. I'm grown.) Third of all, saying I want to be a physicist sounds about as reasonable as saying I want to be a professional hockey player, an olympian, an astronaut, or a rocket scientist. It's just one of those pie-in-the-sky sounding goals.

Even though I've mapped out my next four semesters at community college in such a way as to prepare me for University and a physics/astronomy major, even though I've been studying maths and layman-level physics (cause I do NOT have the math skills for anything more advanced yet), even though I can retrospectively see that this is something I always should have tried to do, even though it's a perfectly practical goal that will take a long time to accomplish... I haven't really mentioned it to anyone but my husband and the Internet. Why?

Because I feel silly.

How silly is that?

11 November 2009


Some day, I hope to write a physics dissertation. Right now, I'm just hoping to get through precalculus. But assuming I do so, and that calculus itself doesn't suck the very marrow from my bones, I plan to go on to study physics at an undergraduate level and hopefully (someday) pursue a doctorate. And a Ph.D., as we know, involves the writing of a dissertation .

Even if I never get to that point, the very desire to learn about the world around us, to dream of one day calling myself a physicist, is something I never thought I'd have. Getting to this point has required the input and inspiration of many individuals. I suspect if I ever write that dissertation, I'll have even more names to add. For now, these are the people who have gotten me to this point.

Quentin - My eldest son, with an insatiable curiosity. From Bill Nye the Science Guy to "George's Secret Key to the Universe," Quentin and I have learned the basics of science and physics side-by-side. Eventually, I realized my wish for him to be a scientist one day was really a projection of my own desire to learn ever more and become a physicist myself.

Mrs. VanWyck - By far the best science teacher I ever had. In the sixth grade, she introduced me to the basics of physics and the cosmos, and to Bill Nye the Science Guy. She's the first person I remember making science interesting and relevant, and hers is one of the only classes I really remember from Jr. High.

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) - I LOVED his show in sixth grade and loved it even more as an adult. Bill Nye makes science interesting, funny, relevant, and fun. He explains the basics of physics with such finesse, and always made me want to learn even more.

Random boy whose name I can't recall - When I was a freshman at community college, floundering around, unsure what I wanted to do with my life (a state that continued for a good decade, I'll have you know), I worked in the childcare room a couple nights a week. One of my coworkers wrote a paper about quantum physics and as I helped him edit it, he explained the basics of the concepts to me. I was positively fascinated by the uncertainty principle and wave function collapse and the idea that observing and measuring something's state could actually change the state, and I remember that as the first time I wished I were smart enough to actually study something like physics.

Stephen Hawking - I read "The Illustrated Brief History of Time" when I was a teenager, but what really got me hooked was the "George" books. My then-four-year-old's insatiable thirst for scientific knowledge was quite satisfied by "George's Secret Key to the Universe" and "George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt." As for me, I found an interest in the cosmos, in black holes, in astrophysics, that I never would have imagined. Stephen Hawking's work continues to inspire me.

Rebecca Mosher (Webster) Escamilla - One day I was whining on Facebook about how I wished I were smarter, I wished I had learned more about science in high school, I wished, I wished, I wished. She told me in no uncertain terms to quit whining about what I wish had been and to make the things I wanted happen. I was rather irritated with her at the time, mostly due to the fact that she was right.

Robert Walsh - He seems to have inspired numerous Unitarian Universalist sermons with the phrase, "Nothing is settled; everything matters," and I happened to read one of them at a critical point in my life. Nothing is settled. That's a powerful thought if you take it to heart, and I did. My life hasn't been decided for me. It's not done. I'm going to be a scientist, even if that means I'm studying until I'm 40.

Luke McGlynn - My wonderful, supportive, loving husband. He took me seriously when I said I wanted to go to school to study astronomy and physics. He took on more than his fair share of the duties of running a house and family. He believed in me. He told me he was proud of me. I don't think I would have even tried if it weren't for him.