Craving Certainty? Try Physics!

My dynamics professor asked us this week, in his heavy Chinese accent, if we thought that science was objective or subjective. This was just after he took us through a long, winding tangent about frames of reference and the size of the universe and how it might be possible to calculate the movement of one object in the universe relative to that of another, when all the objects are moving in different directions relative to each other all the time and have been since the big bang…or whatever might have come before that.

Paths of stars through the night sky. Photograph by Philip Greenspun, copyright 1992

Paths of stars through the night sky.
Photograph by Philip Greenspun, © 1992

It was the obvious sort of rhetorical question that professors like to ask. The standard answer is that science is objective. After all, if science isn’t objective, then what is? The answer he wanted, of course, is that science is subjective. That there are always bigger questions to answer, and whose answers might change the answers of other questions we thought we’d already answered. And in that larger sense, then yes, science is subjective. Science is always changing, getting bigger, revising, improving, perfecting. Science won’t stop changing until we figure out every last thing there is to know about the entire universe. In other words, never. Which is good job security for scientists.

Lucky for me, at the low reaches of the undergraduate engineering program, science is still pretty objective. Newtonian physics haven’t changed since they were developed in the 17th century and won’t be changing any time soon. Strip out the full-color illustrations and learner-friendly step-by-step examples, and my dynamics book probably looks the same as a dynamics textbook from a hundred years ago.

I say lucky because objectivity is in short supply in my life lately. When nothing makes sense, it can be nice to spend a bit of quiet time pondering things that do make sense – things that make sense fully and completely. Like physics. I don’t spend a lot of time writing about it, but I do work five days a week at a regular eight-to-five job as a graphic designer. I work at the same university where I go to school and I’m extremely grateful that the combination has given me the scheduling flexibility and tuition discount that are making my “extra credit life” possible.

That said, things have been in upheaval at my office for the last six months. In an attempt to maintain a level of anonymity for my employer and my co-workers, I’ll be vague. But suffice it to say that people politics and the changing university landscape have resulted in the resignation of several of my friends and the calling into question of my “work full time at my secure job until I finish my degree and then transition comfortably into my new career” plan. Things continue to be tumultuous. Each day I walk in wondering what new bomb will be dropped in the middle of my professional life. Events from the last week have me wondering what my job description will consist of when I return Wednesday after my Memorial Day vacation. I remind myself again and again how lucky I am to have a job. And I am. But it’s been tough.

A metaphor for my professional life right now. Also features prominently in many dynamics problems!

A metaphor for my professional life right now. Also features prominently in many dynamics problems!

So I’ve been taking refuge in an unlikely place* – homework. Dynamics homework at the moment. Physics makes sense when almost nothing else does. Truth be told, my dynamics homework is hard – really hard. The concepts are simple, but putting together all the details and linking together the chains of equations to arrive at a final (correct) solution is like wading through a swamp in a snow suit and hiking boots. A long, slow slog. But the fact remains that when the slog is finished, when everything comes together in a big web of interconnected forces, when all the numbers are in the right place and the signs are correct, the answer appears. And everything makes sense. And then you can just lean back, exhale and say, it’s right, and it’s never going to stop being right.

One section of one problem from my latest dynamics assignment. Slog indeed.

One section of one problem from my latest dynamics assignment. Slog indeed.

While I appreciate the intent of my professor’s question, in my life right now I need science to be objective. I’ll leave questions of relative intergalactic motion to the astrophysicists and the search for the exact positions of sub-atomic particles to the quantum physicists. In my world, if you sit under an apple tree and an apple falls, it still hits you on the head governed by the distance fallen and the acceleration of gravity, just like it would have 300 years ago when it pegged Newton.**

So if you feel like nothing makes sense in your life and the only certainty is uncertainty, try this: pick up a physics book, read two chapters and call me in the morning.

*Not to worry – I’ve also been taking refuge in the more likely places: beer and friends, preferably together.
**This is a myth. Newton didn’t really discover gravity by being hit by an apple. Fun story though.

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3 thoughts on “Craving Certainty? Try Physics!

  1. This is great. The science of relativity. This reminds me of plenty of conversations with my freshman year roommate – more than a few of which came when he was completely baked.

  2. Pingback: Reclaiming my Gusto | Extra Credit Life

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