Thursday, June 16, 2005

Smoking in the boy's room

I took physics in high school for two years. Our professor was an older man who made us call him Doctor Roth. Not to say that he didn't, in fact, hold a doctoral degree -- it was just humorous when he turned visibly agitated if we called him "Mister". He was colorblind and he smoked Pall Mall 100's and ate Lance cheese crackers. There was not, at any time throughout our two year relationship, a point when I was not terrified of coming within a couple of feet from him: for one, because we stole his cigarettes on a regular basis and I'm sure he knew it was us (there were only two us who smoked), and secondly, because the smell of cigarettes and cheese crackers together was noxious enough that I used more of my mental capacities contemplating how on earth he ever found a wife than I ever used on any physics problem. His daily attire consisted mainly of turquoise pants and shirts that you might originally believe to be categorized as "Hawaiian," except that they bore no Hawaiian themes, which he blamed on his wife.

Dr. Roth was clearly not used to teaching physics to high school students. It was painfully obvious that he was a college professor who, for one reason or another, chose to help rear our much more, let's say, unbridled, minds. He left the room for exams. He could care less what we programmed into our gargantuan Texas Instruments calculators. He took up homework at the end of the period which encouraged me to befriend Matt, who I became good friends with later, so that I could copy his homework during class. His grading scale prepared me for college more than any other high school experience: we had no idea what we would get until the end of each semester. In retrospect, I imagine that he didn't, either.

Part of our curriculum was understanding and converting temperatures: Celsius to Fahrenheit to Kelvin, you get the drift. While attempting to explain Kelvin to students who were about as familiar with physics as we were the opposite sex (that is to say, not at all), he told us that -273 degrees Celsius (how in the hell did I remember that?) was called absolute zero, and that was that. You can't get any colder. I liked to argue with Dr. Roth because I had a philosophy class with him, as well (and a psychology class, now that I think about it), so I tried to get him to explain why. He said that because as you gradually lose more and more heat, objects in space get progressively smaller (that is, more compacted) until you get to absolute zero, where there is nothing left. Clearly, this was not the way my brain wanted to hear this explanation. I argued with him. I asked him about conservation of matter and energy. Where does it go? He brushed me off (most likely because he was used to me by then) and I swore on that day to be the man who discovers -274 degrees Celsius. Absolute zero was a hoax. I just knew it.

If you're still with me, I realize that that sounds stupid. But, come on, I was seventeen or something. Gimmie a damn break.

I hadn't thought about physics in a long time. My freshman year I took an intro class that I aced without opening the book. At least something rubbed off, I suppose. I also read Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" the summer it came out. But I am a business major. I didn't have to take anything difficult in college. A couple months ago I bought Brian Greene's new book, "The Fabric of the Cosmos." If you don't know Greene you should check out one or both of these books. You don't have to know anything about physics, I swear. And they are fascinating. In any case, I've been plodding through "Fabric" over the past couple of months. Last night I got to a passage in which the author tells you to imagine a completely empty space -- and it shot into my head: that is why absolute zero is absolute. Matter doesn't go anywhere when temperature drops. But, theoretically, if there were no matter, there would be no heat. And it would be zero degrees. And all I could think was "why the fuck didn't he just say that."


Blogger gethky said...

Hope you don't mind that I copied your post in my "Sampler" blog where I have collected other great works from such serious, high-minded bloggers as yourself.

3:55 PM  

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