I distinctly remember my first day of high school physics since it was so very different from my other classes, which tended to blend together in a murky soup of memorize-regurgitate-rinse-and-repeat learning. My teacher, a hip young man who usually taught math, jumped up on the desk at the front of the classroom and declared, “Physics is life!” Arms waving, he enthusiastically extolled the virtues of mechanics, electricity, and magnetism. He told us we would get to see the application of all that math we had been learning. He whispered that physics would explain everything.
For those of you getting the Robin Williams vibe from Dead Poet’s Society — that’s about right. It was exciting and odd, a little uncomfortable but also surprisingly intriguing. What could be so amazing about a science class?
From the very first lesson, we focused on real-life applications. Physics gave us tools to understand the world around us. Armed with the laws of motion, we could predict how far a baseball would fly, if a bullet shot from a gun would hit its target, and how a pulley could be used to raise a bucket of water. We watched a movie of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster with wicked fascination, seeing the bridge undulate and eventually collapse, which our teacher explained was the outcome of winds that triggered a mechanical resonance of the steel beams. We learned about the centripetal force that pressed me against the car door when my mom made an abrupt turn. Conservation of energy explained the apparent random collisions of billiard balls. The Doppler Effect was responsible for the changing pitch of an ambulance siren passing by. I soon understood how the lamp in our family room — which could be turned on near one door and off near the other — must be wired as a three-way switch. All of this was tangible and real and cool — brought to life with lab experiments and relatable in meaningful ways. I was hooked.
Over the next several years I repeated the physics curriculum — each time with fewer of the so-called “spherical cow” simplifications that made the problems more easily solvable. My professors became less enthusiastic, less invested in making the subject compelling, but I was already stimulated by the challenges. I learned about “gedankenexperiments” — thought experiments for making sense of concepts that couldn’t readily be tested experimentally — like the most famous Schrödinger’s cat paradox in which the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead inside an imaginary box due to quantum superposition. Physics classes were by far the most difficult of any subject I studied, with problem sets that taxed my brain, when I often felt like I was banging my head against the wall to crack a cryptic code. But I loved that physics was a “figure-it-out” sort of subject, where an unrelenting appetite for problem solving was vital and my poor memorization skills posed little disadvantage.
For me, the stories of scientists and their hunger for discovery are often as fascinating as the science itself. “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” said Nobel laureate Albert Einstein. Most of us can conjure an image of Einstein as a somewhat deranged-looking man, white hair standing on end. I imagine his experiences as a patent clerk, a German-born Jew during Hitler’s reign, and a skilled violinist. His four “miracle” technical publications from 1905, when he was only twenty-six years old, fundamentally changed our understanding of the laws of physics — of light, matter, time, and space.
Physicist Marie Curie performed pioneering research on radioactivity, discovering elements radium and polonium, with wide-ranging impacts on medicine and more. “Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood,” she said. Curie was the first person and only woman to win not one but two Nobel Prizes, in 1903 and 1911. Throughout her illustrious career she overcame countless challenges as a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field, and she suffered severe health crises resulting from long-term radiation exposure, which eventually led to her early death.
Richard Feynman was a larger-than-life physics professor at Caltech and author of the autobiographical books Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, which bring to life his brilliance, irreverence, and insatiable curiosity. Feynman’s physics lectures, which were published as a textbook, reached generations of undergraduates. A Nobel Prize winner for his theory of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman is perhaps best known for discovering the mysterious cause of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which he determined to be an O-ring failure.
My thesis advisor Calvin Quate, a professor of applied physics at Stanford University, was both like and unlike these esteemed scientists. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Einstein, with messy white hair going every which way. He had Curie’s quiet perseverance, never giving up on his passion for discovery. And he had Feynman’s cleverness and pedagogy, foundationally a teacher who took pride in guiding students of all ages. He was upwards of 72 years old by the time I began working in his lab, already a distinguished inventor of the scanning acoustic microscope and the atomic force microscope, for which he later won the prestigious Kavli Prize. I recall walking into Cal’s office one day with an exciting new result, something we had been working on for over a year. He reached out for the page, looked over it quietly, then grinned and said simply, “Beautiful.” He then wanted to know if it had been printed on a special kind of glossy paper (which made me smile and roll my eyes). To me, Cal was evidence that creativity could be coupled with compassion, that brilliance was not incompatible with benevolence.
Many consider science — and especially physics and physicists — unrelatable, boring, even irrelevant. In my experience, that has been completely untrue. From my high school teacher who jumped up on desks to my graduate advisor who guided me with a steady hand, I have been inspired by scientists unyielding in their passionate pursuit of problem solving, truth seeking, and discovery.