The Second Most Important Event in My Life

Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world. The first of these (second in importance) occurred when I was sixteen years old, some forty years before the other (which was, I now see, actually the long-delayed completion of the first). This event from my high school days was not connected with any notable historical event or outwardly impressive occurrence. It was personal and internal, purely intellectual and unaided by any drug; and it affected the future course of my life in manifold ways.

There have of course been key events involving people and personal relations in my life which have determined the unique details of it, including those most important ones—in regard to earthly happiness—of wife and offspring; but none of these events, even those that seem to have been ordained by benevolent providence, changed my basic understanding of the world in the way the two I’ve called most important did.

The dramatic (though secret at the time) change I am writing about today occurred early in the fall semester of my junior year when I was one of a group of students gathered around our physics teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. We were there to watch our teacher (then, I believe, in her second year at our school), a young woman, imposing by virtue of both her appearance and intellect, go through a physics demonstration.

That I was taking physics that year as a junior was pretty much an accident. I can’t recall if this was usual or not, but I clearly remember that my father had helped guide my decisions on which courses to take that year. He had recommended that I take physics. I think the idea was to get a hard course out of the way before the other hard courses that would be coming up my senior year. Whatever the reasoning, I had written physics in, and no one had suggested I switch, though somehow everyone else seemed to know that the standard path was to take chemistry in the junior year followed by physics the next. I remember being surprised to discover on the first day of school that all the other students in the class were seniors with whom I had never taken a class before.

Anyway, once I had signed up for physics, I remember expressing my dread of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like natural science; I was very interested in biology, mainly from my fascination with the diversity of life. I was also interested in the stars, solar system, and planets. But I just didn’t like the sound of physics, about which I had somewhere obtained the vague notion that it dealt with how machines worked. Machines were neither alive nor celestial, and I think I held their being man-made and functional against them. From all I can remember, I seem to have had no idea that physics was a quantitative, as opposed to a merely descriptive, science; and I don’t think that concept even existed in my mind.

I recall a fellow student trying to sell physics to me as a great way of increasing my understanding of how automobiles worked. However, I really had no interest in the actual workings of any machines, including those most highly esteemed ones around which social life and status in our high school revolved. I had had to learn a certain amount about how cars worked, or at least the terminology used in discussing modifications for speed, just to avoid being seen as irredeemably ignorant in the most important area of knowledge (at least of those unrelated to sexual matters) in the male adolescent culture of my group. But when that fellow student tried to convince me that physics would be valuable because of the insight it would give me into the internal combustion engine, it only made my heart sink lower at the thought of having to endure a year of such boring stuff. Even accounting might have been more attractive.

Before I go on, let me briefly sketch what kind of place I was in emotionally, academically, and socially. The central fact of my life and that of my family was that my father was an alcoholic on the way down. That affected our family in numerous negative ways that anyone can easily imagine. For my mother, my sister near me in age, and me, it meant a good deal of anger, embarrassment, shame, stress, fear, worry, and resentment; which is not to say that we never shared good times with my father (for example the choosing of courses I mentioned), just that we could not depend on him for anything; and the bad times were frequent.

A few years earlier I had fallen in with a group of boys, among the leaders of which were a couple (one of whom I considered a good friend) that had an antisocial streak, which I didn’t share but which I was too weak to reproach or reject. It was a good feeling to have a group to “run around with,” and I enjoyed a greater status being with these kids than I had felt before, having come to this town in the seventh grade and found myself lacking the friends or standing I might have acquired in elementary school.

As a result of some thrill-seeking (for them, not me) illegal acts with my companions, I had gotten into a little trouble with the law also (hinted at in Times I Might Have Died). My milieu was basically a semi-delinquent one that overlapped with that of kids that had already dropped out of school and who carried switchblades. My companions liked to go looking for fights (which I hoped we wouldn’t find) and drive fast. We all smoked cigarettes, and we regularly found ways to purchase beer illegally, so that I may have been placing myself in danger of following my father down the path to alcoholism.

The year before I had skipped school many days. For example, in those days when World Series games were played during the daytime, I hadn’t missed watching a single one on television though the series went to seven games. My fellow baseball-watching friends and I got caught for that and made a short gesture toward running away from home to avoid facing the consequences. To my shame, I reflect that none of the others finished school, lacking the academic capital to fall back on that I had.

I was in no danger of flunking out of school, but my grades were not great, certainly not what they should have been; and I had been something of a class comic going back to the second grade, partly as a way to gain respect as one willing to go against authority, risk punishment, and take it like a man when it came in the form of getting “busted,” as we called paddling. I had decided it was time to get serious about school and had definitely ruled out getting involved in any illegal activity (with the exception of alcohol possession), but I was still without any real purpose or idea about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had no girl friend and had trouble envisioning that situation changing. To say I was not a happy lad, would be an understatement.

As I try now to remember back fifty years, I wish I could see my old physics text to see what subjects came first in it, so I could tell if we had gone through other topics before coming to the way the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth; for that was the subject of the demonstration on this momentous day. It may have been the very first thing we dealt with in that class, though I have a feeling it was not. I can’t remember if this was the first classroom demonstration.

Physics demonstrations can be quite dramatic, and there are high school teachers and college professors who go to a lot of effort to make entertaining shows for students out of them. These demonstrations can have a certain magic show quality, as things can occur that go against the students’ expectations, sometimes accompanied by impressive sounds and visual displays.

The physics demonstration I was to witness that day was not of that dramatic type. It might even be the most boring of all physics demonstrations, as it is merely a series of measurements, with no motion or visible phenomena occurring, except for the adjustment of the measuring device to the different conditions. Nothing visibly exciting happens in the statics of fluids.

How I wish I could remember in detail the actual steps my teacher went through in the demonstration! But those are lost forever. I can only remember what the demonstration was about, but not what the apparatus looked like in detail. The demonstration was designed to show how the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth below its surface. The specific details are not really important in the context of the story. The apparatus must have consisted of a manometer for measuring pressure differentials, a flexible tube to connect one side of the manometer to a means of probing the pressure under water, and a vessel containing water.

Here is a plausible guess at the steps I must have witnessed my teacher carrying out. The teacher lowered the probe into the water, and we saw the fluid in the manometer adjust to the new pressure it was experiencing on the side connected to the probe. The fluid level in the manometer column on the probe side went down, and that on the other side went up. My teacher recorded the difference in the two levels, which is a measure of the pressure in the water, and also recorded the depth in the water at which it had been observed.

She moved the probe lower into the water tank, and we saw the manometer fluid levels respond once more, this time with a greater difference between them. My teacher recorded the new pressure and depth and went on to repeat the procedure at several more depths in the water. Then she made a graph of the measured pressure versus the depth, to show that the points traced out a straight line. She thus showed us that the measured pressure p followed a simple formula: p = constant • h, where h is the depth. It was the same linear relationship that we had in our books.

Alternatively (and, as I’ve said, I don’t remember), she may have started with the equation we had in the textbook and for each depth calculated a predicted pressure measurement, which she would then compare to the actual measurement to show that it was very nearly the same.

Whatever procedure she followed, she certainly had my full attention and could not have made a more successful demonstration from my perspective. Thank you, Virginia Rawlins, dear first physics teacher!

What had I seen? Changing the depth of the probe had caused the manometer fluid levels to change, and to change in a very precise way. The measured values of the real-world quantities of pressure and depth were related through a simple algebraic equation in the abstract world of mathematics. As I pondered what was being demonstrated to me, my mind’s eye must have looked back and forth from the physical to the mathematical. From the real to the abstract back to the real. From the predicted to the measured back to the predicted. What is going on? There is new and important information here, but I can’t tell what it means.

I suppose only a few milliseconds elapsed between the powerful seismic disturbance, which must have occurred deep beneath the surface of my consciousness, and the resulting tsunami of revelation that slammed into my conscious mind and swept away its previous view of the world, now revealed to have been pathetically inadequate.

I remember that I walked back to my desk totally stunned by that first look into the deep mathematical order of the physical world. I knew I was in my physics class, but everything and everyone around me seemed distant, muted, and temporarily irrelevant, as my mind worked on reconstructing its view of reality.

Here was a mystery deeper than any I could have imagined; and a power greater—the ability to know what a physical measurement was going to be before it had been made! The physical measurements I had seen carried out in the real world with real physical objects and fluids had been written down and the corresponding numbers shown to fit almost perfectly with a particular relationship that existed only in an abstract world having no connection with the physical one I lived in. Or so I had thought until that moment. This unexpected, undreamt of connection between those two independent worlds—one the physical world as I haphazardly experienced it, the other a precise realm that existed only on paper and in people’s heads—was the most astounding fact I had ever encountered.

The world was describable by mathematics! I had to know all about it! I had to learn all the physics there was. At first I assumed everything to be known had already been discovered; that it was just a matter of learning it. While it was a disappointment to find out that not everything was known, it also meant there was still an opportunity to help finish the job. As soon as I heard about relativity and quantum physics I wanted to know why we weren’t learning them, not realizing that would require math and physics far beyond what I knew.

Later that year, when my mother and I visited the physics classroom during the school open house night, my teacher said to me “Bobby, we’ve got to get you a scholarship,” and to my mother “He’s the most brilliant junior student I’ve ever had.” Now, for all I know my teacher had never had a single junior physics student before, but it filled me with joy to hear her words, as I had had no idea she thought so highly of my abilities. Now I knew for sure what my next step in life was going to be. I was going to major in physics in college and go as far as I could with it. Thank you again, Mrs. Rawlins!

This personal discovery of my passion in life and my teacher’s encouragement gave me a new focus and goal. I decided I needed to make all A’s from then on and almost did. With the help of (in retrospect, almost laughably small) student loans and family support, I found a way to pay for college, which was pretty cheap at the University of Texas back in those days, and successfully got physics and math degrees there. I fulfilled a dream by going on to get my PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. I imagine I will write more about my experiences both as a physics student and a physicist later. There are a couple of posts already here about my time in Berkeley.

Looking back at how adrift I was at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I can say that my discovery of physics may have saved me. I never said anything about my experience to my teacher or anyone else back then that I recall. It was personal, possibly a little crazy-sounding, and ultimately incommunicable. A number of questions have arisen in my mind during the course of my writing about that life-changing experience of long ago. Why me? Why then? Why with such suddenness? Maybe I’ll return to them at a later date.

From my current outlook on the world, I believe that what was so stunning about the universe’s being describable by mathematical laws was that it hinted at the Divine Intelligence behind that mysterious order. I did not make that connection at the time, however, and instead came to adopt the viewpoint that the perfection of physical laws governing the universe (as I would have put it) only showed the superfluousness of the God concept. Now I view my recognition of the beautiful mystery and power of physics as a gift from God which launched me on a trajectory that led eventually to my recognition of God’s existence some forty years later.

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