Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dr. Finley

Once I was taking a class recreationally, which is simply a synonym for stupidly, at least when it comes to physics. Electrodynamics I was the name of the course, and it was taught by a man well into his 100's as far as I could tell. I think he was a close friend of Mark Twain and talked exactly how I imagine he might. In addition to assigning crippling workloads and his penchant for ridiculing students at the chalkboard, his tests were designed to be passed by only three people - Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman, and Albert Einstein. I imagine if Jesus were present, he probably would have gotten a "C" even if his Father smuggled him in a divine cheat sheet.

It's no stretch to say I did poorly, which is out of character for me. My saving grace was the fact that I changed the grading option to credit/no credit. The goal was to prevent weeks of mental anguish, which of course did not happen. Being a perfectionist means perfecting the art of failing sometimes, and in extreme cases perfecting the art of transferring mental pain to the physical realm. By the end of the semester I was suffering not only from panic attacks but also the associated physical symptom - what I called "stab wounds." A debilitating and precise pain erupted deep in the left side of my chest with increasing frequency as the course progressed.

From electric potential to Legendre polynomials to multipole expansions to linear dielectrics, I struggled on working long hours on problems that could be stated in one line but whose solutions could take up pages. The whole time I had the feeling that it wasn't difficult material, which only exacerbated my frustration. The semester dragged on and finally spit me out exhausted and yet relieved. It was my last semester as an undergrad; it was amazing to have finally finished.

8 months later I still had not received my diploma. I had assumed that UNM was functioning as it typically does, in some sort of time vortex where one of their minutes is equal to 16 of ours. Finally beginning to get worried, I made the trip over to Arts + Sciences to state my case.

Coincidentally, just that morning the whole office had been working "my case." It seemed that although I had gone through the ceremony - being awarded Outstanding Senior in Applied Mathematics - I was missing one little thing and never should have been allowed to graduate...a grade in my Electrodynamics I class. Turns out it wasn't an elective at all, I had fooled myself unconsciously into thinking that just to give myself the option of credit/no credit.

Nothing tears me up more than knowning I made a mistake
simply because I was not paying attention.

Resolving the problem was not as painful as it could have been, my diploma was officially awarded, and I've subsequently forgotten everything I learned. After all, a mathematics degree does not mean you actually
learned any math, just that you have the capacity to learn it.

1 comment: said...

“In physics, you don't have to go around making trouble for yourself - nature does it for you.”