Thursday, September 2, 2010

ready to wait

When I was 14 years old, I took a practice college entrance exam through the Johns Hopkins program. Johns Hopkins encouraged top scorers to come to the university for some very expensive summer classes, but while I looked at the classes with intrigue and a poor girl's pocket, I did notice that they offered another option which was free: a reading list.

I then and there made a goal to read every book on the list I could find in my county's library system. I read 114 books off that list during a summer. When I started high school the next year, my English teacher gave a prize to whoever had beaten her total of books read over the summer. I won. (Her number was 15.)

People sometimes asked me if I really got anything out of that experience. So much information, so many books, in such a short period of time. How could I retain that? Could I really absorb the ideas present in so many books?

The short answer is, of course, that I didn't. Absorb it all perfectly, that is. Sure, if I'd spread it out over a longer period of time, I would remember more about each book. But... I remember reading "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" and wondering why on earth anyone would bother writing such a book. I disliked "The Great Gatsby" and several of the other books which seemed to me to deal with irreconcilable disappointment and mediocrity and a sham of what life could have been. So truthfully, some of these books I only finished to complete my goal; I didn't retain much primarily because I didn't want to retain much. (I am perfectly comfortable with this.) I didn't want my life to be a disappointment. I wanted it to be filled with energy and hopes and dreams. I saw no help for this in these novels.

However, something big, for me, did happen as a result of my challenging goal. As I read all these books and got inside the minds of the great authors and thinkers who had created works deemed worthy of adolescent reading by the Johns Hopkins University, I read one book which has completely changed my life. I remember the gold cover of the first copy I read, as I opened the pages preparing to be duly interested and then move on to the next novel selection. Yet something different happened. As I embarked upon the journey of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", I found a fascination swell up inside me. I turned the pages with eagerness, turning back almost as frequently, trying to understand each concept as I read it, reading the next derivation or application, then going back to the first concept to attempt to follow the logic. Hawking described a world where math could discover fantastic things. So much of what he said was just over my head, but I discovered a faith and fulfillment that if one understood math properly, one could use it in physics to make marvelous predictions and lead to the knowledge of the whole world. I remember reading it and thinking, all this can be predicted with math? If we apply physics properly, we can use our logic and our intuition to understand everything?

The book left a burning passion inside of me. I never worried about what to major in. I wanted to study so many subjects, but only in addition to physics. My passion and joy in this subject has never left. The indescribable happiness I feel as I study quantum physics is only trumped by particularly spiritual experiences. So many people ask me why I chose to major in something "hard". Do you know what is "hard"? Avoiding something I could love out of fear that I might not be the best. That seems silly.

If I must relate this post directly back to our lesson, I will cite Leonardo da Vinci's tribute to Mathematics, the most pure and beautiful of all sciences, since the rest of science consists of applications of its essential and practical fundamentals.

This post is entitled "ready to wait" because we all know I will never truly understand physics. Not in this life. There are too many things to know, too many concepts which will surely go over my head. But it's worth it to me. It's worth it to struggle through the classes, to spend night hours on campus earning a headache over problems, giving up all the other things I could be doing to just learn a little more. But it's worth it. And if perfect understanding doesn't come in this life, so be it. I am ready to wait.

1 comment:

  1. The thing I liked most about my AP physics class my senior year of high school was that it explained the workings of the natural phenomena that surround us. I've always liked knowing how stuff works. However, I do not have the natural aptitude for physics that some do, which is why I'm an English major. :) Good for you for following your passion and taking on a challenge.

    As far as your insatiable hunger for knowledge goes, you should research Francesco Petrarch; I think you would find that you two have a lot in common. :)