Close Encounters with Science: Picks
The Rules of My Nature by Christine Montgomery
In the eighth grade, I discovered that subjects and predicates moved me and that grammar was my forte. I was an idiot savant.
My father prided himself on his mathematical prowess. That I was clueless beyond simple calculations was proof that I took after my mother. I believed his words; they became part of me. Implicit in his censure was that mathematics and its evil twin - science - were for men and not for teenaged girls.
Mr. Tronko, my ninth grade chemistry teacher was more interested in belittling students than in teaching them. On the day I wore a handsewn blouse with a rhinestone bracelet and capris, he paused and considered my appearance. He waited for silence and delivered his judgment:
“Who do you think you are? Elizabeth Taylor?”
My cheeks were beetroots. I wanted to smash in his face with a bunsen burner.
Things didn't improve. Mr. Haq, my biology teacher, was a screamer. He told me that I wouldn't go far. That I was a stupid girl and that I shouldn't return. I was relieved.
When I entered university and realized that I needed a science credit, I pored over the course offerings: Geology (Rocks for Jocks), Astronomy (Moons for Goons), Chemistry and Physics. It was like selecting my preferred method of execution.
I consulted friends. We concluded that Geology was dull, Astronomy was math-heavy and I may as well splash myself in the face with acid if I were to take Chemistry. The Physics instructor was rumoured to be funny. I signed up.
The word “physics” filled me with shame. In Grade Thirteen, I was leery of the teacher, an ancient crone who couldn't smile. It was focal length that did me in. There was one equation that I was sure of: length implied numbers, numbers meant mathematics, mathematics equalled failure. I withdrew.
On the first day of Conceptual Physics for Non-Scientists, the Professor pulled a banana out of his pocket. Bananas make me gag but in my worldview, they are benign. He plunged the banana into liquid nitrogen and it froze rapidly. He smashed it on the counter and it splintered into shards. I was intrigued. He lured me in with the promise of more experiments and no math beyond simple multiplication.
His name was Whippey and he was quick and snappy in body and mind. I was reminded of Beaker from the Muppets. Demonstrations with balls, coins, feathers, balloons and other simple objects ensued. Was this Physics or Magic 101? Confident in my newfound knowledge, I waxed on about force, friction and inertia. I knew that I was hooked when I explained to my then-boyfriend that Bernoulli's Principle was behind the pesky shower curtain glued to his leg during a hot shower. Who did I think I was - Copernicus?
Physics is about understanding the rules of nature. My nature tells me that I will never be a mathematician, but conceptually, I will always be a Physicist.
Christine Montgomery is from London, ON
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