To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Part 2: Post 4: Introduction to Physics

Each of my classes has now met twice, and both physics and history have met three times. I'm finding
Here I am on the Mansion porch. I left out some support beams for visual clarity--the porch roof is actually the lowest of three levels of balconies and they must be rather heavy. If you could look in the windows behind me, you'd see the library.
interesting to notice how these different classes seems to be related; physics, ecology, and psychology have all covered the history of their respective disciplines, for example, and the intersections between their timelines are fascinating--and of course, since we're taking history at the same time, applying an analytical approach to these historical sketches feels about natural. Ecology and psychology both touch on  the question of why individuals do things, but from completely different angles--making me wonder how much of human behavior might somehow be an ecological response? Like, is there a way to apply the angle of one subject to the questions posed by the other? Or something like that.

Physics is interesting, and not as hard as I'd thought. I'd been kind of intimidated by it, I think a lot of us were, but Jeff is pretty easy-going. It's not easy, I mean just that it isn't as hard as I'd expected. There's no reason to fear not passing the class--Jeff interrupted himself on the first day to announce that none of us would fail if we:

1. stayed awake in class
2. asked for help when we needed it, either from each other or from him
3. and at least tried every single problem and exercise he set for us.

You'd think he'd write this down, especially as he was holding a marker at the time, but he didn't. He said that there is no shame in not being able to solve a problem, but that it is by pushing ourselves through the point of failure that we grow. I remember that from running, though you had to be careful not to hurt yourself. I hadn't thought that it might apply to academics, too, but it makes sense.

What Jeff keeps coming back to is the existence if rules, laws of physics and laws of logic, the idea that certain things must be true and certain things always happen. I think some of us are having a hard time with this, it feels constricting, so Jeff interrupted himself again and this time he did write something on the board:

The universe does not have laws, it has habits, and habits are made to be broken.

I think I've seen that quote on a button or a bumper sticker somewhere. He asked if any of us believed that, and a few tentative hands went up and then ducked back down again. Whether the universe has habits or not, the instructors here have a habit of asking questions that they expect students to get wrong. We're getting jumpy.

"I don't actually believe that you believe that," said Jeff.  "If you did believe it you would not be here, and you'd be pretty bored and depressed. Anybody ever see any absurdist movies, the kind with no clear plot and anything can happen? You know why there aren't more movies like that? It's because once the novelty wears off, they're boring. It's being able to anticipate what comes next that makes life interesting--even surprise would not be possible if you couldn't be confident in your predictions, because surprise happens when our predictions are violated. You came here, a lot of you did, to learn to practice magic--what is magic but another kind of following the rules? If I could make something float by pointing my wand at it--"

and he pulled out his wand and shouted "Wingardium Leviosa!" pointing suddenly at Nora, who was walking in late at that very moment and was so startled she dropped all her books,

 "--that wouldn't be a violation of the laws of physics, it would be an example of the laws of physics, just one only recently discovered by J.K. Rowling. The law would say that that spell works; there'd be no point in learning it if it didn't work reliably. We can control phenomena only to the extent that we can predict them. If the universe followed no laws, no magic would be possible, no technology would be possible, no complex life would be possible, because we would never be able to do anything and be confident in the result. The laws aren't a limit on our power, they are our power, to the extent that we know the laws. Are some of the laws we think we know wrong? Are some things possible that we think aren't? Yeah, probably. But that ignorance is a limit on our power, not a doorway to it. If we want to do magic, it's our job to learn the laws of physics and apply them."

We helped Nora pick up her books and only laughed at her a little.

And this is what I mean by the different classes commenting on each other. Because this week, the same week, Charlie said something very similar--but not identical.

First, he wrote up a list of statements on the board:

1. Bubblegum takes seven years to digest
2. If you perform three bodily functions simultaneously (e.g., burp, fart, and sneeze) you will die
3. Women are the only female animals who can experience orgasm
4. Girls don't fart
5. Non-human animals have no emotions
6. Humans are the only animals who use tools, language, and art
7. Men only think about sex
8. Native American lifeways were categorically environmentally sustainable

Then he turned to us and said; "each of these statements has been believed without evidence by at least some people, and I will bet all of you a pizza that at least one of you believes at least one of these."

Silence. Then;

"Girls fart?" asked Dan, who is, I hasten to add, not me.

"Large, extra cheese, extra olives," said Charlie, and everyone in class groaned and threw bits of papers at Dan. "And you want to lay off Dan, I doubt he was the only one," he added.

"But the point is not that these statements are factually incorrect; for all I know some of them might be true. I don't know how long bubblegum takes to digest! The problem is believing things without evidence. It's something that people do, make stuff up and then think it's true because they think it ought to be. Now, lack of evidence for is not evidence against, but just assuming something is self-evidently true isn't good enough. Self-evident truth is for moral certainly, not factual details that could and should be investigated. You hear sometimes about scientists conducting studies that prove something 'everybody knows.' Well, sometimes those studies prove that something everybody thought they knew is wrong.  If you want to understand the secrets of the universe, you're going to have to get used to keeping track of what you know and how you know it. It's easy enough to be wrong even when you do everything right. You can't afford to spend your time making stuff up, or believing other people who made stuff up. Get in the habit of paying attention to who is reliable. Get in the habit of being reliable. You can't learn how to make a difference by daydreaming."

So, I'm wondering; I'm thinking about the Inquisitions I read about last weekend, how the Church hierarchy was convinced that people were selling their souls the the devil and women were suckling demon-spawn through third nipples hidden in moles and whatever else--and obviously all of it was balderdash. Thousands of people, many thousands of people, were tortured and died because of balderdash. Is that an example of people making stuff up without evidence? Is that what happens when people don't pay attention?

I'm spending more and more time in the library, trying to find books to sort all this out. It's also a good place to do homework, especially since, if I get stuck, I can usually ask Aaron for help. If he doesn't know something, he knows who does. I've heard legends about this guy. How, you can come to the library and get onliine at three in the morning and email him to ask about a book you heard about years ago and the title had something to do with the Kalahari desert and Moses, or something that rhymes with Moses, and the cover was green....and fifteen minutes later he'll email you back with the complete title, author, everything. And he's entertaining. The parrot was unusual--Ahab (the parrot) usually lives somewhere off-campus--but it's like Aaron to have a pet parrot named Ahab. And he curses at computers. Like, actually curses them, as if they were being recalcitrant on purpose and as if he were punishing them with maledictions

The other day--I don't know what the problem was, I guess something wasn't working right, but he suddenly stood up, pointed dramatically to his computer, and shouted "A POX UPON YOU, ILL-MANORED MACHINE!"

He had to have been being melodramatic on purpose, he just had to have. He can't have thought that his curse could mean anything (how does a computer get a pox?) or that the machine could deserve it. But then, it's hard to tell the difference between people being themselves and people making fun of themselves around here.

[Next Post: April 1st: In the Garden With Charlie]

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