summer break? yeah, right…

funAnd so I have reached the midpoint of the summer semester.  It has been nothing but unremitting turmoil!  While I knew that I would have to deal with chem II and trig, I simply had no idea how much upheaval would happen outside of school.  Without going into details (I know, but I’m not going there), I had no idea how many distractions there would be this semester.  It has very much been a challenge!  Meanwhile, that ugly little “math problem” continues to nip at my heels and chew up my slippers.  I had hoped that getting through college algebra would bring me up to speed enough to get me on track.  I was badly mistaken!  When your functional foundation in math is one of 8th grade math, you seem to run into walls every time you round a corner.  I just never seem to know when I will run into a concept that I have never seen before.  That one has taken any number of math classes in high school is assumed and taken for granted.  That one has at least some foundation is simply presumed.  Even if you don’t like it or are not very good at it, there is still this very understandable assumption that you have at least seen it.  All too often, I have not.  A legitimate class in geometry might have been nice at some point in my past, but here we sit all the same.

Yes, I did this to myself.  I knew that taking trig during the summer would be a bit of a challenge all by itself, certainly in my case.  That said, if I want to accomplish what I think I need to before transferring, I really felt it was important to do it now so I could get at least two semesters of calculus under my belt before moving on.  No calculus, no physics.  No physics…. Well, I can’t not have physics, now can I?  Or can’t I?  It matters not, I must have physics in my life, I don’t care if it is required for a particular major or not!  So there…  So anywho… (smoothing his shirt and putting his hair back in place)  Even an undergraduate degree in biology will require some physics.  Not as much as I would like to take, but if I have to wait for grad school for the biophysics degree, I would like to at least minor in physics.  So yes, I am doing this to myself.

I almost feel bad for my trig instructor.  I actually walked out of his class a couple of times.  Since it is such a short semester, he gives short quizzes at the beginning of each class.  A couple of times, I simply took the quiz and then excused myself.  I explained some of my background to him and tried to explain the reason for needing to leave.  He seems to understand.  I get a sense from him that he would like to be able to help more, but time is short and the class has to move fast.  Why leave you ask?  Sometimes I have found myself sitting there just drowning in whatever he is talking about.  If I am not getting a concept, listening to more of it simply does not help.  It only adds to a sense of frustration.  That is not productive time.  I almost considered dropping the class.  Add to that an increasingly distracting personal life and, well, not pretty.  I have to say, living in a dorm room is such a normal part of the “normal” college experience.  People have different feelings about it, but to me it seems like a distant luxury sometimes.  To be in a space where one can just concentrate on one’s studies.  Well, it is what it is.

So what did I do with my time away from class?  I finally sat down and taught myself trig.  Maybe it sounds harder without an instructor, but I just had to back up and find a way to fill in gaps.  I finally just locked myself away for two days and did nothing but work on understanding trig.  I used the book, I used the web, I used Khan, I went through a lot of material!  I find it difficult to describe just how disheartening and upsetting this is for me.  Maybe it would not be so bad if I was just trying to “get through it.”  Maybe it would not be so bad if it was a subject I did not like or care about, but I actually like math.  Far from not being able to “get it,” once I understand what is going on, I’m quite good at it and enjoy it.  All too often, I just feel like I’m trying to run a marathon on one leg.

The good news is that the couple of days locked away really seemed to pay off.  All of the sudden I am actually following the material in class.  I have 100’s on the last two quizzes and I am feeling pretty confident going into the next full exam.  Getting back to looking forward to going to class is a very good thing for me.  I enjoy my classes.  If I start dreading a particular class, it is a very bad sign.  A lot of people dread any number of classes for various reasons.  Some don’t dread them at all, but just wish they could avoid them.  Neither is the case for me at all.  The appearance of those kinds of feelings, in my case, is a sign of a serious problem.  Fortunately, It would seem that I have worked past the problem for now.  I am now back to being active and engaged in class, as I would be normally.

In the meantime, there is always chemistry.  I feel so beat up over math, as you can see, that the mere appearance of an equation in chemistry can bring my day down in an almost Pavlovian way.  Despite that, chemistry is going well enough.  I really do think that I would be cruising through chem like I do biology if it were not for my almost PTSD-like reaction to math.  I really do look forward to the day when I will have finally put that behind me, when I am finally close and familiar with every equation on that background screen behind my portrait.  You know, that banner at the very top of this screen?  The one with my smiling mug on it, with that blackboard full of equations behind it?  I have a larger version of that as the background on my laptop.  That is not merely a “cool pic” to me.  It is a goal.  Having it on my desktop and on this page reminds me of that goal.

That goal is to eventually know and understand every equation in that picture.  Not just know how to solve it, or what it is called, but to understand why and how to use those equations.  To understand what is behind each and every one of them.  I have had a few moments where I will come home from class, looked at my desktop, and something just clicks.  Suddenly a small part of the board makes some kind of sense.  Just a small part at a time, bits here and there.  I have yet to really sit down with it and try to work it out piece by piece.  For now, I am content to let it catch me by surprise and delight me at random moments.  There will come a day however, and I will own every little piece of that board.

Some people say that to understand everything you can about something is to lose the wonder of it.  I strongly disagree.  The more I understand about something, the more familiar it may become, but all the more wonderful for all the complexity of it.  There are so many things that we show no wonder for, they are so seemingly simple and everyday, but a little understanding blossoms into a whole new world of things to stand in wonder of.

I wish I had done it sooner, but I am nevertheless glad that I am doing this now.  Despite tough times like this semester has been, I am so glad to be able to go to college and explore a world of science and understanding that I had not before.  I already had so much locked away in my head, along with the knowledge that I knew so little.  There is such a special magic that happens every now and then.  Two things that I knew before, but not understanding the how or why, suddenly I come across something in class that may not even be connected…  But some kind of link forms, something goes click in my head, suddenly I have an entirely new understanding of something I may have been pondering for years.  Again, it may not even have anything to do with the topic at hand.  The magic may just be a little piece of information that clicks with some other understanding that remotely underlies yet another subject…  But like a wire plugged into an outlet, suddenly there is a current and a connection.  Suddenly there is a light, and you can see a part of the room that was always dark.  It’s an amazing feeling that I’m not even sure I am describing very well.

No, in my world wonder is not at all obscured by understanding, it is only magnified.  Where once I had a boiling pot of water, good only for cooking my dinner, now I have an amazing world of interactions, motion, and energy.  I understand so much more about that pot of salted, boiling water now.  I can visualize the movement within.  I can see the significance of each little wisp of vapor.  I know what happened when I added the salt.  I know what will happen because I added the salt.  Even before it boils, there is movement and action going on everywhere.  If I chose, rather then waiting for it to boil, I could find out just when it would boil rather than waiting to find out.  There are so many things that could be examined and understood.  There is so much I still don’t know… About a simple pot of boiling water… But I don’t see a simple pot of boiling water anymore.  Maybe I never did, but it still looks nothing like it did yesterday… Not to me.  Later on, I will look at another pot of boiling water, excited to find out what it looks like to me tomorrow.

Wow!  I digressed more than a Dennis Miller monologue!  But I mean every word of it.  Each day that I study, I see the world around me a little differently from the day before, and it is an amazing thing.  That is exactly what gets me through the tough times with math.  I really want to see what the world looks like tomorrow.  So there is a little mud from the stream of consciousness for you.  It may just look like mud, but don’t wash it off just yet.  Look at it later and see if it still looks the same.

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4 responses to “summer break? yeah, right…

  1. Hang in Matt! Summer semesters suck!!! I got 2 Cs in all my undergraduate years – both in summer semesters! Talk about feeding the “Christmas Goose!! And I did Chem I&II in the summer – fortunately that’s NOT where the C’s came. :]

    I’m digging your understanding of how important is physics – in ALL the sciences. Of course what else would a physics major say (*L*)? If there is such a thing as a “Unified Theory” surely it’s components factors are 90% in the realm of physics (:]) And, yes, math and physics are non-severable. I’m guessing it’s still pretty much the same but as a physics major we had to take 8 semesters of analytic geometry (2 semesters, calculus (4), and deferential equations (2). I found myself often feeling pretty overwhelmed in those courses (taught by math professors, of course). But I LEARNED (and became quite comfortable with the essentiality of) math in my physics courses. Math is soooooo esoteric until it’s applied!!! And calculus especially is “math as a useful tool.” In short, my math profs ‘taught’ me math; physics profs ‘learned’ me math. And our favorite PhD chemist abhorred math and never went beyond classroom Calc I&II “for poets” (no less). But she did a LOT of self-teaching of some pretty heavy-duty math over those later years!!

    I must share with you how your comments regarding the pan of boiling water and your deeper understanding of same struck a resonant chord in my brain. As I think you know (or did at one point), in a former life I was a Navy nuclear reactor operator. Given the Navy’s use of water-cooled, pressurized water reactors, I can’t tell you how many hours we spent learning the physics and chemistry of boiling water (or ‘not’ boiling water) ….. *LOL*
    -Bill S.

  2. I won’t hold your bias against you in the least! I really do consider physics to be the pinnacle of the sciences. Regardless of whether a particular principle in physics has yet been adequately described, it underpins everything else we do in science and engineering. Frankly, if it were not for the fact that the research I would like to be involved in is slanted towards biology, I would planning a degree in physics. It is THE reason why I am always so focused on issues with math. If there were a practical way to essentially triple major in physics, biology, and chemistry, I would do it with a big cheesy grin on my face. I would do it for no other reason than I want to learn that much of each. The title on a given degree may be about creating opportunities to be involved in the research of my choice, but beyond that I just have an overwhelming desire to soak up everything I can.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be far enough along in physics for a double major, but I’m pretty sure I can squeak out a minor at least. Your claim that physics is what “learned” you math only makes me more eager. I agree that application makes math seem much less esoteric. Perhaps that will help me pull it all together in a way that makes me feel like I am finally “all caught up.”

    I am always glad to hear from you. You’re comments make it sound like you still have your own passion for these subjects. I very much appreciate you sharing that with me, and the encouragement!

  3. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post

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