Thanking John Polanyi
There’s a personal anecdote that I tell almost every one of my undergraduate classes. I’ve blogged about it multiple times, as well. (I did it for the my 50th birthday post, back in 2016 when I won an education award, and a 2014 post which was actually all about this anecdote).
But why not do it again?
When I was a first year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, back in the mid-1980s, I was overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of the work, and deeply intimidated by our professors.
I’m fond of telling my students –especially the ones who complain if my content is too hard or my expectations too extreme– about Eduard Prugovecki, who taught us Calculus for Physics.
Dr Prugovecki was terrifying with his rapid pace and thick Croatian accent (which we all thought was Russian, of course). None of us could keep up. Add to that the stress of our dysfunctional competition. Each of us was supposedly the top Physics student from our respective high schools; our egos and sense of worth was tied with being smart and being on top of the material.
As a result, very few of us actually spoke to one another. That’s how scared and dysfunctional we were.
There were only a handful of women in the class, so they were easy to remember. Years later, while doing my PhD at Western, I would get to know one of those women well, and only then would the beautiful trauma of these early memories fade.
There was also a particularly memorable man. In the front row of every class, the same young man would deposit himself. He epitomized the nerdy ethic of the day, complete with ill-fitting clothes and inch-thick glasses. To myself, I called him “Egghead.” Since no one spoke to each other, we never knew each other’s names.
Egghead would come to class carrying a copy of Newton’s Principia…. in the original Latin! That’s a baller move. Many of us assumed Egghead was the alpha-nerd, as a result.
Years later, I would bump into Egghead at a –wait for it– Star Trek convention. Yes, he was wearing his own homemade Captain Kirk costume (baller that he was). Never having spoken a word to each other, we actually fell into each other’s arms in mutual recognition of the shared trauma that was undergraduate Physics at the University of Toronto. Egghead, you see, had bailed from Physics rather quickly and had gone into marketing or something completely unrelated.
Which brings me back to Prugovecki’s way-hard calculus class. Back then, I was so stressed by the material that I would hum the Spider-Man theme song to myself on an infinite loop. Looking up and down the classroom rows, all I would see every day in every class were scores of feet gyrating nervously in that way that young men do —and we were almost all nervous young men.
Unbeknownst to me, I was known to some as “that Spider-Man guy”. This, apparently, was a good thing, as it was perceived as “cool.”
One day, a brave young man stood up to ask Prugovecki an important question. He had been selected by the tribe as a sacrifice, to be thrown into the live volcano to appease the angry math gods. I don’t remember this young man’s name, but I respect his courage deeply. He said to the fearsome professor, “Sir, you’re going a little fast. Can you slow down a bit?”
I will never forget the rage in Prugovecki’s eyes. He spun away from the chalkboard and addressed us all in that fantastic and awesome Eastern European way, direct and profound. He said, “Not only is this calculus for Physics, this is Physics at the University of Toronto!” And he launched the chalk above our heads, where it shattered on the wall behind us.
No one ever asked him to slow down again, or for any kind of leniency. The average mark that year was a C, I believe. But I learned a lot from Dr Prugovecki. I remember none of the math he taught us (except for higher applications of the Taylor expansion series, which I used later in life). But I will never forget his intensity and high expectations.
In February of that same first year, one of the graduate students in the department, Ian Shelton, discovered a motherfuckin supernova. He became a global science superstar overnight.
But the real kicker, that first year of Physics studies, was that weeks into my program, one of our professors, John Polanyi, won the freaking Nobel Prize.
I often tell my own students how I was blessed to begin my science education with a Nobel laureate and other great scientists who will be celebrated in the annals of history. And my poor students are stuck with just me, though I do my best.
Last night, at a special reception for University of Toronto donors, I got a chance to tell this to Dr Polanyi himself, and to thank him for injecting my education with a needed jolt of enthusiasm, which would take me through some very rough patches:
I got to introduce him to one of my own former students, who was also present. He was intrigued by my black&white phone camera. (I keep my phone set on black&white so that I am not tempted to look at it.) And he was very excited to know that I had become a professor.
For my part, it was important for me to tell him that I was able to attend the University of Toronto because I had won a scholarship endowed by a generous donor, which is why I had become a donor: to endow a scholarship that might enable another low income student to be similarly inspired.
He did seem disappointed, though, that I had not become a Physicist. In fairness, I’m disappointed in myself, as well.
I’m not sure I ever disclosed the reason that I left the field. I still retain a deep love for Physics, and follow the research even more closely than I follow my own field of Epidemiology. Frankly, I wasn’t very good at it; at least not good enough to make a career of it.
My final exam in Physics was a practical oral test, which sounds dirty, I know. After a year of doing a variety of experiments, each student was interviewed by a panel of scientists, and could be asked any question from the panoply of topics explored that year.
For my part, I was only confident in three things out of scores of possibilities: I could operate the gravimeter like nobody’s business. I was very good at computing the two-body problem, even at relativistic speeds. And I was pretty good and modelling the motion of bouncing balls involved in elastic collisions.
Everything else, I struggled with. In particular, I feared the oscilloscope.
So when my turn for the interview came up, I was rightly terrified. First question: solve the following two-body problem. Whoa! Done and done!
Second question: describe the steps for modelling the following set of elastic collisions. Whoa! That’s essentially a bouncing ball problem. Done!
Third question: demonstrate use of the gravimeter. No problem!
Fourth question: set up this oscilloscope to detect beta decay. Um…. what?
I randomly fiddled with that knob for what felt like an eternity, and finally gave up. One of the examiners said, “Yes, that’s right. But in fairness, it was already set up to detect beta decay, so you got lucky.”
I had passed. But I recognized that I had passed out of luck, not skill. So I got the fuck out that program as fast as I could.
I graduated from the University of Toronto with a double major in Physics and Physiology, and a minor in Linguistic Anthropology. Despite going on to collect three more degrees, I maintain that I learned more, and was challenged more, in those first few years of undergraduate Physics, than at any other time in my life of formal education.
I will leave you with one last anecdote from my time in Physics. It was second year, and I arrived at my hotly anticipated Quantum Mechanics class to be met by a Scottish professor who sounded just like Sean Connery. His first statement: “No one really understands quantum mechanics. So I will talk about it as if you are all already experts. And maybe by the end of the year, you’ll know something about it.”
Sigh. This was going to be brutal. I looked around the class and saw the familiar set of all male nerds. Sigh. Not a girl in sight.
Then, as if in answer to my prayers, two amazingly attractive young women walked in. I perked up. This might not be so bad, after all! Then one of them asked the fake Sean Connery: “Excuse me, is this French 201?”
“No,” the professor said. “This is Quantum Mechanics.”
The attractive young woman turned to her equally attractive friend and reported, “We’re in the wrong class. This is auto mechanics.”
(UPDATE: Apparently I’ve told that story before, too.)
Let’s get to it…
Feb 27 – Bagels with jam and vegan cheese, honeycomb cereal in almond milk with an apple.
Feb 28 – It’s egg day! An egg white vegetable omelette!
Mar 1 – Bagel with vegan cheese, an apple, chickpea/cauliflower/carrot/red pepper salad.
Mar 2 – Beans and rice, mashed potatoes, chick peas and cauliflower.
Mar 3 – Vegan pancake, hashbrowns and jam.
Mar 8 – Paneer fajitas from a fake Mexican place in Chicago.
That’s all, folks