Undergrad Memories – My Brief Flirtation With Physics


A few weeks ago I was driving through Toronto and passed the new-ish “John Polanyi Secondary School.”  John Polanyi was a professor in my department when I first started as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.  That got me reminiscing about my undergraduate days.

I was a Physics student, which was a pretty intimidating affair.  See, each of us was the top Physics student from our respective high school,  quite used to being the smartest kid in the room, but (as is the wont of Physics students) not particularly socially gifted or secure in our own self worth.  Suddenly, we were thrown together in the top Physics program in the country, forced to compete against one another for our professors’ attention and approval.

Those days, I spent many hours in the office of the departmental Chair –a lovely and kind Asian fellow whose name I cannot remember at the moment– trying to find some kind of career guidance.  Despite my struggles with whether or not Physics was the right path for me, he  implored me to stick with the program, which I did for two years before adding a Physiology specialty to my Physics major, and bolting for the (much, much easier) life sciences.

See, the classes were very very difficult. We all spent hours per week at the special workshops staffed by graduate students whose job it was to help us through the challenging calculations.  I specifically recall struggling to make sense of the three body problem in the first month of studies. Our struggles were not the product of laziness; we studied very hard indeed.  The material was just so challenging.

I was terribly stressed by the mountains of difficult work and the staggering amount yet to be learned. I took to humming the Spider-Man theme song almost psychotically, as a kind of aural security blanket.  (I would later learn that that was how some of the other students would know me… as Spider-Guy.)

At the time, I had also begun obsessively training in karate.  I really can’t imagine psychologically surviving the stress of the time without the sanctuary of the dojo.  It’s something I recommend to every young person.

Those of us keeping our head above academic water did so through extra reading.  For me, a lifetime of reading lay science textbooks allowed me to understand such high level concepts as general relativity and quantum mechanics.  I pitied those students without such a background… the classes were woefully insufficient for teaching such topics de novo.

Complicating the issues was the extreme social environment of the classes.  None of us was brave, social, or vocal.  There was a particularly diminutive fellow who’d sit in the front row of every class –some of us referred to him as “Egg Head”, since he reveled in dressing the part– who would bring with him a copy of Newton’s Principia in the original Latin.  Yeah, that guy.

Years later, I would bump into “Egg Head” at —wait for it— a Star Trek convention.  He was wearing a homemade Captain Kirk costume.  As I recall it, we embraced almost tearfully, for memory of our shared traumatic experience as undergraduate Physics students.  It was the first time we’d ever spoken.

One day, a brave attendee in the advanced calculus class put up his hand and asked the professor what we all were secretly hoping: “Sir,” he implored, “Can you please slow down?”

I happily re-tell this anecdote to my current students to show them how lax and cooperative I am by comparison.  The professor in the Calculus class, however (a Russian gentleman named Eduard Prugovecki) spun around to face the class, threw his chalk against the wall, and wailed, “Not only is this Calculus for Physics specialists, this is Physics at the University of Toronto, the top Physics program in the country! If you cannot keep up, get out!”

It was a terrifying and sobering moment.

We were encouraged, as in all good programs, to attend the monthly research symposia, and we all did so religiously.  (Sadly, I do not observe the same behaviour among my current undergraduate students).  I recall with much enthusiasm being exposed to some of the cutting ideas in Physics at the time.  I particularly remember a lecture by Fishbach on the possibility of a fifth fundamental force, something that was all the rage in the science media at the time. I feel a special privilege today and having been witness to those discussions in real time.

Then, within the first weeks of beginning my studies, a member of our faculty —John Polanyi— won the Nobel Prize.  I’m fond of telling my students about it.  As a naive teenager, I assumed that I’d always be surrounded by Nobel Prizewinners.  Why not? Based on my sample size of one, it seemed to be the norm.  It’s hard to doubt the quality of your department when one of your professors is a Nobel laureate.

Shortly thereafter, a graduate student in the department, Ian Shelton,  discovered a supernova and made international news for weeks.  At the time, my path was Astrophysics, so this represented yet another indication that I needed to get my shit together and be world-class stupendous if I was going to fit in.

I would take every opportunity to visit my TAs in their labs, just to see science in action.  Our university actually had a nuclear reactor on campus, something that I naturally assumed was commonplace on campuses around the world. It was inspiring, though intimidating, and added to my growing unhappiness.

The pressures, expectations, dry ugly classrooms, lack of social interaction, and a hyper competitive atmosphere made my undergraduate studies miserable.  Making everything worse was the fact that there were almost no girls in the program.  Not unexpectedly, Physics was a sausage party.

During the first week of Quantum Mechanics class, though, two unbelievably sexy young women came into class.  My spirits lifted briefly.  One asked the professor (who had the voice of Sean Connery, mind you), “Is this French 200?”

“No,” Professor “Connery” replied, “This is second year Quantum Mechanics.”

The young lady turned to her friend and said, “We’re in the wrong class.  This is auto mechanics.” And they left.

Sigh, I remember thinking to myself. Hot AND stupidDamn.

The experience that ultimately convinced me to begin the transition into the life sciences was my oral laboratory examination.  See, after conducting experiments over the year, each of us was to be examined individually by two professors who would interrogate us about the practical aspects of Physics.  They could choose from any of about 20 concepts we had covered.

I was quite overwhelmed by that point.  There were only two things I was confident about: operating the gravimeter, and doing basic computations in special relativity.  For everything else, I was on very shaky ground.

The oral exam was short (about 15 minutes), meaning they had time for only three questions.  The first question they asked me was…. drum roll, please… to do a calculation relating to special relativity.  Score!

The second question was….. to demonstrate the proper use of the gravimeter.  Double score!

The third and final question was….  gulp…  to set up the oscilloscope to detect a beta particle emission from a radioactive source. Uh oh.

I fiddled with the oscilloscope randomly, completely lost as to what I was supposed to do.  Then the time expired.  One of the professors said, “Well, you got it right.  But I suspect it was already properly set up, or you got it right by sheer luck.” I couldn’t disagree with him.

I took that experience as my cosmic cue to take my winnings and run.  So I switched my specialty to Physiology, though I made sure to complete enough credits to receive an additional major in Physics, something I am quite proud of today.  I also managed to score a minor in Anthropology, and had enough credits for additional minors in Political Science, pure Mathematics, or Linguistics… but they only allow you to choose one!

From all my four degrees and 14 years of postsecondary education, the years I spent studying pure Physics were the most challenging for me. Yet that’s when I learned the most out of any time in my life.  My marks suffered, though, and I ended up losing my scholarship.  For a poor immigrant kid, that was a devastating blow that really made things difficult for me.  But things worked out in the end.

So, kids, you may think my classes are hard. But believe me, you don’t know hard until you’d studied Physics at the University of Toronto.