Friday, May 28, 2010

Things I Don't Know

About once a year I do something silly and buy a book on mathematics or physics. This act represents the height of stupid behavior on my part, because I know absolutely nothing about math, which is itself the language of physics. Math was the subject where I got I got C’s and D’s in high school, and I made it through medical school only because our program was top-heavy on biological sciences and didn’t require any college algebra or physics. The last time a math textbook passed through my hands (and generally stayed unopened) was in the 11th grade, when I was compelled to take trigonometry and analytical geometry. I’m convinced I got through that course only because 1) The teacher was also the football coach and the class was geared to the “student-athlete” 2) Pocket calculators had already been invented that did things like sines, cosines, tangents, and logrithims, eliminating the need to understand what they actually were or how to find them, and 3) There was a really big offensive lineman, as I recall…in the class. He was the only other guy in school named Howard, and his pure size and presumed power insured that nobody in class would distract my learning with appellations of affection such as “Howard the Duck.” (I have no idea whatever happened to him. I’d like to think he because some kind of professional hitman. He’s probably turned out to be a new age sensitivity counselor somewhere in California. Illusions die hard.)

But I keep thinking that a well-rounded person should know something about physics and math, so I keep buying these books. Three days ago I bought “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence Krauss. I did so against my better judgment, but figured as a confirmed TOS fanatic (If you don’t know what I mean, you’re not one), I figured maybe at least I’d have a frame of reference to work with. And I understood Chapter 1, dealing the need for inertial dampers to counteract g-forces. But calculating fuel requirements for the impulse drive? That’s physics and math at the same time. I’m lost. And by the time I hit Chapter 4 dealing with microgravitational fields that warp space-time and allow interstellar travel, it was time to move on to a rerun of Jerry Springer.

For the record, here’s what I actually know about physics:

1) Newton came up with three laws. They are:

Lex I: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.

Lex II: Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.

Lex III: Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi.

Isn’t that helpful?

2) No, seriously, these are his three laws:

An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

This law explains why after I sit down in my fancy comfy rolling chair at work, I have no desire to leave it for actual patient care. It also explains why, once I kick start the chair, it would roll forever if not slowed by unbalanced forces such as sticky soda residue on the floor and solid objects like walls when I hit them. It further explains everything about government and other avenues of administrative merriment.

Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass of the object being accelerated, the greater the amount of force needed to accelerate the object.

This means that I will go faster down the hallway if Big Teddy and Matt the Brute pushes my roller chair than if Candi the Elfin Nurse does so. It also means that no matter who pushes it, the chair will go faster with me in it than it will with my personal hero, Dr. Gary Morrison, seated within it’s embrace. This is because his fund of knowledge is vast that it adds extra mass to his brain. As do brownies.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This is why both Big Teddy and Elfin Candi will recoil just a bit on their heels when they push my chair across the floor. It’s also the rule underlying any intimate relationship. (Okay, maybe take away the “equal” part.)

3) There is something called Bernoulli’s Principal that allows airplanes to fly. It works but it makes no sense. I try not to think about it too much when I’m a heavy pressurized steel canister at 40,000 feet held up by air.

4) In high school physics class you got to shoot dart guns at tin cans and roll Hot Wheels cars down planks. That was fun.

5) I really like the “Gravity” episode of Schoolhouse Rock.

I know a bit more about math, but not much. That was brought home to me when I was first dating The Bride. In a moment of random affection, trying to be romantic and intellectual at the same time (I had already discovered that she was waaaay smarter than me), I said “I love you the square root of negative one.”


“You know, the square root of negative one. A number that’s impossible to quantify. That’s how much I love you.”

She gave me that quizzical look she reserves for times when I’ve said something exceptionally stupid (as opposed to my routine ignorance)or when Duchess the Wonder Dog has decided that the greatest thing in the world is to chew up the pillows on the couch and can’t even being to fathom why you don’t share in the experience. (Which reminds me that I was the one who kept a straight face during the classic Who Can Eat a Doggie Liver Snack Contest of 2007. But I digress.)

“No you don’t,” she said.

I should have seen trouble coming, but the relationship was still new.

“Of course I do. I care for you so much I can’t begin to tell you how much.”

She shook her head. “No, you don’t.”

This was getting difficult. I’ve been in the scenario where one person says that they’re in love and the other person is not. Awkward, but workable. This one was new. I thought I loved her, but she was telling me that I didn’t. No instruction book for that one.

“No, you don’t,” she persisted. “The square root of negative one doesn’t exist. Therefore, your love doesn’t exist. You’re telling me that I mean nothing to you and I’m hurt.”

Have I mentioned that before she discovered the glories of musical theater, The Bride was going to be a math major?

“Can I love you infinity?”

“That would be acceptable.”

So the objective lesson for today is to not buy me any books about math or physics for my birthday, because I’ll never read them. And always learn about your girlfriend’s original college major before declaring your affections. It’ll save time.

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