09 November 2005

On Migraines, Misanthropes, and the Concept of Mass

Today I am completely scatterbrained. Due to the combination of a migraine-medicine induced afternoon nap and a large Coke, I got very, very little sleep. And what sleep I did get was disturbed by crazy dreams involving Dr. House from the television show House and musings on the equation E=mc2 about which I’m reading in a book I highly recommend called E=mc2: a biography of the world’s most famous equation by David Bodanis. All in all, not the most restful night I have had.

One might not think that a fictional misanthropic doctor and the basis of all modern physics might have anything in common outside my drug-addled mind, but they do. I promise! In the years following the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the discovery of the composition of an atom, theoretical physicists and their chemist counterparts began experimenting with the theory by bombarding elements with neutrons, hoping to create the large output of energy the equation promised by altering the mass of said elements. Initial research created slightly altered forms of the elemental nuclei which leaked out a very small, gentle form of energy, but not nearly the amount promised in Einstein’s equation. These altered elements became useful as tracers that could be swallowed or injected in order to see what is going on inside the human body. Hence the relationship between a fictional misanthropic doctor and modern physics.

Lest any reader by overwhelmed by the above paragraph, I would like to point out that until I picked up this book, the mere thought of physics made me cry. When I was in high school, I took a physics class. I can’t remember if it was because I was planning on majoring in architecture at the time or if I was hoping to be in a class with my current crush. It was probably a mixture of the two. Either way, every night, when it came time to face the physics homework, I would cry. I just couldn’t grasp the concepts presented to me. I could memorize definitions, quote Newton’s laws, and fake my way through a post-experiment write-up, but I didn’t understand the logic of it. It was a foreign language that I could only parrot back on each exam and hope for the best. Why is it different this time? Perhaps it is because I was actually curious and wanted to learn, as opposed to impress some college admissions board or a cute fellow student. Perhaps the author is a gifted writer who merges the human with the scientific in a way to which I can relate. Or perhaps it is because I’m 10 years older and a lot more open minded. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because I get to do all my learning while curled up in bed wearing my flannel pajamas.

1 comment:

aquamarine said...

It's the last part Scully. Everything seems to sink in so much better when wrapped in flannel!