The Physics of High School
F = ma (Failure = mediocrity amplified)
In my last entry in this “Reflections” series, I described how Michio Kaku’s engaging book Hyperspace first captured my interest in physics. At the time, I had only a nascent understanding of physics. And while many of the science classes I took before my freshmen year in high school included lessons on physics, nothing could really prepare me for Mr. Johnson’s high school physics course.
In many respects, high school was a lot of fun for me. I managed to avoid the drama that seemed to pervade large segments of the high school population, and spent much of my social life with good friends. Fortunately (or unfortunately), that same camaraderie followed me into the physics classroom. So with a heady and naïve enthusiasm for physics – coupled with distractions involving friends (*cough* StarCraft *cough*) – I began my final semester of high school in Mr. Johnson’s physics class.
It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm – one might even call it hubris – to wear off. What limited understanding of physics I had collected from my reading of popular physics books and casual browsing of more detailed books about physics (not the same as physics books…) left me with a false sense of preparedness. As it turned out, I had a lot to learn: just like everyone else.
I got through high school physics, but not with flying colors. My homework and test scores were B average (most likely attributable to a lack of effort and too much procrastination). The final project for the class was to essentially put our notes for the semester into a giant PowerPoint presentation to basically regurgitate everything we had learned. I made the mistake of procrastinating on that project, and my grade for the assignment reflected that: I got a C. Fortunately, my other grades were such that I got a B overall in the class.
I don’t mean to put too gloomy a pall over my high school physics class. Mr. Johnson was a fun teacher to have, and I did learn a lot. And of course, the Egg Launchers we made at the end of the year were one of my fondest memories of high school. But in terms of my decision to pursue a degree in physics in college, that class represented my willful ignorance of the evidence. Namely, I wasn’t very good at physics – or math, for that matter.
This realization of my level of physics and math aptitude (or rather a lack of) was but the first of three points at which I should have said to myself “wait a minute, should I really continue down this road?” Doing mediocre in a high school physics class isn’t necessarily a bad thing by itself. But when that subject will be one’s major in college, alarm bells should start going off. Was it courageous or foolhardy of me to continue on with physics when my performance in my high school physics class was less than stellar?
I’d wager it was a combination of the two . . .
Until next time, bonnes pensées.