Wednesday, February 15

The Pauli Exclusion Principle

Disclaimer: After writing this I noticed that I might come across as being vain, and in love with my own intelligence. I'm not vain (I hope), and I never was the smartest person in any of my schools. For some reason many of my friends tended to be people that struggled with school. For some of them, their parents were the pushy sort that demand good grades from their kids and push them to be "above average." Others of my friends had mild learning disabilities like dyslexia. The thing that held me back was my disposition towards school. I could do well without studying, so I never studied.

In first grade we were assigned a project. A picture of a bear was copied onto two pieces of paper, and we were to cut it out, glue it together, color it, and then write a few sentences about bears. When I got it back there was a note from the teacher. I took it home to my mom, and asked her what it was about. Aparently, while my classmates had written things like: "Bears are funny. They ride bikes in the circus." and "I love bears. They are soft and cuddly." I had written, "I hate bears. They are mean and scary. They will eat you if you go in the woods alone." According to the note I was the *only* kid who had said that they disliked bears. I vaguely remember thinking, "What's wrong with them, don't they realize how dangerous bears are?" Being the only kid who hated bears didn't make me funny, special, or cute. It made me different. And in grade school, different is bad.

In third grade I was taken to a room and given a test. No one really explained why. After I took that test I was taken back to that room once a week for a class that none of my friends were in. All the kids in there dressed funny, and seemed socially inept. I wondered if I was in special-ed. The special-ed kids did meet in that room, and no one had told me why I was in that class or how I had done on the test that obviously put me in the class. Finally my worry grew too great and I asked my mom. She told me I was in a class called "New Horizons," and it was a class for gifted students. That didn't mean that much to me. After all "gifted" and "special" seemed to be pretty similar words. I eventually figured out that they put me in that class because they thought I was smart, and needed more stimulation even though none of the stuff we did was really that challenging for me. When I relievedly shared this with one of my friends she asked me how I got in, because she wanted in too. I was suprised by the competetive way she said this, and felt uncomfortable with her from then on.

In ninth grade I had biology with a girl who was in my ward. She was the only other girl my age so we were de-facto friends. I was getting an A and she was barely passing so her mom suggested that she ask me for help. We went to her house one day after school and I went through much of the course work with her. She was flipping through her notes asking me to explain all the things she didn't understand. I gave her analogies to help her remember important concepts, like comparing molecules in a solution to kids jumping on a trampoline. When we were done she still felt confused and was obviously frustrated by the material. She asked, "How do remember all this stuff? Do you just study all day?" I didn't know how to tell her that I didn't really study at all, so I let the question go and wished her luck on the test.

My dad spent a few years in the Navy, and was always fascinated by boats and science and navigation. He really liked the idea of knowing the sky, and navigating by the stars. He loved pointing out constellations and I was the only child he could get to listen to him. He pronounced a lot of names wrong, and wasn't especially good at explaning how to find the star he was looking at. But he had books, lots of books. I loved looking through his books, though it felt like I wasn't supposed to. Perhaps if I had felt like he wouldn't have minded me looking at his books, it wouldn't have been so much fun.

My junior year in high school we took more standardized tests than I can remember. I hated them all, except for one. I had been looking forward to that one ever since my sister took it six years before. The ASVAB exam. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. I remember joking on the way to the testing area with my friend just what "Battery" meant in this context. Were they going to beat us if we cheated? Looking at the grumpy looking men in uniform I wondered just how wrong our guess was. I took the test and a week later we got the results. Just like all standardized tests the scores were enigmatic and hard to decipher. I had a vague understanding that my scores were "good." When we filled out the chart that showed us what sorts of careers we have an aptitude for I was hoping for an epiphany, but didn't get one. I had images in my head of looking at the chart and seeing the name of a career and feeling "yes! That is what I want to do with my life!" When I filled out the chart, it turned out I had an aptitude for just about everything. The only thing that it looked like I was especially good at was mechanical and spacial reasoning. But I didn't know what that really implied. I didn't want to be a mechanic, I thought. While I was staring at my chart, vaguely disappointed, my friend looked over my shoulder and said "Wow! looks like you'd be good at everything." He went on to say that his chart said he might be a good dancer. He struck a flamenco pose and said "Ole! What do you think?" I laughed, because we both knew he wouldn't be a good dancer.

So I went to college with no idea what I wanted to major in or do with my life. I declared myself as an English major. I was pretty certain that I didn't really want to major in English, but I knew all the classes I would take as an English major would count towards the university wide liberal studies requirements for graduation. I took Calculus I my first semester. My professor, who was a woman tried to get me to join the math club. She asked what my major was, convinced that participation in math club would help me get scholarships. When I said "English." She looked agast and asked "What on earth are you taking this class for?" I said "I don't know."

Second sememster my advisor encouraged me to take a class that would count towards the Laboratory Science requirement. I looked through the listing and found Astronomy 101 and the once a week observational Lab. I decided to take it. When I got to class the first time there were three people from my singles ward there. I sat with them, though it quickly became clear that they were already friends. Though I was welcome in their group, they had known eachother for a long time, and I was sort of an outsider. For the first test they invited me to study with them at the library. They were being nice and inclusive of me, so I went. We started going over the material, and it quickly became obvious that I understood nearly all of it better than my friends. This time was different though. They were paying attention to what I said. They told me that I explained it better than the teacher had. They were glad I was there, they were I glad I understood, and they liked me because I was smart. I was addicted. Astronomy became my favorite class. It didn't matter that it the degree was mostly physics and math classes, and looked horribly hard. I knew I was smart enough to do it, and do it well.

All the other times in my childhood being smart made me different, and weird. To many of my friends I was the competition. I often set the curve, so their ability to get a good grade depended on me not doing too well. With astronomy, I wasn't something people felt threatened by. When I was an Astronomy major people wanted to ask me questions that they'd always wondered. The people in my classes were like me. I had found a place where I fit. I had found something to do that didn't cut me off from the people around me. I found something that made me happy.


Anonymous said...

Interesting parallells our lives. In 2nd grade I remember taking some unusual tests. It turned out I was apparently good at solving puzzles. Next thing I know I'm being sent to a new school because they thought I was gifted. I've been denying it ever since, but I have to say it was a wonderful learning environment for me there, grades 3-6. I agree that I'm probably fairly smart at some things (and I'm still pretty good with puzzles!), somewhere along the way I also got to feeling like I didn't really belong with the smarter kids -- that somehow they pegged me wrong. Looking back, part of that was probably that I tend to be lazy, and I'm sure that's why my grades in HS and College were pretty average. Some things certainly come easy to me, but math didn't, even though I ended up majoring in CS, with a prerequisite of 3 semesters (12 units) of Calculus. Sad thing is (20 years later) I couldn't integrate my way out of a paper bag! Forgot pretty much all of it. While most would describe me as left-brained and sometimes nerdy, I also feel strongly that there's this powerful right-brain side to me that's completely undeveloped. I have a very strong interest in art (I want to learn ceramics, stained glass, drawing, etc.), just never took the time or opportunity to explore it. How dumb is that? My mom started oil painting at age 60 and proved to all of us that she's really  talented. I suspect some of her artsy genes are rumbling around in me too. I played the viola and cello and piano once upon a time in my youth, love music, but again never took it anywhere (darn laziness!). Regrets... 

Posted by Rich

Anonymous said...

I also played the cello, I still have it and take it out once in a blue moon. That's quite a coincidence.
I also have *big* laziness problems when it comes to school work. I just can't bring myself to study, especially when I know I'll do just fine without it. Maybe we should bring this up at the Mormon Underachievers thread. Because we're so smart and naturally good at everything, we've all become lazy bums!  

Posted by Starfoxy

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that El Cajon is the 'burb I grew up in (now the meth capital of the nation I hear). Too weird! It was cool though -- we had everthing growing in our yard -- guavas, persimmons, lemons, tangerines, several kinds of oranges, avocados, pecans, plums (Santa Rosa, yum!), apricots, tangelos, apples and tomato vines from March until November. Next door was a 5-acre watermelon patch with the best melons I've ever eaten, with an entire fenceline of grapes (anything on our side was fair game!). The neighbors also had figs, kumquats (not sure I spelled that right, looks and sounds vulgar!), pomegranates, kiwis and grapefruit. Geraniums filled the front yard like weeds. It was a great place to grow up, but it doesn't feel the same when I go back. Yards are not kept up, water is so expensive most folks let the landscaping die and either don't care or do the zeroscape thing now. Crowded, expensive, and, oh, outrageously expensive (housing, utilities, etc.). Sigh.

I at least got my youngest to pick up the cello, and she's much better now than I ever was thankfully.

BTW, do you own a scope, belong to a local astronomy club, or ever just go meditate by starlight? I'd love to hear your musings/feelings/poetry about the non-theoretical, non-academic side of plain ol' stargazing sometime (assuming that's also appealing to you)...  

Posted by Rich

Anonymous said...

On the bear thing: here's a link to a toy bear called Gloomy . He was designed by this Japanese guy, Mori, and is featured with bloody dripping from his mouth and claws because he's always attacking his owner. When Mori was interviewed about Gloomy, he said that it seemed natural to create a bear who attacks, because that's what bears do - if we really owned a bear we'd probably get mauled by it. This just cracked me up and now I have a Gloomy sitting to my right on a shelf at work. ^_^ 

Posted by chosha

Anonymous said...

Chosha, that is creepy but I think I might just get one. I've always thought it was foolish to give stuffed versions of dangerous animals to kids who can't understand the difference, especially in places where kids could run into the real thing. There were mountain lions in the hills around where I grew up and my mom made certain we knew they weren't just big kitty cats.

Rich, I don't belong to a local club, nor do I have a scope. We're buying a house soon, so I'm waiting until after we move to find a local group to get involved with.I'd love to go stargazing, but where I live there is pretty bad light pollution (and regular pollution) and I'd have to drive for at least an hour before I could see some real stars. It's pretty sad.  

Posted by Starfoxy

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