I got new shoes a couple of days ago on the way back from returning my mother-in-law to the airport.
This story isn’t so much about the shoes, although they’re fantastic. I’ve caught a shoe-fetish disease from my spouse, although a much milder case of it. I appreciate a new pair of laces, especially when they come with long lasting Vibram soles, and these did. That’s part of the story. See, I went in to the local outdoor shop because it’s where I got my last pair of trail* shoes, now with holes, and because it’s where some teachers at a local junior high school gave me a gift certificate, a nice token for having spent the day with students there. So, I had good reason for patronizing this business. Additionally, completing some trifecta, it was a student from last semester working there who ended up helping me with shoe selections, advice, sizing, and the like. I ended up with a pair of shoes I never would have picked up left to my own devices, but now I’m completely happy with the choice. He steered me in the direction of something that would last a long time and fit my needs. In addition, he rang me up and gave me 30% off the asking price. Grateful, I left the store with the new shoes on my feet and the old ones in the box.
The connection to this local shop, the local teachers, and the former students all meshed together just right. I’m surprised and delighted by how these kinds of intersections seem to weave themselves together in my life. But this is just the prelude to another story. I’ve learned in the last couple of days that connections to the bigger world are more likely than I used to imagine.
A couple of days ago I got an email whose subject line read, “Samanda the Panda.” I suppose that most people receiving such a thing might move the message into a spam folder or otherwise give it short shrift. I knew exactly what the subject meant, though; I just wasn’t sure how it was relevant to a medical doctor from another part of the country. Samanda is the name of a large stuffed panda doll we gave Anna when she was only one year old. Samanda also had a supporting role in a sample science research project I modeled for some students. In that piece, Anna was pictured with Samanda and a stop watch and a variety of pendulum swinging setups. The email went, in part, like so:
… I apologize in advance for inconveniencing you in any way. In my quest for anything panda for my daughter’s 2nd birthday, I came across your “Swinging Bowling Ball Pendulum” research report on the internet (very entertaining and educational). I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful stuffed panda bear, and I was wondering if you could tell me who made the panda or where you purchased the panda. Samanda the Panda seems to be the perfect size and shape! I just had to find out more about her!
Interested and entertained that a mother’s search for a stuffed panda would lead her to my Physics 101 page, I emailed back. I helped by giving a few specifics about brand and dimensions. Maybe this was the best use of my webpage to date.
Just a day before this interaction I had another, out-of-the-blue connection. It was an email from the New York Times. I didn’t think much of the email from nytimes.com at first, because I use it quite a bit in classes, interacting with a representative for our campus that sets up the subscriptions. But this email was from a reporter, one whose work I’ve read. (You probably have too, even if you didn’t know it.) That email went like this:
I’m a science writer at The New York Times, and am writing to you with a somewhat odd request.
I’m going to be in Park City next week to meet and observe an Olympic skier, a freestyle aerialist named Ryan St. Onge, for a story that I’m working on about the physics of this kind of ski jumping. As I’m a journalist, not a physicist (though I have some understanding of what’s going on) I was hoping to entice a physicist or other scientist to watch some of the jumps with me to help me better understand what’s happening.
I came across your name in an Internet search, and given that a lot of what you do is related to physics education I wondered if you might be interested and willing to come to Park City for a few hours next week. I could pay your gas and offer you lunch for your trouble.
It took a few minutes for this to sink in. At first, I thought “ooh fun” followed by “oh maybe someone else would be better for this” follow quickly by something like “holy shit it’s a New York Times science writer asking me to consult on a story!” I still thought that there were others who are more expert in these things than I am, but he did specifically look for someone in “physics education**,” and I have been to see the freestyle aerials before, for the 2002 olympics even. And, I do know enough physics to handle this. And, it will be really fun.
Lessons learned? It’s a small world; or it’s a big world but googlificated so that we can sort it all out. Or, be careful what you put on your webpage; or don’t think too hard about what you put on your webpage because you’re going to be asked about your panda and your freestyle skiing expertise. That’s a pretty fun way to interact with the world.
I’m heading to Park City on Tuesday afternoon to talk physics and skiing, and I’ll be wearing my new shoes.
*”Trail” shoes are worn on hiking trails, but for me they’re also worn to run to the bus stop, to bike to work, to teach classes. A friend says it’s all just part of my “affect,” and I’ll take that as a compliment.
**I think it says something that someone’s search for a person in “physics education” landed him at my virtual office door. I’m far from famous, but there’s a niche that my institution has let me carve out that isn’t found at other places in the region. Overall that’s too bad, but in this case it’s good for me.