bore on

In our lecture hall in the physics department, there’s a bowling ball, spray painted yellow, connected to a twenty foot long cable and attached to the ceiling. Left to its own, it would remain suspended, the cable vertical and taut, another three feet between the sphere and the earth. A little nudge and it will swing back and forth and potentially kill someone who walks in through an inopportune door at the inopportune moment. Mostly, we pull it against the wall where it is tied and locked out of the way.

My new standard, I’ve decided, is that any lecture given in that room should be at least as exciting as the motionless bowling ball. Too often I’m disappointed*. Today, in particular, I wished the bowling ball might spring to life and increase the liveliness of the presentation, but as it was it already offered more enthusiasm in its motionless state than this week’s speaker. I looked over at one point and noticed that the seminar’s organizer, the introducer of our speaker, was himself falling asleep.

In general, I find physics seminars to be a good source of great, though obscure, band names. The “Minkowski Metrics,” I think, would be a great punk rock group. Today, I started making a long list of these, made mostly out of terms and phrases that might make sense to someone, but are actually very lazy ways of trying to portray an idea. These include:

  • potential energy surface
  • coalescence kick
  • canonical molecular orbital
  • of a certain stoichiometry
  • imaginary frequency
  • cleave those parents
  • molecular children
  • natural atomic orbital matrix
  • vertical detachment energies
  • perturbation theory

I began making a game out of writing down phrases that were filled with meaning but utterly inadequate at portraying it. I understand several of these phrases, but they still strike me as ridiculous, just words that stand in to make for quick code between colleagues but do close to nothing to evoke an image of electrons ferociously buzzing about the tight corners around and ridiculous possibilities between chemical bonds. “Perturbation theory” always seems like something that siblings test out on one another by poking each other; “canonical molecular orbital” evokes a cult’s ritual; “molecular children” are what must be left behind and in need of adoption after their parents have been “cleaved”.

The truth is that the science here is actually way more interesting than the stupid associations I make and note on my sketch book. It’s too bad we don’t always portray it as such. And, it didn’t help that the topic of today’s seminar was on “boron,” which, of course, I kept writing in my notes as “bore on” to entertain myself just enough to not fall asleep myself.

*I should clarify that this isn’t true most of the time, and it’s almost never true when people from my own department are giving the talk. This is a decidedly rare feature of my department, and this may be what biases me to insist on something that actually conveys some outward enthusiasm.


2 thoughts on “bore on

  1. My comment is simply meant to capture a fleeting thought for my own future use. Would it be revealing to ask science teachers, scientists, or educators to describe their views of learning using a scientific analogy? The interview prompt would begin by inviting the participant to describe a recent situation where a student or group was struggling to understand a scientific concept. Or ask him/her to identify an important science idea that is consistently a challenge for students to master. “As you think about that struggle – for them to learn and for you to educate – can you describe that situation using a scientific metaphor?” On multiple and unrelated occasions, I’ve heard educators analogize activation energy as a fair representation of learning: helping students learn requires applying enough effort to push their thinking over the hump []. I wonder what other metaphors might be invoked and what those could reveal.

  2. I’m glad to see that my writing space is a good scratchpad for your fleeting thoughts.

    I also think that this would be interesting as a prompt, and now I’m tempted to ask my methods students to evoke their own metaphors. Do ideas evolve or make leaps across energy levels; is learning a physical or chemical change; is it appropriate to suggest a “learning cycle” just as we suggest a “water cycle”?

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