The Physicist by Janice Choi

My high school physics teacher was a great storyteller. Just tall enough to peer at us over the pile of lab-rubble on his desk, he would smile with a knowing glow which, though but an effect of the projector’s lamp, held a significance greater than that of its physical cause and effect. The rest of the room was always dim and dusty–lukewarm–perfect for dozing off. Given my near-narcoleptic tendencies, I struggled in each class to keep my mind present, scared of missing a story or lesson. Of course there were days when my eyelids gave into the force of gravity–I still find myself wishing I could go back to fill those gaps in narrative. But there were other days when the room transformed into a theatre of trill, filling with vivid details recounted in his creased voice. Sitting in that room was always–or at least as often as my internal clock permitted–a sensory pleasure, as his lessons were veined with life advice and tangential musings.

I have no doubts that the man was a genius. Given that, his patience had to be of admirable breadth. He waived gaps in attendance (mental and physical), and carefully re-explained concepts until we could grip more tightly onto the subject matter with our dull teeth. Still, there were moments when he struggled to maintain composure as the ever-patient mentor. Perhaps a student asked a question that demonstrated an absolute neglect of critical thought, or an inexcusable failure to consider the givens. In such cases, as well as in the face of flagrant disrespect (particularly of the strain that interferes with others’ productivity), his gentle manner would recede giving way to a didactic, cerebral disposition. However, these were the times that his impeccably logical nature was revealed most apparently. The ticking of his brain, his way of approaching our surroundings–they were functions of logic, buffered from our world of supposition only by a carefully cultivated ability to empathize deeply.

But why, then, did he waste class time playing a song for us every day? “Listen to the lyrics to this one,” he would say. We strained to listen past the sounds coming from the speakers, and his most ardent fans gathered after class to deconstruct the meaning of each verse. Even as the rigor of our curriculum pushed short the time we had left, he never failed to set class time aside for abstract video clips, inspirational speeches, and excerpts from movies that were only tangentially related to the material at hand. I couldn’t help but notice his accompanying gestural nudges, designed to push us towards a place where we could try a little harder to pay attention to the details of our world.

As the year drew to a close, he announced his third retirement, and before our final exam, we fathered to surprise him with a farewell party. After a slideshow of photos from over the year and bittersweet goodbyes a friend asked a question aloud, dousing the conversational bustle about the small room. “If you were to give us one last, most important piece of advice, what would it be?” Now, keep in mind that over the course of one year, our beloved teacher had taught us many things. How to swan-dive into a shallow pool from a cliff safely, which precautionary steps to take if caught in a lightning-storm atop a dry plateau or peak, how to address stressful family situations, just to name a few. I cannot begin to describe the palpability of our collective anticipation that was growing denser as he smiled, eyes crinkling with a gentle, familiar concern:

 

“Love.”

And that was that. His final word of advice to us was not about survival, success, or braving the throes of socially constructed expectations that threaten our very livelihood as humans.[1] His greatest lesson was but one word–albeit a loaded, slippery word–and it left our logic-seeking, rote-accustomed brains demanding more of an empirically-verifiable solution.

There were several things that struck me about his answer. One was the contradictory nature of the situation: a physicist who had spent nearly an entire lifetime wiring his brain to work logically and efficiently–one that would agree with Rutherford that, “Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting”–could muster the patience and empathy to offer high school students not only the tools with which to explore basic physics, but those with which to approach a meaningful life, and to elevate these lessons about compassion and reverence above the quantifiable truths we would’ve expected such a hardcore physicist to prioritize. The second was that in that moment, everything I knew about my teacher, my perception of life, our physical world, aesthetic value, and love, clicked together in a way that was utterly harmonious and impossible to describe. Perhaps it was the literal twinkle visible in my teacher’s eye, which illustrated more lucidly than any other medium could have, a deeply-rooted and constant acknowledgment of the great universe, and our place in it. It was a momentary and momentous revelation[2] to see that a fascination with logic and our physical world is simply inseparable from a sense of gratitude and reverence for the kind of beauty we find in pleasing compositions and emotional pulls, regardless of how it’s often considered counterintuitive and unproductive.

 

[1] Or rather, it was not explicitly about these things. In hindsight, it’s clear that his literal word of advice encompassed all three, and beyond.

[2] In the least dramatic sense of the word, yet the most profound: a simple uncovering of truth so basic and accessible that it shatters the basis upon which we’ve built our perceptions of life.

Posted on June 8, 2015 .