Tuesday, April 17, 2007


A while ago I mentioned that the physics department of my alma mater had invited me to speak as part of an alumni seminar series. A young professor in the department thought it'd do his students good to see how past graduates applied their college educations, and he created a weekly seminar to bring us in. I volunteered because I thought it'd do them good to hear from someone who was far from a shining academic star and still managed to turn out all right.

I gave that talk yesterday. My wife came along as did my two girls who, as I also mentioned before, are now students at my former university. As we rounded a corner toward the classroom, I saw awaiting me in the hall approximately 20 physics students, my host, and a man I hardly dared hope would be there: Dr. E. (Since I didn't ask his permission to write about him, I'll keep him anonymous.)

I've been lucky to have two people in my life I considered mentors, one in high school and Dr. E. in college. Both took an interest in young me and who I was, what I was doing, what my plans were, how I was developing. Both went to some effort--how much I only appreciated in retrospect--to try to make good things happen for me. I met Dr. E. my freshman year when, as I recall, he solicited my astronomy class for anyone interested in doing a one-unit independent study project at the small campus observatory with him. I tackled him after class and spent the next four years dogging his heels.

I graduated in 1983. I'd only touched base with Dr. E. two or three times since and would've been pleased if, out of the thousands of students who've passed through his tutelage, he remembered me at all. But of course he did, and when he saw my name on the seminar schedule he made a point to come. He's a professor emeritus now, long retired, still maintaining a campus office he visits a few times a week but gradually pulling away from academia in favor of travel, political activism, and family. I re-introduced him to my wife, whom he'd met many times when she and I were not-yet-betrothed students, as well as to my children he'd never met, and I felt like Kevin Costner presenting his family to his father at the end of "Field of Dreams." I would hardly have been more dumbstruck if Dr. E. had walked out of a magic cornfield and asked if I wanted to play catch. Not only did he remember me, but he brought along a caricature of himself I drew and posted on the astronomy club bulletin board 25 years ago and never knew what became of until it showed up framed in his hands yesterday.

Here's the thing with me and physics: I wasn't a natural at it. I was smart, but I wasn't one of those students for whom it came easily, whose brains seem to have little vacancies exactly the right size and shape for a wave equation or uncertainty principle to slip into. I knew those students and they're scary. As I said at the seminar, I stuck with physics because once a quarter I could count on having a single "A-ha!" moment when the clouds parted, trumpets sounded, angels sang, and for an hour I felt like I'd glimpsed something fundamental and beautiful and true about the universe. The other thousand hours a year were a tough slog I endured so I could experience those rare highs I never got anywhere else.

So I managed to graduate but always regretted not working a bit harder, not grasping or remembering a bit more than I did. I didn't master physics, I survived it. Nevertheless, I think it has informed everything I've since done in journalism, environmental chemistry, writing--even cartooning. In some ways, physics was the best philosophy course I ever took, and I tried to tell the physics students yesterday that even if you don't work in science, it can enrich whatever you do. Conversely, if you do end up working in science, bringing your non-scientific interests and passions to the job will enrich it as well.

Talking with Dr. E. afterward, he allowed that he'd had many students brighter than me. He would've been disingenuous to say otherwise and I would've been foolish to argue. But he added that I'd always struck him as someone more interested in studying than testing--more into process than result--in a way he found refreshingly rare in an overly goal-centered environment. He may have used the word "special," to which my wife may have replied, "Uh huh." I didn't go on to research or grad school, never became a real physicist, but I managed to integrate my education into my interests and life in a way a lot of graduates didn't. I made my own path--almost entirely accidentally, to be sure, but with interesting and rewarding results. I built a great family and a career I enjoy. More than academic postings and papers published, those were the kinds of outcomes Dr. E. wished for his students.

He told me I was a success.

On the remote chance Dr. E. finds this post, I won't embarrass him by trying to capture what that meant to me. But holy moley! A lot.

Today's lesson: if you've ever had a mentor in your life and you have an opportunity to tell them how much you appreciate what they did for you, take it. I've had that chance with both my mentors now, and it'll do you both a world of good. Second, if you ever have a chance to be a mentor, do it. I don't think it really takes much to give a kid some encouragement that could change his or her life--in fact, when I talked to my other mentor years later, he seemed a little puzzled that he'd had such an impact on me. I think it's a matter of simple physics; a little push at one end of a long, long lever can be magnified into a mighty force at the other end.

Oh, and yesterday was my birthday. It was a great day.


R said...

Yay! I'm glad you had a good time. I thought you looked really glad to see him there! ;)
You did a good job talking and stuff, and the other students even seemed interested, which is impressive if you compare those students to most in my classes.

Derbecker said...

I've written about your book on my blog, and lifted some images from your page. I don't want to use something without permission and will take it down upon request, the posting's at:


And either way...you wrote something outstanding.