My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sat, 28 Jan, 2006

Little achievements

I have what a rather outmoded psychological theory calls a "need for achievement." It is not just a modest little need for modest little achievements, like building a birdbox or something. I want to do a lot of achievement, both in art and in math/physics. There's probably something wrong with that need, since I feel it so strongly. Maybe it isn't "spiritual" to want to do things ambitiously. Ambition is a sin, perhaps, or more likely just gauche, childish, and low-class. Perhaps one should instead live in a kind of serene Buddhist impersonal selfless compassion, and divest oneself of wanting anything very much. However, I've never been fond of Buddhism, even though it is so very chic these days among intellectual types.

Even though I'm middle-aged, I still want to do "great" things, whatever that may be. When I chose math and physics (or, did it choose me?) I chose something that would not end, and always had the potential for something new. The same is true for art. I want to do stuff that I can be proud of (a regrettably bourgeois sentiment, but there it is). I recently encountered a story about a British theoretical physicist who won a prize at a piano contest. Gawd, now that's achievement. Not just a professor of physics, but a concert-quality piano player. When does the guy get any time to practice the piano? I wanna know his secret. Remember, physicists can do all sorts of arts and sports on a near-professional or true professional level, but an artist or an athlete cannot do physics on a comparable level. There is no symmetry or equality. The world just isn't fair, and I better get used to it. But I still want to achieve something. Yeah, pretty pathetic, but there I am.

Plugging my way through the practice problems in Schaum's makes me feel inadequate. The "illustrative" worked-out problems it puts in its text are designed to teach material as they are solved, but they just make me confused. Am I supposed to solve this on my own, or wait for the book to teach me how to solve it? If I don't solve it, am I doing poorly? I retreat from the red rigor of the Schaum's book to the Web-based "Physics Classroom" site which is aimed at high-school students. I find it much easier to use, even though there is cuteness such as cartoons and pun names which are not necessary for a Serious Older Student. It explains the material clearly and with plenty of easily interpreted diagrams. I print the pages of the site out so that I can work with them when the machine isn't on, but often I work with both printout and machine together.

One thing I appreciate about the Physics Classroom website is that, like Kuhn's introductory text, it offers very simple problems for the student to solve, which build up experience with the material. Gifted young science-hotshots would scoff at such dim little bits, but I am grateful for these problems. Rather than place a block of complex, barely familiar material in an initial problem, they mention and work with what the text has just explained. The solutions are available only by mouse-click, so you have to have the machine on to get them.

The best thing about the problems on the Physics Classroom site is that I can solve them. Which forces are doing work upon the object in the diagram? Calculate the work done by these forces. How many joules? I find out on paper, and then the site yields the answer, which is more or less right, since for some reason the Physics Classroom has rounded off the 9.8 m/s2 acceleration of gravity to 10 m/s2. I solved a problem! It was a little problem, no harder than drawing a straight line with a ruler, but I solved it. I need even a tiny bit of achievement. This gives me a droplet of it, enough confidence to go on to another page.

Posted at 4:11 am | link

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