The past few days have been a burn - we’ve been working through some very challenging problem-solving skills and, while we are making good progress, it is starting to feel like a grind. I’ve planned the day so that we will finish the current work within the first half of the period. It’s time to shift gears and have some fun.
“Let’s do something new,” I say, once we’ve reached a good stopping point. “Let’s play a game I like to call ‘ask me anything’. We have about twenty five minutes left in this period. During that time, you can ask any question you like about me and my life, or about physics or science in general. In fact, it can be about anything you’d really like to know. If I can answer you, I will. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you so and give you an informed guess, if I can.
“The only constraints are that you can’t ask me anything that is obviously inappropriate or illegal.” Several students express disappointment - they know I went to college during the 60s, and they undoubtedly want to know about any potential drug use.
It’s always interesting to notice the direction different classes and different students will go with this exercise. Some dive in immediately into my personal history - where I grew up, whether I am married, how many children I have, whereI went to college. Others want to know about my opinion on topics like whether there is other life in the universe, (it’s a statistical certainty), whether UFOs have ever been here (I can’t imagine any being traveling ten thousand light years, observing some alien life forms and then leaving without a trace).
Some students get serious and ask the bigger philosophical questions - What do I think the meaning of life is? What do I believe happens when we die? This is tricky ground, of course, and I tell them every person has to come to terms with these questions on their own and I don’t have an “answer”. Having said that, I know that it is important for my students to know that adults think about such things and have beliefs, sometimes strong beliefs. And so I dive into my understanding of Taoism and Buddhism and how they have shaped my understanding of the world, how having practiced meditation all my adult life has shaped who I am, and how I have learned to hold these beliefs and practices lightly, knowing that they can only ever be a partial understanding.
More than anything else, I want them to see that the world is an amazingly complex and interesting place, that a sixty year old man can still be avidly learning about it, and that I, like they, am a complicated person with interests that span far beyond what they see of me in the classroom. It is equally important to let them know that the interests that drive them are valued here as well, and whenever something they love can be tied to what we are studying, say how a musical instrument works, or how the lenses on a camera work, or how speakers make sound, I make a big deal about it.
The subject of this class is not just physics.