Wednesday, July 8, 2009

They're Out To Get Me

Time once more for Mama Kat's Writer's Challenge. This week the prompts are:
1.) Tell us about a "dirt cheap" you've taken this summer.
(inspired by Anti-Supermom)

2.) When I grow up I want to be like...
(inspired by Jenny Says What?)

3.) Describe a difficult moment that you survived.
(inspired by Sarah M.)

4.) List 5 things you like to do while camping...or 5 places you'd like to go.
(inspired by Kisatrtle)

5.) What are you paranoid about?
(inspired by Melissa)

What is the best prompt for me this week?

#1 - I can eliminate this right off the bat. The only place I have been this summer is to the corporate meeting with L in Vail. Although it was dirt cheap to me, since I was playing corporate wife, I still don't think it qualifies as a dirt cheap in this sense.

#2 - Who I want to be like when I grow up could be seen as redundant. Many people would claim I am already grown up. But in one of those oddities of life, the older you get, the more it seems like so many things might be possible (and yet there are any number of other things that become physically harder). The person I would most like to emulate as I age would have to be be Richard P. Feynman. He carried on an intense and wide ranging interest and intellectual curiosity in the world right up to his death.

I still remember a conversation I had with him all the way back in my graduate school days. In it he happened to mention that he didn't think that one of the fashionable models of reality that was making the rounds of speculation at the time would turn out to be viable. When I asked him why he thought that way, he said he had a very simple rule for determining if he really understood some part of physics. If he could understand the outcome using a simple mental model that required no insane mathematical finesse to work, he felt he was probably on the right track. The theory in question failed that test and was later shown to be wrong. I always thought that was pretty good advice coming from a Nobel laureate and great all around physicist.

#3 - I have survived a number of difficult moments in my life. So many that it is in fact it is hard to choose just one. I guess I'll go with the time I was the tensest and most worried in my life.

Where I went to graduate school, there were three main criteria for getting a doctorate in physics. The first was a written test on all of physics (the qualifier). The second was a specific oral exam before a committee to determine if you were smart enough and/or capable enough to proceed to do original research (the oral). The third was a thesis of original research, published in refereed journals, and approved by a thesis committee (the thesis defense).

The qualifier was given once a year at the start of the academic year. It was a three day exam, from 8am to 5pm with an hour off for lunch. You got two chances to pass it or your career as a graduate student was over. I had only minimal doubt about the qualifier and passed on the first try. I can only say that some of the most socially awkward scenes in graduate school occurred the day the results came out and your friend and colleague had not passed on their last attempt. What can you say to them? What can they say to you?

Unlike the qualifier, the oral was scheduled once you had passed the qualifier and proven proficiency in the core curriculum (electromagnetic fields, mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum field theory, etc.) The committee to examine you was selected by the university, not you or your advisor. I was the first one in my incoming cohort of graduate students to be scheduled for my oral, so information was a bit sketchy as to how bad it really was. My friends were almost funereal when they saw my committee. Of the seven committee members, I happened to get three of the most cantankerous and anti-graduate student professors in the institution. And that was just the physics professors. There was also a professor from mathematics, another from applied science, one from the medical school, and one humanities professor.
At the duly appointed hour, I showed up for my oral, as nervous and as tense as could be. I recognized the three physics professors, but hadn't met any of the others. The first hour was pretty simple questions, more like brain warm-ups than serious kill the graduate student questions. The second hour specialized in more and more detailed questions, some of which had no answer. Questions like "why is the sky blue?" (Raleigh scattering) and "prove that a modified version of the MVT holds in the presence of a countable number of singularities." interspersed with off the wall ones like "what would happen if all people grew five inches taller?" All pretty simple if sometimes tediously long to work out on the blackboard. And then I was asked the question that left me blank. I literally have no memory from then to the end of the oral. To this day I cannot remember what the question was. All I remember is that it was asked by the professor from the medical school. I must have had a good answer, because I passed. But that was the first and last time in my life where I have had that kind of a stress induced blank out.
Needless to say, after the oral ordeal, defending my thesis was trivial.

#4 - An easy one. I DO NOT LIKE TO CAMP! Years of camping as a Boy Scout left me with a firm preference not to camp. So you all can camp out, but I am going to be staying over there at the cabin that has running water, a bed, a stove, electric lights, and maybe even a heater or air conditioner. I'll see you in the morning.

#5 - It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. Actually, I am probably one of the least paranoid people around. I have a deep seated belief that people will do the right thing if you let them. If they don't, then they just aren't a part of my life for long. Because I believe in people, people sense it and generally do the right thing. So I don't have to waste time being paranoid.


  1. Great post this week and I am with you on the camping bit. Heaps of my friends LOVE to camp and I actually did BEFORE KIDS but the thought of taking them camping makes my brain shudder......

  2. I enjoyed this weeks post!! I am also totally with you on the camping bit Girl Scouts killed it for me. Perhaps I will have to share that story one day..

  3. I love that one of the things that scared you the most was the graduate interviews... granted I was dealing with teaching not physics but I was equally as scared.

    I also don't camp really..I RV so it's semi camping.

    Great job.

  4. Great post, Dan.

    I'm with you on the camping thing. My family loves to camp though, and are probably packing up to come home as I type this. We bought a trailer this summer, so my sorrty butt will be dragged out there and I no longer have "I don't tent" excuses that will fly. Sigh....

  5. I hear you on the camping thing Dan! Keep me as far away from dirt and bugs and any other creepy crawly things : ). Always love coming to see you on Thursdays!

  6. They are out to get you...that is, the Pillsbury dough containers. I'm paranoid about opening those things and having a heart attack. I get my husband or another grown up to do it for me.
    As far as camping goes, I was surprised to find that I liked camping and my husband did not. He's like you and can't see the logic of leaving your perfectly comfortable bed to sleep outside, use outhouses, or eat food with dirt in it. Ah, well.

  7. I like the whole tent idea but sometimes I opt for the camper with a bathroom and AC for those hot summer nights.

    Once while camping in girl scouts it rained so much our site flooded and we had to relocate in the middle of the night to a near by conference center where we crashed on the lobby floor. Good times.

  8. #3 definitely sounds tough. I barely survived reading everything you had to go through...phew!! I wrote about your favorite thing to NOT do-camping. It was great fun when I was a kid. However COMMA I haven't done it willingly since I flew the coop for a reason.

  9. Dan Dan Dan...after my last camping trip I'm hoping there is room in the cabin


You know you want to ... so just do it!!!

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