About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Monday, November 15, 2010

how I became a physics major; or a random walk down the past

I never expected to be a physics major. When I was in high school, the year-level I was in was divided into different classes: an honors section, and the clutter. I was part of the clutter-- one of the many boys with so-so grades, without expectations of entering the national university.

I did like to read, and I spent recess and lunch hours in the school library, and reading. Or I would bring novels (we had a lot at home) and read them in class, while pretending to be paying attention to our teachers. A bibliophile. (Bookworm is a derogatory phrase-- most people have never seen bookworms; I have, and they do look like the drawings of Robert Hooke. My grandfather's library suffered an infestation, and I was saddened by the loss of so many magazines and books. )

Liking reading had nothing to do with grammar-- I couldn't diagram a sentence; I didn't know what the difference between an adjective and an adverb was. When I had to write, or check for correctness, I played it literally by ear. I would check how a sentence sounds in my internal ear, and if it sounded right, that was it.

I also disliked mathematics.When I was in elementary school, I believed that mathematics was the memorization of meaningless algorithms. I hated memory work; and I still dislike it, and this subject seemed to be another one of those memory work dependent things. It also seemed disconnected. I think the disconnect was caused by this mistaken spiral approach, where every schoolyear seemed to be a regurgitation of the things done the previous year.

I experienced failing marks in Filipino, History, and didn't do well in Grammar class. My grades were so low that my family never believed that I would get into the state university. I think during the first three years of high school, my average grade never went beyond 83%. The guys in the honors section did much better than that. I think the class valedictorian got marks above 90%.

So what was I to do in life? My parents could not afford having me educated at the better universities. In fact, after my third year, they had me transferred from the city to my Dad's hometown-- because the tuition fees were a tenth of the tuition fees that we had to pay while I was in the city.

At that time I had no girlfriend, and despaired of ever having one. An all boys school is not the place to look for a girlfriend. And in my despair-- no prospects of entering a good university; no girlfriend-- I decided to apply for the priesthood.

The school that I transferred to was a coed school. I did achieve something there-- I was part of the top section. Niels Bohr said: "The opposite of a great truth is also a great truth." My great truth's opposite is I graduated in the last section. (There was only one classroom for the whole fourth year.)

During my fourth year, I remember applying for entry into at least three seminaries. These seminaries sent representatives to give a talk about their vocation. One thing I noticed was they were all well-fed. I also remember having misconceptions of what the priesthood was like; the only time I saw the parish priest was during Sunday mass, and I had this notion that the rest of the week were days off. (I know better now.)

The Dominicans had a very attractive offer. Pay PhP 2K every month for two years, and they will take care of the rest. In return, they had someone to do the laundry, the cleaning. In fact, they provided everything you needed, including your education. All you had to do was eat, study, pray, and sleep. After the two years, all expenses were care of the order.

I took the state university's entrance exam as a lark. It was an excuse for going to the provincial capital and spend the time wandering the malls and watching movies. I also had a crush on a relative's relative, and they were both staying in the capital. I stayed with them and they gave me a tour of the place. But i didn't expect anything from it.

Near the end of the schoolyear, the acceptance letters from the various seminaries came in. Before that, I got to know a girl (not in the biblical sense), liked her, and found out she liked me too. Now I had a problem: I had to choose between God and a girl.

I chose the girl.

That eliminated the priesthood for me. Luckily, I received an acceptance letter from the National University. I remember my teachers' astonishment because they didn't expect it at all. No surprise: I didn't expect it either. It was only much later that I found out how I got in when I visited the guidance section to talk with them about the exam results. (But that's another story.)

I got accepted into the campus of my choice (Diliman) but was waitlisted for the BS Business Administration and Accountancy Program. It meant I could wait for slots to open, and get into that program, or I could look through the catalog and pick another academic program.

The acceptance letter also mentioned an advanced placement exam. Among the exams I could take was the algebra and trigonometry exam. If I pass both, I would not need to take Math 17. (5 units of math). Remember, I disliked math, and I though that here was an opportunity to skip a semester of suffering if I could only pass that exam. I had a month to prepare, and my cousins (since they studied in U. P.) had an algebra textbook (Vance). I decided to do it.

I stayed in my room the whole month before the exam. I decided to work on the problems in Vance, section by section. I also decided to work through the proofs, and I discovered something wonderful about math. It was a logical system, and if you do the necessary work properly, you didn't actually need to memorize anything. It stays with you because you would know how everything fits together. And I knew --like some divine revelation-- that I wanted to study mathematics. I read Neruda's Poetry ("And it was at that age, poetry arrived in search of me...") years later, and it brought back the feeling I had at that time.

So I wanted to be a math major. When I got to the Registrar's office, I told the person interviewing me that I would like to be a math major. The person I talked to discouraged me, claiming that there were already too many math majors, and that I ought to look for something else. I thought that meant there were no slots available; on reflection, I think I misunderstood her point. So I scanned the catalog looking for the nearest thing. I found BS Physics on the catalog, and that was how I became a physics major.

( My high school experience misled me into thinking that physics would be just like mathematics. Why I remained a physics major is to begin another tale...)

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