Physic-al discomfort

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Last December, I tried out a fun Facebook app called “My Top Words of 2010.” It (supposedly) went through all my status posts from the year and came up with a list of the words I used the most. My top word? PHYSICS. (I used it 11 times, in case you’re interested.)

For those of you who have been following this blog for some time, or who know me personally, this should not be a surprise. It’s not that I don’t like physics. I actually find it quite interesting. But I also find it quite difficult.

Case in point: the homework we were assigned to do a couple of weeks ago on electric fields and point charges took me at least 6 hours to do, if not more (and 2 of those hours were spent at a tutoring session). I understood it by the end, but it took a lot of work. And a lot of help. (Which, by now, I’m not afraid to ask for.)

A week and a half ago, we had our first exam of the semester. Prior to that, my professor handed out a set of 49 (that’s right, 1 fewer than 50) optional practice problems. Doing well on these physics exams is not so much about being able to solve the problems, but being able to solve them quickly. And the only way to build up speed is to practice, practice, practice. So, being the dedicated (and slightly insane) student I am, I did every one of those practice problems. All 49 of them. For several days leading up to that exam, I went to bed thinking about physics problems, and I woke up thinking about physics problems. I breathed physics problems.

Come exam day, though, I still felt unprepared. After my professor handed out the test, I looked at the first problem and blanked out. Knowing that I had no time to waste (we had 7 multiple-part problems to do in 50 minutes), I skipped it and moved on to a problem I could quickly do. I worked to the end of the exam and finally circled back to that first problem. I answered it as best I could and handed in my test at exactly the 50-minute mark. Done. Thank god.

As the adrenaline wore off, my mood plummeted. I had felt rushed the whole time and was sure my answers were riddled with stupid errors.

Well, I got the exam back Tuesday afternoon: 93%. Mine was one of four As between both physics sections (about 40 people total). The class average was in the 70s.

I talked for a few minutes with my professor about the exam, and he said he was able to tell from his post at the front of the classroom who had done the practice problems and who hadn’t. He said he could tell I was one of the few who really knew what I was doing because I worked through the problems quickly, without hesitation. (Which was a bit funny, considering I sure didn’t feel I knew what I was doing!)

It’s clearly a confidence issue for me. And one I don’t have in my other classes: biology and chemistry exams don’t fill me with the same kind of dread, nor do I leave them thinking that I flunked.

I have pondered this a great deal, and here is what I have come up with: physics is out of my “comfort zone,” if that makes sense. It’s not the kind of science that I’m used to, and it involves a very different way of thinking about the world. (Literally.) So I have this niggling doubt that perhaps, maybe, I won’t be able to “get” it. Which, of course, I’ve proven wrong to myself over and over. (I got a high A last semester, and have an A so far this semester as well).

I really see taking physics as an important learning experience for me. And I’m not talking about the material, although that is obviously necessary for doing well on the MCAT. What I’m talking about is developing a different attitude and approach toward material that perhaps isn’t my strength. Not fearing it, but embracing it as a challenge, and still retaining confidence that if I put my mind to it, I will succeed. Obviously, I haven’t quite grasped this concept yet … but I’m working on it.

I had a fantastic journalism professor in college who told us it was our job as journalists to be uncomfortable, to step out of our comfort zones and learn and experience something new. Well, I’m no longer a journalist, but that professor’s advice still holds true: you really do learn something about the world, and about yourself, when you put yourself in that kind of situation.

In short: you grow. And isn’t that what life is all about?