Better than I used to be

by Brian Keaney

For most of high school I didn’t really care for science class.  Introduction to Physical Science was OK my freshman year, but I didn’t like biology in my sophomore year, and I really despised chemistry as a junior.  Come senior year, however, I actually really enjoyed physics.  The teacher was great, and I found the subject matter intuitive and engaging.

I’ve written here before that I’ve been questioning the structure of the atom since suffering through Mr. Creedon’s lectures in the 11th grade.  The past few books I’ve read have been on quantum physics, and once again I was teased into believing that I might finally be told how a quantum jump (when an electron moves from one orbit to another, without being any place in between) works.  Alas, once again I was disappointed.

The last of my trifecta of books on this subject was Kenneth Ford’s 101 Quantum Questions, and early on in the book – question 26, to be exact – the question “What is a quantum jump?” is proposed.  I was excited, as I thought I might finally have an answer.  I wish that the question was instead “How does a quantum jump work?” because while it was described, it was still not explained.  The author did mention that Einstein didn’t like them either, so at least I am in good company.

In a somewhat related question (72), Ford says that

Perhaps the most astonishing feature of that graph is that at five points… the probability is exactly zero.  This means that if the particle is in that particular state of motion, it will never be found at one of those positions.  If it is never going to be found at points B, C, or D, you  might ask, how could it get from A to E?  How could it cover the distance from one wall to the other without some probability of being found at every point in between?

I have been asking that question for more than a decade now.  The best answer Ford can come up with is that “Well, there are some things in quantum physics that we just have to accept whether we find them reasonable or not.”  Needless to say, this answer is less than satisfying.

Einstein reportedly called quantum physics “spooky.”  I think mind blowing is a more apt term.  A particle is both a wave when it suits it to be a wave, and a particle when it suits it to be a particle.  Not only that, but a particle by itself can travel backwards and forwards in time, jump through walls, and do any number of other things that completely defy common sense.

I am both intrigued and frustrated by the subject, but am painfully aware of how much else is out there of which I am even more ignorant, and have moved on in my reading pursuits.  I’m currently on a philosophy bent with Sandel and Kierkegaard both in the queue, and am on the lookout for a new topic to explore when I am done with them.  With this being the summer, and substantial time being spent on the beach in addition to a hefty diet of MBTA hours, I’m looking to branch out into something completely different.


Along those lines, I am taking my first math class in over 10 years.  While in grad school I would usually skip over the portions of journal articles that described how the studies were conducted and only skim the statistical analysis.  At one point, as more of a personal challenge than anything else, I decided to check out Statistics for Dummies out of the library and teach it to myself.

I did alright, although I don’t think I finished the book.  Several of the jobs I’ve been applying to want someone with an understanding of the subject, however, so I decided to pay someone who knows what they are talking about to teach it to me.  I’ve done very well so far, and am considering finding a calculus class in the fall so that I can take a college level physics class in the spring.

In Tim McGraw’s new song he talks about trying to become a better person.  I don’t think he means academically, and heaven knows there are plenty of areas where I could use some improvement, so lately I’ve been listening to it even more than We’re Not Young.  Still, I’d like to think that when he sings “I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get, but I’m better than I used to be,” that it applies to me as well.