Thursday, October 10, 2013

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Lowenkopf's Uncertainty Principal

"What I don't understand," Mr. Cornell, the elderly, graying, soft-spoken teacher of chemistry said, shaking his head in what appeared to you to be disbelief, "is how you can get such awful grades in chemistry when, at the same time, I overhear you and your friend, Shamrock, discussing the Bethe transmutation series from hydrogen to helium."  You are sitting, at his invitation, in the teacher's lounge of Fairfax High School, a place where you'd already begun to suspect you'd have to become a writer because there seemed nothing else where you stood any chance of making a living.

"Not only that,"  Mr. Cornell persisted, "I see you have gone to Summer School to take Physics I and received the grade of A from a teacher who has no love for our students here.  Can you explain that?"

You spent some time, trying to frame an answer that would satisfy him and you, something beyond, "Because I felt like it."  You were saying that a good deal in those days (forget about these days, these now days) and were, yourself beginning to grow bored with it as an answer.

You were saved for the moment by another teacher, who, even though Mr. Cornell was a softspoken man, overheard the conversation.  "He does that all the time," the other teacher said.  "He likes to go to Summer School, earn A's, then come back here and be his smarty pants self."

With a little thought, you recalled a few A grades you'd earned at Fairfax High School.  That was part of the problem.  You were genuinely fond of Fairfax High School, even more so after the drudgery of junior high school.  On more than sporadic occasions, you nourished the thought of doing well enough there to fund your way to a scholarship at the University of Missouri, Northwestern, or Columbia, all noted for excellent schools of journalism, which did indeed seem something you could do.

The other teacher, it may well have been Mr. Gray, the physics teacher, who'd already told you no way were you going to be allowed in his physics class, had some footnotes to append to his observations of you being a smarty pants.  In spite of your own version of smarty pants as smart ass, which you liked better, you could find no flaws with Mr. Gray's assessments except to offer what you believed was a position statement rather than defensiveness.

You were at heart, you explained, a curious person who found great pleasure in some of the intellectual, artistic, and political expressions of men and women making their way in the world.  You were at the time quite fond of the poetry of Gabriella Mistral, who had, after all, won a Nobel Prize.  Ditto Rabindranath Tagore.  As for the Hans Bethe stuff about the transmutation of hydrogen into helium, you still had boyish interests in things that caused dramatic reactions, particularly if they caused loud explosions.  You took to physics because you'd found a copy of Schaum's Guide to College Physics on the Fairfax bus and, while thumbing through it, rejoiced in its straightforward way of explaining how mechanical things worked.

You went on to say you cared a good deal about the way things worked and were particularly curious about why you were so attracted to a girl named Pauline, which you suspected had a great deal to do with puberty, as demonstrated by the fact that many of those in your grade were either dating the same person or dating a number of persons while you, about two years younger than your classmates, were still working your way through options.

You even had some insights--you liked that word in high school--into why your behavior might seem to be smart alecky, having more to do with enthusiasm than issues with authority, even though you did feel you'd been personally betrayed by the principal in a matter relating directly to your own emerging political position.

You spoke of Werner Heisenberg and his uncertainty principal, wherein the observer of a process may bring idiosyncratic affect to the outcome of a process.  You even used the analogy of the effect of a pot of boiling water being affected by the fact of watching it, and how you were genuinely trying to watch and understand your process.

This was all it took for Mr. Cornell and the other teacher you still think might have been Mr. Gray to send you packing, out of the faculty room and into the late afternoon of Melrose and Fairfax Avenues, more or less mid-town Los Angeles, where your chemistry grades continued to be awful and, you like to believe, your curiosity about things continued to thrive.

You are well past the platform where you tend to be the youngest in a class or a group.  Until recent years, your teaching profession brought you into contact with graduate students, where you seem to have found an effective plateau.  In these more recent years, you have a greater likelihood of encountering individuals who remind you of your smarty pants self.  How nice it would be to say you'd matured to the point where you, seeing the similarities, could step forth with encouraging suggestions and prompts as a sort of karmic pay-off.  Facts are, however, that you feel that way about all your students and behave accordingly.  

The smarty pants ones are another matter.  You listen to them with great care, appreciating their brightness and enthusiasm, filling notebooks with ideas you have gleaned, rushing off to your own working place solitude to read, connect the dots of your notes, fire off orders for books to Amazon and, to the consternation of Lupe, the maid, arrange the books and notes into what at the time seem useful categories.

Fairfax High School was and still is a fine launching pad for a career of inquiry.  In its way, it served you as well, perhaps in retrospect even better than UCLA, because it brought you to exquisite terms with the facts of how seemingly narrow your potentials were unless you kept your curiosity well lit with books, conversations, and encounters.

Werner Heisenberg had it right, and your own undertainty principle, taken from him, keeps you looking for boiling pots to watch.

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