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November 12, 2007

Why Physicists?

From the Desk of Jim Ottaviani

Selfportrait_qed

Calculus. Most people who end up like me -- nuclear engineer turned librarian turned comics writer -- took it in high school. I didn’t, though not by choice. I don’t remember it being offered, for one thing, and I wasn’t ready for it if it had been available to me, but entering college behind the curve turned out great.

I didn’t think so at the time, of course. Every other first year was ahead and doing well and having a social life while I was struggling to wrap my mind around limits and integrals, and doing while additionally being bored by the classical physics we all had to suffer through. Let me at the cool quantum stuff so I can finally lick this teleportation thing once and for all!

In the end, I actually looked forward to the problem sets. Learning stuff is fun; who knew? But by the time finals crashed the party I still didn't know whether I understood enough to make the cut. And when I sat down to the physics exam I was sure I was done for. In later classes you got to bring in a sheet of notes, on the (justified) premise that having them wouldn’t do you much good. But not so for that first, basic class. I showed up with my brain, a pencil, and a calculator that could do square roots(!) and trig functions(!) and delivered the answer in glowing red LEDs.

And I also showed up with an urge to cower, made more acute when I promptly forgot all the equations of motion and how to calculate energy and momentum. Completely blanked. All I could dredge up from memory were force = mass x acceleration and distance = rate x time. Cutting edge stuff…if you’re Isaac Newton in 1687.

And, it turns out, I could dredge up calculus too. Also cutting edge Newtonian tech, but if you know the force and distance equations and you know calculus you can derive everything else you need for a first course in classical physics. (Especially if you vaguely remember enough of what the results look like to recognize the formulae when you're done.) And on the fly, under pressure, I derived ‘em.

Even if I’d flunked out then and there I think this experience alone would have made college worthwhile. It’s certainly one of the few moments I remember from a whole lot more higher education than I like to admit to.

Oh yeah, comics. 

I can’t replicate that revelatory physics experience any more, at least in context -- those mathematical tools have long since rusted away in the damp back corners of my brain. But I can replicate the panic: I still get it every time I sit down to make a new book, because I arrive at each project with my brain, pencil and paper (or rather, their modern analogue, a keyboard and a blinking cursor), and no clue as to how to solve the problem of writing a comics script. But I can always dredge up that fundamental image or idea that got me excited about doing the book, and that eventually becomes words and those words describe dialogue and panels and pages and spreads and scenes. And all of a sudden (well, actually many months later, and thanks to heavy lifting by an artist) there it is, a new world, fresh for me to marvel at and enjoy as if I were discovering how gravity works, a la Isaac Newton.

Who I really ought to write a comic on, someday. First Second has me doing Richard Feynman’s cool quantum stuff first, though. And Mark’s letting me bring my notes.

[UP NEXT WEEK: GABE SORIA]

Comments

As a fellow nerd, I must agree that this sense of victory -- deriving something that seems incredible from first-principles, under pressure -- is exhilarating and scary and wonderful all at the same time: intellecting without a net.

Thank you for this bit of writing.

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