Thursday, December 19, 2013

The geek in me

I love Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Raj Koothrappali and Dr. Leonard Hofstadter and not a doctor Howard Wolowitz. If you don't know those names, you don't watch "The Big Bang Theory." Those four characters all work in physics, and I love the sit-com because not only is it very well written and extremely funny, it lets me revel in my inner and secret geekitude. If you want to geek out, there are plenty of totally cool fan sites or the official site at CBS.

In real life, I have a favorite astrophysicist and a favorite theoretical physicist. That someone (not in the science community) can have even one let alone two favorite physicists may seem a bit odd. But I'm admitting right here and now that I'm crushing on the big brains of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and Dr. Michio Kaku, co-founder of string field theory.

Both know how to take big concepts that, frankly, you need a Ph.D. to fully grasp, and break them down in such a way that a lay person -- who struggled in science classes! -- can understand and appreciate. I've read several of Dr. Kaku's books, including "Physics of the Impossible" and "Hyperspace." And believe it or not, I was first introduced to Dr. deGrasse Tyson via "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." See the Leno video for a 2009 interview where he talks about Pluto and methane on Mars. Jimmy Fallon is also there inserting a few jokes.

While I've never had the opportunity to meet either Dr. deGrasse Tyson or Dr. Kaku, I owe a debt of gratitude to another physicist, one who was closer to home. Dr. Herman A. Grunder was, at the time, the director of Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Va. Its full and formal name is the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The scientists and researchers there do terrific work and I frequently go to lectures and open house events at the lab. Back in the early 1990s during a tour, it was Dr. Grunder who first explained physics to me in a way I understood. He took away the fear and apprehension about that scary big science stuff.

If you'd like to watch Sheldon teaching Penny about physics, check out Season 3, Episode 10 ("The Gorilla Experiment") of "The Big Bang Theory." While I wasn't nearly as bad as the fictional Penny, physics was overwhelming -- until I had someone explain it to me in a way that wasn't condescending and that made it come alive.

Dr. Grunder gave me that gift. My gift to you here is this: Don't be afraid of the stuff you think you don't understand. If you think it's too hard, ask yourself why you think that. Then keep searching until you find a mentor, teacher, video, book or person who can break it down until you understand. You'll be intellectually richer and wiser for the effort.

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