Isadore Singer, one of the most important mathematicians of his era, took correspondence courses to learn the prerequisites for relativity and quantum mechanics.
Obituary, The New York Times
“Today we’re going to make a chicken.”
It’s the fourth Thursday of the month, the day when I get together with my fellow Failures at Science at our old high school. The guys I took biology, chemistry and physics with, always struggling to keep our heads above the waters of the intellectual deep end, finally giving up and focusing on “Language Arts,” and “Social Science,” and “Independent Studies.” Subjects we could fake it in, emoting our way to a grade no lower than a B. “I think,” we’d say, or even worse, “I feel,” and Mrs. Gleitzsang would cut us some slack. Whereas Mr. Doering, our physics teacher–the one who would choke on the word “around,” because we weren’t allowed to approximate–would never give us a break. “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he’d say, and we didn’t challenge him because we didn’t want to find out if he really meant it.
So, late in life, feeling our inadequacies like the gap where a tooth is missing, we’ve signed up for correspondence courses to fill gaps in our understanding of the universe, the way Isadore Singer, one of the most important mathematicians of his era, took correspondence courses in relativity and quantum mechanics to make up for inadequacies he perceived in his cognitive tool kit.
“Whadda ya got?” I ask Brad, the kid who sat to my left in 8th grade science.
“I got this neat-o, keen-o book, ‘Mapping the Human Genome for Dummies.’”
“Cool,” said Gary, the kid who sat to my right.
“How about you?” I asked Gary, hoping to forestall the moment when they’d turn the tables on me.
“I got these How to Start a Self-Sustaining Nuclear Reaction. It came with these swell secret decoder rings!”
“Boss! Let me see!” Brad exclaimed.
“Are you kidding?” Gary snapped, grasping his plastic jewelry of nuclear destruction close to his chest. “I can imagine a day, sometime off in the future, say 2021, when the oldest man ever elected President is asked by members of his own party to share the nuclear football.”
Zager & Evans
Brad and I looked at Gary with a wild surmise, like Cortez’s men in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which we had read in Mrs. Gleitzsang’s College Prep English. Then we broke out in laughter–actual freaking guffaws.
I was the only one of us three who’d gone out for football. “It’s actually a good thing if you share the football,” I said. “Keeps the defense on its toes.”
“C’mon, Gary,” Brad said, across my desk. “You didn’t actually believe all that Zager & Evans ‘In the Year 2525’ stuff back in high school–did you?”
Gary scowled. It was a game of mental chicken we were playing, and he flinched. “Fine,” he said.
“Oh boy,” Brad said. “I get to make ’em glow in the dark first!”
“No problem,” Brad said, “but there won’t be any life on earth left after I get through with these bad boys.” With that he retired to the “cloak room” in our old “home room.” Odd names since none of us wore cloaks or lived there.
“I hope he doesn’t destroy the world before the 8th Grade Sweetheart Dance,” I said.
“What do you care?” Gary asked. I figured he didn’t have a date.
“We’ve collected over a hundred votes,” I said. “Maybe we can trade them in for swell prizes.”
“I don’t know. A quark, a gluon–maybe a black hole.”
“Forget about it–the seniors always win,” he said. “What did you get?”
I pursed my lips. “Nothing much.”
“C’mon, lemme see,” Gary said. He was importunate like that, even if he didn’t know what “importunate” meant.
“No, I . . . uh, want to save it.”
“To show, uh, my wife.”
“Puh-lease,” he said. “I thought our first loyalty was supposed to be to fellow Failures at Science.”
“No, seriously, she’s very interested in . . .”
Before I could stop him he’d ripped “Understanding Avogadro’s Number” out of my hands.
“What . . . is . . . this?” he said with a smarmy grin on his face. “You don’t understand Avogadro’s Number?”
“Well, actually, no.”
“Nope. That’s the point at which I crapped out at science.”
“How could you not understand that?”
“I . . . don’t see the point of it.”
“It doesn’t have to have a point. It just . . . is.”
For those keeping score at home, the Avogadro constant is the proportionality factor that relates the number of constituent particles in a sample with the amount of yadda yadda yadda in something-or-other. It’s probably better if you just . . . memorize it: 6.02214076×10²³ mol⁻¹. There–that was simple, wasn’t it? Sort of like me, memorizing Rogers Hornsby’s highest single season batting average (.424). You can drop this into conversation at fashionable parties and persuade those in attendance . . . what a dork you are.
“Well, it needs to have a point . . . for me,” I said.
“If it’s a constant–why bother? It’s like three feet in a yard. Do we have to measure every yard to find out if it has three feet in it?”
Gary grumbled, but Brad re-joined us and his excitement was contagious. Gary was afraid he’d get infected and was about to go see the school nurse, but I held him back.
“Stick around, this could be good,” I said.
“Guys, you’ve got to see this!” Brad exclaimed.
“Look–they really do glow in the dark!”
“I wonder why that is?” Gary asked.
“Uh, you know those X-ray shoe fitting machines they had when we were kids?” I asked.
“The shoe-fitting fluoroscopes?”
“Right. You don’t see them anymore, do you?”
“Come to think of it, no,” Brad said. “Was there . . . a problem?”
“Only if you consider radiation burns to extremities a problem.”