Physics can give rebel teens a cause

  • By Amanda Gefter The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Friday, July 18, 2014 3:08pm
  • OpinionCommentary

There’s a great anecdote one often hears from professional dancers: As a kid, I could never sit still, they’ll say. My teacher wanted to put me on Ritalin, but my parents put me in dance class.

I think we ought to tell a similar story for a different kind of troubled adolescent, the kind more burdened by angst than by ADD. You know the type: sullen, apathetic, bored. Perhaps she’s dressed all in black. Perhaps he’s failing geometry. This child’s teacher wants to put the rebel in detention. I say, put the kid in physics class.

Despite the stereotype of the lovable nerd being embraced by popular culture in TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and on T-shirts like “Talk nerdy to me,” the truth is that physics is the rebel’s subject. It’s for those who reject all authority, even that of our most basic assumptions, those who know in their bones that the world is not what it seems and who refuse to take the common, easy route of living unquestioningly on the surface.

Just look at Albert Einstein. He was exactly the kind of smug, aloof, unruly teenager a teacher would be happy to throw out of class. In fact, he so infuriated his teachers at the Swiss Polytechnic Institute that they would lock him out of the library.

When he eventually — barely — graduated, Einstein spent two years fielding rejections from every university job to which he applied. The universities shunned Einstein because of his bad attitude — but it was exactly that attitude that allowed him to take the greatest risks ever taken in science. To question everything.

The fact is, it’s never going to be the happy-go-lucky, well-behaved kid who overthrows 300 years of physics with the brush of his hand.

Unfortunately, we as a society forget that. We transform Einstein into the mascot of the scientific establishment. “To punish me for my contempt for authority,” he said, “fate made me an authority myself.”

The greatest physicists, from Galileo and Isaac Newton to John Wheeler and Richard Feynman, have been rebels above all else. You want to stick it to the man? Sure, you can dye your hair purple or wear a ring through your nose, but overhaul everything people thought they knew about the nature of space or time, and now you’re really getting somewhere. Yet we continue to shuffle the earnest and dutiful students into Advanced Placement physics class while the defiant misfits go smoke cigarettes in the parking lot. I remember, because I was one of them.

I never took physics class; no teacher ever suggested it. I showed no aptitude for science, I was failing math and I proved good at little else besides causing trouble. My teachers sent me to the principal’s office. But my father asked me how the universe began.

I was 15 when my father took me to dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant and asked me to help him figure out how something came from nothing, how a universe sprang into existence some 14 billion years ago. He saw in me a restless mind searching for an idea to land on. He read my dissension as the philosopher’s itch, or the makings of the scientific method.

“I think we should figure it out,” he said, and my claustrophobic world began to shatter. I could hear the surface cracking. Beneath it I glimpsed what my angst had always urged me was there: a hidden reality unlike anything I’d ever known.

Over the next 18 years I turned my passion for physics into a career in physics writing, and I found myself hanging out with the most brilliant minds on the planet — chatting with cosmologists, lunching with Nobel laureates. The point is, if you had seen me skulking around the hallways of my high school, you might not have guessed that I was destined for a life in theoretical physics. I certainly didn’t.

So the next time you’re dealing with an angsty teen, quietly disobedient, clearly wishing for something more, give that kid a physics book — Einstein’s essays maybe, or Feynman’s lectures. Tell her that no one knows what 96 percent of the universe is made of. Tell him that no one understands quantum mechanics, and see if he takes that lying down.

Stick the rebel in physics class. If he or she causes trouble there, so much the better.

Amanda Gefter is a physics writer and author of the book “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn.”

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