Wednesday, January 25, 2012

To my high school physics teacher

A couple of nights ago I was called into a theatre, where I regularly work, to help last minute, with a special effect that the designer was having trouble with. Almost immediately I saw the problem. The spring he was using to power the mechanism was in the wrong place, and even better, it could be easily moved. "The spring is too close to your pivot point," I told him, "If you put it here instead, the spring has to do far less work to achieve the same result." Hearing an explanation like that come out of my mouth solidified my need to write this post.

In high school I disliked science. To be perfectly honest, all the way through school, science was my least favorite subject. That probably had something to do with the fact that I was an over-achiever and a perfectionist, and my lowest grades were always in my science classes. But also I think it had quite a bit to do with my confidence that science would have nothing to do with my life after graduation. I was going into theatre after all, why did I care about DNA pairing or the periodic table? Junior year of high school though, I took a physics class with Mr Wojak. He was fun, he cracked jokes, he broke information down with clever analogies and sometimes songs.

Having so much fun in Mr Wojak's class gave me the confidence to try physics again in college when the chance came up. I worked harder to understand that class than almost any other I took in all four years. I found a homework buddy, and together we worked through the assigned problems once a week, then, almost without fail, the two of us would parade over to the professor's office to ask him to explain that one problem (or two or three) neither of us could figure out.

And the point of all of this is that it worked. Though I had no idea at the time that I would use these things (I was just doing it because I had to take a science course and physics had been the only science I had ever previously enjoyed), it turns out I use my physics knowledge more on a daily basis than almost anything else I learned in the course of my schooling. I rarely use the specific formulas, and when I do I have to look them up, but I use the knowledge, the understanding of forces and how they relate to one another, every day.

I use my physics knowledge to understand how to re-enforce a piece of furniture so that it will withstand the abuse of actors using it every day through the run of a show. I use my physics knowledge when I am constructing a puppet, to understand how to use the potential energy of a spring to make a head nod or a mouth talk. I use physics to construct all sorts of rigging, knowing how to use pulleys and angles to direct force so that a magic trick can be triggered by someone across the room. I use my knowledge of friction and forces to analyze and understand gears and levers, allowing me to take apart, fix and reassemble broken antiques (a lighter, a clock, a hand powered drill, etc). I could go on for pages with specific examples of projects that have asked me to use my knowledge of physics, and I'm saying this now because no one ever told me. Even once I decided I was going to go into technical theatre, I don't remember anyone recommending I take a physics course.

For several years after college, as I started to do more and more of this type of work, I thought that these things I was working with were common knowledge, logical reasoning, a basic understanding of the world. Recently though, I have realized that this knowledge is not as obvious as I had believed. Not all of my colleagues have these skills. My strong base of physics understanding sets me apart; it is a specific specialty I have and an advantage in the job market. So thank you to Mr Wojak, and to my college physics professor (whose name I am ashamed to say I have forgotten), though I am sure I did not show you enough appreciation at the time,  the lessons I learned from you have turned out to be incredibly valuable. And to any current technical theatre students, look into your university's physics offerings, you'll be glad you did.

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