The Things I Learned in Physics Class: Remembering Mr. Todd

It’s weird the things you remember about high school.

I remember a few key things: some particularly brilliant moments that opened my mind to things I had never imagined, some world-altering tragedies which robbed my friends and me of precious innocence, a little bit in between.

But the actual day to day of class- the particular lessons- are largely lost. This is an inevitability. The countless hours spent in classrooms over four years blend together into a weird hodgepodge of growth and frustration. I know I learned a lot in the halls of Wheaton-Warrenville South. I’m just not positive when I learned it.

But every so often, there was a teacher who left an impression. Only a handful over 8 semester left a mark so profound that here, years later, I still remember exact lessons and anecdotes, some almost to the word.

Mr. Todd was one of those guys. I remember sitting in his Physics class, learning absolutely basic concepts, and having my mind blown. “We’re dealing in first approximations,” he said, referring to the fact that equations in physics don’t necessarily explain the world around us precisely- we’re taking some liberties here, admitting that we can’t be as precise as we’d like.

I remember these lessons in physics because they helped me understand how wonderfully lost we are in really understanding our universe. Physicists don’t let that get them down though- they simply try to get closer to the truth. Mr. Todd taught me to accept imprecision, to recognize that sometimes you just get as close as you can. And we’re always trying to get closer.

But that was just the curriculum, and though he taught it wonderfully it wasn’t what really made his class memorable.

I remember one day, in the middle of a unit on modeling ballistic trajectories, someone asked a question- something to do with planets and how they interact, that only vaguely related to the topic at hand. One of those questions that a normal teacher might, out of necessity, dismiss as irrelevant and move on with the lesson plan. Not Mr. Todd.

A day or two later we walked into diagrams of the solar system, and spent the entire class period exploring in impressive depth the implications of the question asked, almost absentmindedly, by a curious student. He loved to teach us things we wanted to learn. He fed our curiosities wherever they took us. I remember that so clearly.

About two years ago, I heard Mr. Todd had cancer. It hit me like the fuzz between radio stations. I remembered Mr. Todd, sure. I remembered he was a good teacher. But that chapter of my life was closed, and I hadn’t thought about him in years. It was like learning the fate of a character on a TV show you stopped watching a few seasons ago. Intriguing for a moment but, lacking a place to root into in your memory, you let it go.

After that, I didn’t think about Mr. Todd until I heard he had passed away, earlier this week. I want to make this part clear; I had no special connection with Tom Todd. We interacted for a semester, sure, but that was it. I’m sure after the semester’s end he quickly forgot my name, out of frank necessity, to make room for another class of students ignorant to the formulae that help explain our world. I was just another student in physics class, and he was just another teacher.

It’s a weird thing, thinking about old teachers. We get to know them, and then move on as quickly as the semester changes, despite the fact that the knowledge they share will stay in some corner of our brains for the rest of our lives. They leave an impression on us, but we keep rolling, growing up and moving on to different subjects in different classrooms.

But then I remember one story in particular that has stayed with me these past years.

Mr. Todd was telling us about a summer he spent working at Fermilab. After explaining the concepts behind radiation therapy in terms that made us feel we truly understood it, he told us how doctors used to map the skull prior to treatment by wrapping a wire around the patient’s head. In this way, technicians made an approximate model to help target the beams of electrons at the tumor inside the patient’s brain. Mr. Todd’s job was to figure out a way to do it better. Over the course of the summer, he came up with a solution in which the light scale from an x-ray machine was mounted on the wall of a room, and aimed at a patient sitting in a swivel chair in the middle. The patient would turn, and the light scale reading was recorded at each angle, then the results were plotted on radian paper to make a precise map.

Pretty cool. In Feynman-esque style, he taught us the wonderful virtue of being clever. Of finding the not so obvious solution. Of thinking outside the box. Yeah, one of those lessons.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say by all this. Mr. Todd is gone, and I can’t pretend like his passing will have a noticeable affect on my daily life. But now those stories aren’t about this teacher I used to have, who’s still learning new names and cracking the corniest of jokes. They’re about a man who used to be. A teacher who won’t ever meet a new student, and over the course of a few months teach them the first approximations of how the world works. There’s a ghost in my memories.

But it is a good ghost. Those memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. Mr. Todd might be gone, but his lessons are a part of me, and always will be. I’m reminded of a quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Tom Todd will never teach another class, but I still carry his lessons in my memory. As long as I live he’ll still have at least one student. He longed to guide us to understanding, and seemed to take joy in helping us walk the path no matter how long or how winding it may be.

What else could you possibly ask from a physics class?

Rest in Peace, Mr. Todd.

Punk Rock Climbing

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about rock climbing culture.

30 years ago, that sentence might have meant something. “Rock climbing culture” was a thing. A weird little microcosm that drew in the lost and the cocky, the weird and the lonely who rejected conventional societal norms and decided to climb shit instead.

But now, it’s something quite different. Andrew Bisharat says it better than I ever could in his article Valley Uprising Nostalgic. It has become sport, hobby, like racquetball or knitting. Increasingly, climbing is something you do. It isn’t something you are.

The act of getting on top of rocks fell prey to what is no doubt the arsenic of any counterculture: it became cool. People watch Alex Honnold float thousands of feet in sterile news pieces, drive to their local gym (case in point: local gyms are a thing), and within an hour are dropping their phones from the top of a wall. The only route they worry about is road they took to the gym. The only problem they work out is which filter to put on their selfie from 40-feet.  #SlayingRockBro.

Anyone who spends enough time around “real climbers” can feel the tension this is causing in the community. There’s a rift, between the current and the perceived past. “Where did our soul go?” they ask, and are promptly drowned out by a Crossfitter asking if his shoes are supposed to be this tight.

So there’s a dilemma: what do we do about climbing? Do we wax nostalgic about the good ole days, when men clung to unbolted walls with a combination of testosterone and cigarette smoke, ready to trade their life for the possibility of a new send? Do we co-opt these stores into corporate iconography, accepting completely that we’ve outgrown our roots and casting tradition to the wind? How do you save a counterculture when it stops being “counter”?

We might learn a thing or two, I think, from punk rock.

At the same time the Stonemasters were doing their thing in the valley, angry men in leather pants were playing power chords and screaming non-conformity into low-quality microphones. In many ways, punk and climbing are the same. They draw in those who reject the conventional. The malcontents who, in rejecting society, sought to create their own in places where normal people wouldn’t go, be it seedy underground nightclubs or 400 feet up a piece of granite.

Punk underwent the same dilution that rock climbing has. It became mainstream, corporate even, and in many ways lost the very thing that defined it from the start, the things that made it valuable and worth preserving. Punk is dead.

Except it isn’t. The early punks built an ideological infrastructure, bigger than the movement itself, upon which countless subcultures have developed and in no doubt fundamentally influenced the way we think about the world.

Upon what ideological infrastructure is rock climbing based? On the surface level, it is selfish. Nihilistic. Climbing a wall so you can come back down. What’s the point? Is there a point? Is the lack of point…the point?

Digging beneath the Sysyphean nature of our task, though, you see something else. There’s a lot of love in some parts of this community. Not everywhere- you have to seek it out. But once you find it, there’s no doubt that climbing is something worth preserving. Something worth cultivating. Something worth expanding on the right terms.

It could be the solitary nature of the activity that draws a certain type of person to the wall. Music is inherently more communal. But for us to thrive as humans, we have to have people with whom we can share the unique experience of bleeding, ripping, and grinding our way up compacted history, simply because it is there.

I’m not saying there’s one answer. I haven’t been in the game long enough to speak with any authority on the matter. The simply reality is just that climbing has changed, is continuing to change, and at some point in the near future might have changed so thoroughly that it loses its soul completely.

There’re a few question we need to ask now. Are we alone or are we a community? Are we a sport or are we a movement? Can we identify and lithify the soul of this endeavor before it ceases to exist completely?

And perhaps most importantly:

Are we trying to fix the world that we distance ourselves from, or are we just climbing rocks?

Goose on the Loose: Canada Geese on Campus

by Joash Mencias, Melanie Plowman, and Parker Rechsteiner

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They stare. They hiss. And worst of all, they attack.

The culprit? Canada geese.

While these creatures can pose a threat to humans, Canada geese are usually just a nuisance on American golf courses, man-made lakes and schools, including College of DuPage.

Now it’s mating season, and the geese on the campus have arrived. While they are currently at their most aggressive, in the past few weeks their numbers have noticeably dwindled.

The college’s maintenance crews have placed fake coyotes around campus to deter geese nesting. However, most of the work to rid of the creatures comes from an outside company known as Geese Police. Once the College of DuPage notices significant amounts of geese, Geese Police is called and comes to the rescue. Using trained professionals and even border collies, Geese Police directs unwanted geese away from inconvenient areas on campus.

“Geese Police’s mission is to provide environmentally safe control of Canada geese,” said Dianne Neveras, Vice President and Director of Franchise Operations at Geese Police.

“[Border Collies] stalk the geese. They don’t bark, they use ‘the eye’ when they approach,” Neveras explained. “When we get a call asking for our services, we send a handler and a Border Collie to the site. Using voice, whistle, and hand commands, the handler will direct the Border Collie to herd the geese toward a safe destination.”

GRASS-FED GEESEScreen Shot 2014-05-08 at 12.16.33 PM

What makes the College of DuPage so appealing to geese? According to Neveras, any abundance of land makes for the perfect spot for geese to plant themselves.

“Grass is like filet mignon to geese. They go where the grass is,” Neveras said.

Where there is grass, there are geese. Where there are geese, there is goose poop. Neveras estimated that it takes about “seven and a half minutes for grass to go from bill to butt” in a goose. A single goose can produce over 1.5 pounds of waste per day. When an area is overpopulated by geese, the amount of waste can make for a serious annoyance.

AGGRESSIVE GEESE

Though accidentally stepping in goose droppings on campus is not ideal, the biggest threat geese pose stems from an instinct to protect their young.

The presence of geese nests puts people at risk for potential attack, even if it is unwarranted. Male geese will attack any living thing they perceive as a threat. Typically, male goose take action when a 50 foot radius of its family’s nest is violated.

Compilation of Canada Goose Attacks

Spring time is nesting season for Canada geese, making the months of March through May Geese Police’s busiest time of year.

Students on College of DuPage’s campus have seen aggression first hand.

“I swear I can just see the evilness in their eyes,” student Shivani Parmar described. “They hiss and run, they’re all over the place.”

“Geese don’t care how big you are. There’s two of them by my work and they always hiss at me,” James Alfaro said.

LEGAL PROTECTIONS FOR GEESE

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While these students had a negative perspective of geese, student Ali Khan asked a critical question: “Isn’t it illegal to mess with them?”

The answer is a complicated yes.

“People that tamper with geese or their nests can be fined up to $15,000 or face six months of jail,” Neveras explained.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 protects Canada geese from being harmed in any way.

When removing nests that contain goose eggs, there are a few things that need to be considered. Special permits from the state’s Department of Natural Resources have to be acquired by professional goose handlers in order to move nests.

The maturity of the eggs in the nest needs to be considered prior to any removal services. If there are newly hatched ducklings on any given property, the geese have to stay put for the time being. The longer it takes for action to be called, the harder it is to get rid of any goose related problem.

LIVING WITH GEESE

If the threat of geese nesting is not taken care of promptly, the process of herding geese away becomes significantly more difficult.

“After a certain point that a family of geese has built their nest, there is not much that we can do,” Neveras explained.

Whether the geese are on a community college campus or a residential neighborhood, humans will continue to attempt to co-exist with geese. Exactly how humans interact with geese is up to them.

Student Dijon James learned his lesson the hard way in attempting to interact with geese.

“I was feeding ducks bread, and I see this goose, so I try to feed it too,” James recalled. “And it bites my thumb. I’ll never forget it.”

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Running On Empty – Marathons Are Dumb

I hate running, from a very deep, and very personal part of my soul. I’m a pretty physically awkward dude to begin with. When I was younger, you might have referred to me as an “inside kid.” Combine that with stubby legs and a generally apathetic attitude towards fitness, and it makes an activity not known to be particularly “fun” downright disgusting to me. 

That being said, I ran a marathon last weekend. Don’t ask me why. I don’t particularly know. All I know is that it was really hard, and has had two primary effects on my life. One, I currently feel like I got hit by a small truck. Two, I no longer have to train for a marathon. Believe me when I say that the joy of the second far outweighs the first. 

Training for a marathon is truly one of the dumbest things a person can do, and I did it in the least intelligent way possible. Back in the fall, when I first decided I wouldn’t be truly happy until I dragged 175 pounds 26.2 miles, I was pretty dedicated. I bought a book, ran every day, worked my way slowly up from  “no running experience” to “almost no running experience.” A lot of people use the Hal Higdon novice formula to get ready for their first marathon. I used the Jack Daniels formula, which is (interestingly enough) both an actual training formula and foreshadowing. 

Next thing you know, it’s January. I’m sitting in a bar in Wheaton on a Friday night. Haven’t run in a few days. Step outside, smoke a cigarette, realize my marathon is in, like, 3 months. Panic sets in. Finish cigarette. Return to bar. Drink beer about it.

I’d like to say after this realization I redoubled my efforts- that I buckled down for the task that lay ahead. But that’s not what I did. I woke up the next morning, hungover, and went for a run. Realizing I could both drink, smoke, and occasionally run, that became the new plan. Eat your heart out fitness freaks. 

I pretty much just ran when it was convenient. Three miles here, five there, and if I’m being totally honest, I did work really hard when I was working out. It’s just, when I wasn’t, I treated my body like a disposable camera. This actually worked incredibly well. Once I got used to the fact that most of my long runs would start off with a headache and bad breath, they stopped being scary. Nothing kicks a hangover like a 9-miler on Sunday morning.

Fast forward to the actual marathon. I spent the week “carbo-loading,” which is exercise talk for “eat everything.” From Wednesday on, I was stuffing my face with pasta, water and pasta. I don’t even like pasta. But I do like overeating.

On the day of the race, I was feeling pretty good. I pinned my little “my first mmarathonarathon” bib to my back, ate a banana, and felt altogether unprepared to run such a ridiculous distance.

Mile one felt great. I started strong, confident, part of a huge group of people doing something bigger than ourselves. It was nice. 

By mile six I was sunburned, and tired. It was only 8 o’clock in the morning. But hey- only 20.2 to go.

At mile 13 I watched an old guy pass out and hit his head on the ground. I remember thinking how terrible that was, as I kept running. 

At mile 15 I felt every cigarette I’ve ever smoked.

At mile 19 a girl gave me a purple jolly rancher, which was the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. 

At mile 23 a boy sprayed me with a hose, and I wanted to punt him off a bridge. A woman on the side of the road told me I was a rockstar. I felt like melted ice cream. Marathon’s are weird like that. 

Finally, I finished- over five hours after I started. If you know anything about marathons, that’s significantly slower than the national average. There were grandpas who finished quicker than me. The amount of time I spent in the sun resulted in some great burn lines on my shoulders, but I didn’t care. I just wanted my free beer…which was delicious. 

Now, looking back, it’s bittersweet. On one hand, there’s some perverse appeal to having successfully completed a marathon with such a ragtag training regimen. But shortly after I completed that last mile, something odd started happening almost immediately. My mind started running about what I could’ve done better. I could’ve sped up on mile 10, because it was so flat, which would have saved my legs for the hill at the end. I could’ve done more speed work. I could have…not smoked.

So I guess I have to run another one. I caught the marathon bug. Running sucks, no doubt about it. But maybe, just maybe, training for a marathon can be fun. The mistake people make is being sober for it.

– See more at: http://www.codcourier.org/2014/04/29/running-on-empty/#sthash.7cQfM51m.dpuf

When comics and news love each other very much…

This multimedia feature from the New York Times, “Tomato Can Blues” by Mary Pilon is just badass. It’s presented as  a story interwoven with a series of animated comic-book style panels. The story itself is compelling- a small-time cage fighter in Michigan fakes his own death, tragedy ensues. But the way it is presented is phenomenal. The Times is on the forefront of experimental storytelling, and this piece is no exception. 

The illustrations, done by Hungarian comic book artist Attila Futaki, appear at moments of emotional intensity during the story, like when the subject, Charlie Rowan, is hiding out upstairs at his own memorial, or when he robs a store using a Batman mask and a hammer. 

The audio version of the story, which is accessible during the first chunk of the story, is read by actor Bobby Cannavale – Gyp Rosetti from “Boardwalk Empire,” and is awesome as well. 

These elements serve to heighten the intensity of the piece. The reader is forced to see the moments, as opposed to just hear about them. In this way, the especially tragic parts of the story are made easier to contend with- after all, it’s just a comic book.

I would have liked to see a map maybe, showing how geographically local the whole thing was. It would have highlighted how small the town actually was. I think a lot of different types of elements could have enhanced the story, but given the direction that was taken, anything additional would have distracted rather than enhanced.

I do wonder about a few things, however. First, why a comic book? How did the producers arrive at that particular decision for this particular story?

Second, how did they code those panel sequences? Is that something a layman could do or does it require a lot of special knowledge?

Finally, the reporting – the reporter seemed to have incredible access to a lot of the family members. I would be curious to see how they went about collecting all that information, how they established contact, and how they got in so tight with so many people. 

Little in the Middle – The Center is Gone

 

This article by Chris Cillizza was published in the Washington Post this morning, and is fascinating- though not surprising.  It’s pretty clear that the legislative make-up of our country is changing, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily for the better.

 

The Collegiate Jungle Gym

For my Social Media As News class, we were asked to do a photojournalism project about a particular topic. As 90% of my time is spent at the college, I figured I would look around here for something to shoot. I started noticing really interesting lines in common areas, which led ambling groups of people along hallways and down stairs and things.

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A student walks down the atrium stairs in the Student Services Center of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL

Students study and socialize in the atrium of the Student Services Center of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL

Students study and socialize in the atrium of the Student Services Center of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL

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Various student organizations set up tables in the hallway of the Student Resources Center at the College of DuPage.

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Two students shake hands in passing on the back stairs of the Student Resources Center at the College of DuPage.