My State is Solidifying
What interesting times I’m having.
I keep getting deeper into physics and electronics. It’s not something I expected, and it’s not going the way I would have predicted.
For years I’ve had dreams about my time as a physics grad student at the University of Texas. I hated these dreams, but I couldn’t stop them. I would find myself returning to my apartment north of the city. My things were still there. The apartment was different in the dreams. It was gigantic. It was disorderly, too. The kitchen was a mess. Not dirty, but stuff was out on the table and counters. There were messy rooms with all sorts of tools in them.
I would wonder why the company that owned the apartment complex hadn’t thrown me out, since I hadn’t been paying rent.
I would find myself walking around campus, attending August meetings in preparation for the new school year. I wasn’t really part of it, though. I was like a ghost, observing but not really joining.
I did not like the dreams. I knew things weren’t right. I wasn’t ready to go back to work. I hadn’t planned or made arrangements. I was just there, with no warning or preparation. I didn’t feel that I could make it work. I was on my own.
I prayed for God to take away the dreams.
Losing physics was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. I spent three years in Texas, and I didn’t make a single friend, except for a girlfriend. The students in the department were very disagreeable. They were cold. Many were arrogant and snotty, as you would expect boys to be after a twenty-odd years of having their mothers show their brains off to their relatives and friends. The instructors didn’t care at all about the students. The administration was like a machine in a far-off country that transmitted its decisions over a cable. Completely impersonal.
I arrived in Austin in 1994, about three years after returning to college. I had gotten tired of trying to sell houses, and I had tried to enroll at the University of Miami. Because of my problems at Columbia University, they made me go to Florida International University, a local school, to prove I was serious.
When I first decided to go back to school, I figured I would be a lawyer, because it was an easy job that paid well. Then I saw the horrible classes pre-law students took. Boredom epitomized. I decided to become an avian vet, so I signed up for calculus, chemistry, and physics.
I had problems in calculus, and then I remembered that I had failed math in high school. I didn’t really know algebra. I started studying algebra and calculus at the same time, and I went from a 40 on the first test to a 100 and an 97 3/4 on the last two.
UM admitted me, and I started taking courses very quickly. I took courses at the same time as their prerequisites. A guy who taught my second physics lab course ended up sitting next to me in classes, because I progressed to the point where I could study with grad students.
I got burned out in the last year, not surprisingly, and they put me on Ritalin. By the time I got to UT, I had adjusted to the drug, and it didn’t work as well. I was taking huge doses. Up to 120 mg a day. They put me on other drugs which drove me crazy, and I could not make myself study. I had to drop a class.
The department wanted me gone. I guess they were used to seeing people wash out. They didn’t care at all. They did almost nothing for me. They made some small accommodations, and the impression I got was that they were just trying to avoid an ADA suit. They had already been in trouble over that.
I was more alone than I had ever been, and I was losing the thing I thought would save me. A couple of infantile grad students gave me a hard time. I put up posters advertising my services as a tutor, and one of them got in the computer, changed the posters to make me look like a fool, and put them up all over the physics building.
I lost to people I should have beaten, and there was nowhere to turn. The drugs kept me awake for days on end, even after I quit taking them. I had thought I had found my place in society. I thought physics would save me. I was really good at it, and I had every reasonable expectation that I would get much better, but I wasn’t going to get the chance, no matter what I did.
I had test anxiety. I remember taking a test in graduate quantum mechanics. There was a simple problem I could not solve to save my life. After the test, I walked back to the T.A. office, which was shared by various students. I wrote the problem on the board and solved it, just like writing a grocery list. It took a couple of minutes. It was simple. I could do it in the office, but not during the test. Imagine the frustration.
When I prayed, I felt as if the prayers bounced off the ceiling and reverberated around the room. God refused to help me. Or rather, he helped me by turning away from me.
I was trying to do my own thing, with virtually no prayer life. Without submission or confession. In pride.
I never walked in the door of a church in Texas. I only prayed because I was miserable and wanted help, and I did it rarely.
When I returned to Florida and went to law school, it was failure. Anyone can be a lawyer. My family is full of lawyers. It was the dreadful default option, like hell. Other people were proud to be in law school. I was ashamed of it, but there was nothing I could do.
Law turned out to be pretty pleasant, but that didn’t erase the pain of losing physics. I never cared about law. I never wanted to do it.
Over the last few weeks, strange things have been happening. I’ve written about it already. I’ve been watching solid state physics lectures. That’s the class that killed me in Texas. For a long time, I’ve wished I could beat that class, even on my own, just to know I didn’t lose permanently.
I’ve been watching Sandro Scandolo’s lectures for ICTP, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. I ordered a gray-market copy of the Ashcroft-Mermin book, Solid State Physics. The worldwide standard is a terse book by a guy named Kittel. Ashcroft is easier to understand. Yesterday I found a book of solved problems. It’s not easy to find solved-problem books for graduate-level physics. If you Google “Mihaly,” you’ll find it.
Suddenly, I feel different. I feel like a scientist again. I have the same feeling I used to have when I walked the halls of RLM, the physics building at UT. I can’t explain it. I feel as though I’m there, doing what I used to do. I feel like I can pick up a few things and regain my competence.
UT made me feel as though I were incapable of doing physics. I know that’s not true. No one can start as a math illiterate and end up in a top-tier graduate school in three years without the ability to handle the material. But you know what the Bible says: “A crushed spirit, who can bear?”
Law is easy. I’m sorry if that offends lawyers, but it’s true. If you have an IQ of 110, you can be a lawyer. If you have an IQ of 120, you can be a good lawyer. Those are not high scores. As my evidence professor used to say, to pour water on the burning egos, “You’re just smarter than the average bear.”
Law was just something to do to bring checks in the door. There was not a lot of dignity in it, given the way it entered my life.
I hope I can get through one semester’s worth of solid state. I think that will stop the dreams.
I feel like God has taken his foot off my neck.
Before I go, something I machined. My dad broke a tripod he bought for his laptop, and he asked me if I could fix it. I checked, and they don’t sell the part he broke. I had to make it from aluminum. It’s not beautiful; making it pretty would have increased the time expenditure from half a day to a day and a half. But I had no problems making it, and it’s much better than the plastic it replaced.