Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Praise of Our Teachers Then Easy and Tough

In Praise of Our Teachers Then Easy and Tough

Back when the waters of Chesapeake Bay were far more pure than they are today and the Tidewaters teemed with a couple of thousand species, I discovered science. The transition between the usual fears of childhood and the awakening drives of adolescence found such a favorable time for any young Aristotle or sea daring Darwin to explore the world's near and distant shores. Yes, to revel in the dream of life, make sense of it, find more than a solid ground for dreaming but new prospects and promise as well. Somewhere between the atomic age beginning and the space age awakening the old house on Derby Road- not a speck in time and spacious skies, was my whole universe in which to play and that world was growing.

My father was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy who would spend months at a time at sea, a radioman who encouraged my interests in science. He suggested projects and gave me one of the first kits with a transistor. He bought the usual chemistry sets but was reluctant to do so as he had more interest and faith in physics- more of an engineer really who was skeptical of the theoretical. Yet when it came to eventual access and shared interest in his telescopes and microscope and arranging lens, eventually giving me my first microscope, we shared a passion. For physics itself I did excel in my exploring electrostatic and magnetic forces and building crystal radios and antennas.

I had read in one of the old books scattered around the house that one could see the stars from a deep well during the day and in the closet of my room, once filled with angel wings, I set up my lab in the dark. Neptune was the last planet mentioned in them and the flag of Russia was the same as it is now after the Soviets.

He did not think it a good idea I did work in the closet so checking on me said he was amazed that I had taken my toy microscope and extended it with a cardboard tube taller than myself. I was able to focus it with a series of bent coat hangers. He asked me who told me to make the inside of the tube black with crepe paper.

I also had a sense of the need for secrecy and beginning with Morse Code and Naval signal flags studied ciphers and alphabets- some things back then seemed wise to by stealth in closets. That careful sense of caution stayed with me a very long time. After all we were awakened int he middle of the night when the television transmitted programming of the first hydrogen bomb explosion. I remarked it was a lot of bomb for a few ships and my dad looked sad and stern and said to me that it was for cities.

As I was interested in geography and one day at his office while stationed at the naval base, I drew a pretty good map of the world which impressed his fellow sailors. So one Christmas I found a glow that glowed from inside with a light bulb. As I had traced things like photos of my brother with the window pain and light behind it from the outside- the tracings at first were praised as an artistic ability to draw faces until I disappointing them showing the process- you can imagine my surprise when I took paper to my globe and tried to trace the outline of the forty-eight states. No matter how carefully I tried the border would not close up. This small experience, having missed the critical time it is said children can learn to copy faces free hand without great difficulty, is perhaps the origin of my simple speculations related to mapping and physics for my recent posts here.

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