I needed a class called Science You Can Use

I needed a class called Science You Can Use

Allow me to quote Forrest Gump. “I’m not a smart man.”

How else could anyone explain the fact that I — despite what some might consider a modestly successful academic career — don’t understand why cold water boils faster than hot water?

It’s got something to do with molecular momentum or the atomic seesaw, but it’s entirely counterintuitive, like the notion that the last sensation a person dying of hypothermia feels is one of extreme heat. I heard that on the radio the other day, just in time for winter, blew my mind.

Speaking of death and other scary things, I was thinking about high school and the science classes I took: ninth grade, biology; 10th grade, chemistry; 11th grade, took a year off and backpacked around Europe; and 12th grade, physics.

Science always fascinated me because its only goal was to educate stupid kids like me who never understood how you could bounce a Super Ball over the roof of your house but then never find it among the trees and shrubs in the back yard.

I needed a class called Science You Can Use. For example I have a transistor radio. This is old news to faithful readers, but it bears repeating, if only to reinforce the axiom that knowledge is power and I’m pretty much packing a cap pistol in the knife fight of life.

When I was a young boy, somewhere between fourth and sixth grade, I became a rock ’n’ roll addict, a condition that held sway until I realized today’s music pretty much bites the big one. I learned that in the late ’80s.

But it was a good run while it lasted, and if I ever have to sell my record collection, I could make enough money to maybe backpack around Australia for a year or so. There, the seasons are reversed, so our summer is their winter, and water flows uphill. It’s got something to do with the equator, the constellations and the tides, the moon riding shotgun in the sky. As I said, I’m not a smart man.

So naturally I’m confused by my transistor radio. I understand about how the AM stations come in better at night and that there’s no static at all on the FM dial — thanks Steely Dan — but beyond that, the machine confounds me.

Why? Because it operates not only on batteries but also can be plugged into the wall, which raises a question. If I’m, say, returning from a day at the beach where obviously I’m using four AAs to run the radio, what happens when, while I’m taking a shower before grilling steaks, it’s running on electricity?

You get the picture and see the conundrum. Am I wasting battery life while the radio is plugged into the socket on the bathroom sink? If so, why? If not, why not?

This is where high school let me down.

Oh, I did fine in biology and chemistry, but physics just beat me down. The teacher was a legend, having groomed a personality equal parts wit and wisdom, and his legacy had been cemented long before I straggled into his classroom as a senior, wearing long hair, patched jeans and scuffed-up Chuck Taylors.

There’s no need to bore you with the mismatch that threatened to derail my college plans before they’d even matured, but there was nothing I could do to shelter my feeble grasp of the material from the teacher’s probing eyes and what they saw: a scared, stupid kid.

It seemed like we had quizzes every other day. It was like being in one of those dreams in which you arrive for a test on a subject you’d never studied, in a class you’d never taken, with everyone else sailing through.

But this was reality, and the truth of the matter was I was pretty much doomed to failure. Let history record, however, that I managed a B-minus in physics.

How it happened is a matter for my biographers to unearth, but I had seen “The Godfather,” “Easy Rider” and “To Sir, With Love,” so I knew a little something about how the real world worked.

Speaking of the cinema, you might recall that in last week’s essay I referred to making plans to see “First Man” with my wife as we celebrated our wedding anniversary on the Outer Banks, a slender comma of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast.

The theater experience was awesome with crisp sound, a sharp picture and even more importantly an audience that behaved well.

As far as the film itself goes, though, “First Man” suffers from two problems that it never really solves: First, everyone knows how it ends, “Man on the Moon” and all that amazing achievement entails. Secondly, Neil Armstrong isn’t exactly a riveting central character. He is there on the threshold of history to — as he calmly puts it — do a job. This is who he was, a guy with work to do.

And that’s fine. I mean how easy would it have been for him to make a fortune speaking to crowds, writing a best-seller, living the high life in the fame game? But that’s not who he was. He stayed quiet, almost a recluse, as he slipped behind history’s curtain, content to have been competent.

I liked “First Man” and backpacking around the silent lunar surface. But then again I’m a sucker for watching someone else, much smarter than I am, figure out how machines work.

Mike Dewey can be reached at CarolinamikeD@aol.com.

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