Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Roots of an Obsession

Sometimes in between concentrated uses of brain cycles, I take pause and find myself pondering why I've slipped into this obsession with mathematics and science. Where did the inclination to wholeheartedly embrace an academic field come from? I know people go overboard about more mainstream activities like sports, collectibles, gardening, birding, gambling, or even self-debilitating types of things like alcohol and drugs. Is what I’m experiencing just another type of addiction? Am I just a bookish type of addict where my drug of choice is a differential equation?

To come to an understanding of my behavior I recall my past addictions to see if there is a pattern. When I was growing up, maybe like many young boys, I threw myself into hobbies. One of my most serious hobbies was model rockets. I looked forward to going with my parents grocery shopping on Friday's after my Dad got home from work because there was a well-stocked hobby store near the market. I'd walk over and pore over their selection of model rockets and accessories and dream about how high they'd soar. As a kid with only a small weekly allowance, I would have to save a long time in order to buy some gear to take down to the vacant field near my house and do rocket demonstrations for my little friends.

But when I turned 14, another, much longer term obsession attracted my attention when my junior high school installed a shiny new computer lab for all the students to use. Now this was 1968, so the kind of equipment we used then was pretty arcane by today's standards. My very first introduction to computers was sitting down at a teletype machine in the lab and typing the Gettysburg Address onto paper tape. I tore off the foot long tape and raced home after school to show my Mom. I was so impressed that the little tape contained part of a famous speech. My obsession had begun.

All I could think about was computers and what they could do. On Saturday afternoons I'd accompany my father to the Topanga Plaza Mall in Woodland Hills because they had a large Pickwick Bookstore with an excellent computer section. I'd read the books for hours until my Dad came to pick me up. My family never took vacations because my Dad was a workaholic, laboring on the space program, so I'd spend my entire summer vacation at San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) using their timesharing computer system. There, I'd routinely meet like-minded hackers (this was a time when the word meant something good, just someone who loved computers) and we’d wile away the summer learning about the depths of the giant computers behind locked doors.

There is one thing good about having an academic obsession; you never have to worry about what to major in! When I was accepted at UCLA, computer science was the only thing on my mind, but there was no straight CS major then, so I had to choose a joint major of math/computer science. That didn't sit right with me because I was obsessed. I didn't want any math to interfere with my computer work.

When I went to orientation weekend just before my freshman year, I had to stay one night in the dorms. I was paired up with another math/computer science major so I anticipated a good opportunity to chat all about computers. When I met him for the first time in our room I had just gotten back from the campus bookstore where I bought a bunch of mainframe computer manuals. I tried to talk to him about them, but I was dismayed to find out that not only did he not know much about computers, but he wasn't too excited about them. Disappointment! I recall him saying as he bounded out of the room to socialize, "You should have fun; you'll have plenty of time for all that later." Of course he was right in a sense, but for a person obsessed, I just didn't understand that mentality.

So after all this, I don't think I've answered my own question, how did I get obsessed with physics? The plain truth is I don't really know, I guess I think it's cool to tackle the biggest questions during my brief stay here on planet Earth. Physics tries to answer those questions like how the universe began, what are we made of, and is there anyone else out there. I realize that physics and mathematics are two subjects that most people run from, but for me they represent the answers to life itself.

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