When I was 17, I knew what I wanted to be more than anything else: an astrophysicist. I think it was Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series that got me hooked. Later PBS programs were also a job, like stuff from James Burke, David Attenburough, Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman, and even Jack Horkheimer. I did everything I could to try and learn the very essence of what made the universe run. I used to write on Index cards about x and y particles, the 4th dimension, and planetary studies. I used to go to the Smithsonian and hear lectures of people who had discovered neat stuff on other worlds. I even got Carl Sagan to autograph my Cosmos book. In the summer of 1986, I was already taking some preliminary college courses in astronomy and advanced math so that I could get a head start in the field. I was applying to several schools that offered recommended astrophysics programs, including the The University of Hawaii at Hilo (accepted, but I had to turn them down due to high out-of-state fees), The Scripps Institution of Oceanography (rejected), Carnegie Mellon (rejected), and George Mason University (accepted). One of my classmates (and still good friend), Jason Aufdenberg, is now "Dr. Aufdenberg" at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Why did he make it where I did not?
Life. In my senior year of high school, my mother committed suicide, my father threw me out, and I was on my own. I tried to resurrect the desire to go to college, but once I was on my own eating and paying rent took precedence. I almost went to George Mason, but a last minute snafu with their new computer system (long story) left me choosing between a college education or having money to live. I chose living. I got crummy retail jobs, and while I always did well in them, and sometimes they were even enjoyable, they prevented having any sort of life in the astrophysics field. My head full of science and math withered from neglect, and I didn't know just how much until last night.
I was reading "Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher" by Richard Feynman. I used to have an older copy that was worn and over-read, and then got lost about 6-8 years ago. Amazon.com recommended it to me by some computer profile they have on my purchases, and I thought having a new copy was a good idea. So I got it. And started to re-read it for the first time in probably ten years. The book was a different format that I had last time. My last copy was a yellowed, worn mass-market sized paperback that might have actually been a gift from Jason or another friend of mine, Julie Lim. I can't recall. But seeing those old diagrams on molecules brought back a whiff of my teenage years: a small vision, a smell... for a brief second, a part of my older mind creaked open, and I felt like I was back in my room as a teen, lying on an old bed in a mildew-soaked room, surrounded by Dragonlance posters and maps of the world. My cat, Daisy, might have been asleep at the foot on my bed, and the bubbling of a huge fish tank to my right provided comforting white noise. The moment lasted for less than a second; so short, I'd hardly give it a grand event title like "flashback." But it was like a sad echo. I couldn't concentrate on the book anymore. Maybe I was afraid of some flood of emotions that might come back, although that didn't happen. But I was seeing the book for the eyes of a totally different person. I recall I only had two craving obsessions to read as a kid: Dungeons and Dragons stuff and astrophysical science. I read other stuff, but never with the same intensity. Until a few years ago, when it became Harry Potter and computer manuals.
I also had difficulty accepting how much I had forgotten, and how stuff I used to know like the back of my hand now seemed disjointed and rusty. Some if it seemed so foreign that when I remembered something I hadn't thought about in almost 2 decades, it was almost like I "magically" got told what it was. I was looking as some chemical breakdown in a diagram, and saw the chemical "Pb." What the hell is Pb? I wondered. I knew Potassium was "K," so that wasn't it... and as soon as I asked aloud to my empty bedroom, my brain said, "lead." At first, the voice in my head was so soft, I didn't even hear it. I wonder if "Pb" is one of those weirdly named elements based on Latin or Greek words, like how Gold is "Au" from the Latin "aurum." (Lead). Ha ha, Tin is "Sn," for the Latin "stannum," and always confused people in chemistry, because when it is mixed with other stuff, it's always "stannic" something. (LEAD!). I wonder if Pb is lead? (LEAD! HELLO? LEAD!) I wonder why I think it's lead? Did I just make that up? No... wait, it IS lead! Oh my God, I remember now, it's from plumbum! I used to think that was hysterical; it was even funnier than tin! Plum-bum. Haw haw haw! Hee! [snort] That's what plums look like, a purple butt! I remember that epiphany in 7th grade science, when I was all of 13. Wow. I had forgotten. Like almost totally. I had forgotten that all through Prune Bran, which some might have said was as toxic as lead poisoning (rimshot). I could have used that material! I wonder how many other whispers there are, and why I don't hear them?
Part of my plan in life is to become rich enough to be self-sustaining. You know, when your money does all the work, and you just reap dividends. When I no longer HAVE to work, what will I do? Well, one fantasy is to actually go to college. How nice that would be! I could go to college, and go simply because I want to learn. I wouldn't have to worry about, "Oh, being an astrophysicist is hard. The pay sucks, the hours are even worse, the people are strange, and the observatories are lonely and smell funny!" I got told stuff like that, even from the lead astrophysics professor at George Mason! Everyone wanted to tell me not to be an astrophysicist. But If I go for academics purposes only, I can't fail! I mean, yes, I could fail exams if I got lazy, but all I'd really have to account for was myself. I would just be doing it for myself. I could become an astrophysics professor for no other reason than it would be nifty!
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000158.html