Monthly Archives: December 2012

Physics and computers; ah, the memories!

About this time thirty three years ago, I was getting ready to go back to Rochester Institute of Technology to complete my freshman year. I started out as a physics major, wanting to explore cosmology, relativity and so much more theoretical science. A rude awakening lay in wait for the naive young man…they make you learn all sorts of basic physics first and do lab work.

And, to my dismay, take chemistry.

Of all the sciences, chemistry is my least favorite. Yes, even less than biology or the fuzzy sciences like psychology. I really did not like those lab reports! Nor did I like basic physics, despite having a phenomenal staff to student ratio (just nine freshman physics majors) and a great advisor in Dr. V. V. Raman whose grandfather won a Nobel Prize (for his discovery of what came to be called the Raman Effect)…and who got his doctorate under another Nobel laureate, Louis de Broglie. Yes, that Louis de Broglie (though I did not know that before wikipedia came along).

Unhappy with the physics prospects, I changed majors (to computer science) … and after only one year in Rochester, I also changed schools. I stuck with computer science because I was always a pretty good programmer. But another rude awakening was on its way…software was only part of the major. They make you (or at least made me) learn hardware stuff, too. Keep in mind this was the early 1980s and we had to design things like not so simple circuits to drive an LED display. Logic gates and all. Things that are off the shelf now. I eventually dropped out of UConn, but at the tail end I was doing some work for a professor and friend that was cutting edge virtual reality. I wrote code that took what a camera traced from the outline of a person in front of a special screen and translated any motion to stick figures on a graphic display. Kind of like what Xbox Kinnect does, but very primitive. But, I didn’t like hardware, and left it behind. Oh well. I’ve still dabbled in programming over the years and discovered that having learned in a linear world (Fortran, Basic, PL/1, various assemblers for mainframes to minis to microcomputers) that object-oriented programming is a struggle – the concepts don’t fit the “first this, then that” frame of mind.

So, why the trip down selective memory lane? Well, I still get into theoretical physics; just on my terms. I’m re-reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and loving it. I read Lawrence Krause’s A Universe from Nothing earlier this year and loved it as well and want to go back and finish a Brian Greene book I set aside four years ago. Yeah, the math is far beyond me and will always be (only because I have no desire to learn it now), but popularized versions of the subject are still engaging and tell the story without complex equations. And like my computer programming experience, there are concepts in physics that my mind can’t seem to wrap itself around without a lot of extra time that I find in short supply. Things like quantum particles popping in and out of existence, or maybe not existing at all. Cats that are both alive and dead.

But that’s why I’m an engineer now…grounded in practicality. For…

…scientists dream, but engineers do.