It’s Saturday morning, and I’m at the train station quite a bit too early for the first northbound train of the day. I woke up much earlier yet, quite a bit earlier than I would need to wake up to get even to the train I usually take in the morning during the week. Yet the office opens for business an hour later on Saturdays than during the week, so there’s no office-related reason for me to get up or leave so early. I just can’t seem to sleep all the way through the night.
This morning, I woke up at about 2:30 am, and I couldn’t get back to sleep after that. This isn’t unusual. I do go to bed relatively early—starting to wrap things up about 9 pm, most nights—because even if I don’t get to sleep early, I still tend to wake up early, so if I want to get at least some sleep, I need to go to bed early. Then I can wind down and relax a bit, watch a few videos I’ve seen before*, and hopefully drop off before eleven.
Last night I was able to do that, but I woke up unable to relax again, so I decided to watch a video I had marked for myself to check out. It’s about the basic math and ideas regarding the strong nuclear force and “color” charge, as it relates to spin, and to regular charge, and to the Pauli exclusion principle.
It sounds dense, I know, but it’s actually quite fun—I’ll embed the video below, because I think anyone interested in such things might enjoy it. The guy speaking just obviously loves his subject, and even gets transported with delight in explaining the analogy to the way our eyes process “real” color out in the world, and how color television and monitors work. This analogy is, evidently, why physicists used the term “color” to describe the interactions in the strong nuclear force, which has nothing to do with actual colors as we normally use the term.
There are some vectors and ket notation stuff in the video, but it’s not really necessary to understand it specifically. The presenter does a good job of conveying the gist, and it’s quite wonderful. After watching it, I felt that I understood the strong force significantly better than I had before, and that’s one of those rare, reliable good feelings.
I often wish I had stuck with my original intent to go into Physics as a career. Unfortunately, my path was derailed when I was found to have a congenital heart defect** that had to be surgically corrected. Heart-lung bypass, such as happens when one has open-heart surgery, has cerebral effects because of the “unnatural” way the brain is perfused with blood during the process, and it often causes transient cognitive deficits.
This is not the only cerebral dysfunction that can manifest. I realized only in retrospect that I had another one as well—for the first few hours after I awakened from my surgery, I was blind. At the time I just assumed something was covering my eyes, in addition to the ventilator in my mouth, the three chest tubes, the straps holding both of my wrists, and the more-than-one IV line I had. I didn’t think much of the blindness because I had other things on my mind. It was very painful to have open-heart surgery, surprisingly enough.
Anyway, being 18 years old at the time, I recovered from a lot of the other stuff pretty quickly. But I had a a temporary cognitive deficit. It was not enough to make me need to take a year off college or anything—it never would have occurred to me even to consider such a show of “weakness”. I did, however, find the calculus and physics classes in second year as a physics major too difficult to keep up with, and that was frustrating.
It was not helped by the fact that I had been triggered—again, not at all an unusual effect of heart-lung bypass—to have a significant exacerbation of my dysthymia into what was probably my first real, full-blown bout of major depression.
Faced with my difficulties, and at that time thinking I would be in the Navy after college anyway, I had to switch majors to English. This is not a horrible thing, obviously. I love English—the language and the literature in general—and I love to read, and obviously I’m a writer. My overall GPA did, however, go down slightly compared to Physics (not counting the first semester after my surgery), and it turns out this was probably at least partly due to my other ASD. I had a terrible time in those small-group classes because I did not know when to comment, when to ask questions, or even where people were getting their thoughts and ideas about the various things we were reading. I liked the stories, and I liked wordplay and intricate language, but the process of discussion and interpretation and interaction about it all was thoroughly puzzling to me. And needless to say, writing essays that would please the professors was a tall order; I had no idea what they might want.
Obviously I got through the rest of college, though not without lots of heart-rending things happening—personal, familial, career-wise, psychiatric/psychological, physical***—and found myself deciding to go to medical school because I had to do something, I had relevant personal experience, and I love Biology almost as much as Physics. Medicine was a career in which I could do a lot of good, and it was basically zero risk.
By “zero risk” I mean, I knew that I could get into and pass medical school. The sorts of things required are right in my wheelhouse: standardized tests, Chemistry, Biology, dealing with things other people think are “gross”, remembering and understanding complex systems and their interactions—things with actual, concrete answers. And I’m actually pretty good at caring for other people. It’s not that it wasn’t hard work, don’t get me wrong. But it was work I knew that I could do, unlike—for instance—understanding what I should write to get an A on an essay about The Faerie Queene.
Of course, had I not gone into medicine, other things would not have happened that have been thoroughly catastrophic for my life, from which I have not even come close to recovering. But I cannot and will not ever truly regret anything that happened before the birth of children, so I don’t truly regret not going into Physics as a career.
But it would be nice to have someone around in my actual life with whom I could have conversations about stuff that really interests me, apart from stories, which I seem to have lost my knack for enjoying. At best, I can sometimes tell the other people around me about some interesting fact or concept, and sometimes they’ll appreciate how cool it is, but then that’s that. Anyway, I seem to have lost most, if not all, of the social skills I’d had in the past, so it’s hard even to imagine seeking out someplace to interact with such people.
Oh, well. No one (with authority to do so) ever promised that life would be satisfying, and many smart people have reckoned that life is inherently unsatisfying, so I have no one but myself with whom to lodge any complaints. The universe is the way it is. We were not asked for input when it came into existence, and we do not have veto power over any of the facts of nature.
I won’t endorse the old tee-shirt slogan, “There is no gravity—the Earth sucks”. But I will rather cheerily say, “There is no gravity—the universe is just warped.” It’s a nerd joke I came up with myself (though others probably have done so also), and so I like it. It’s also, basically, true.
*I watch previously seen ones so that I don’t get engaged in thinking about new things too late at night, because that can keep me up even more than usual.
**An atrial septal defect, shortened to ASD, but not to be confused with the more commonly seen modern acronym for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which I seem also to have. So, interestingly, I was born with two ASDs, one discovered at age 18 and surgically corrected, the other discovered or realized (by me, anyway) when I was just over 50, and it cannot be corrected, per se. I’ve done a literature search and skimmed through some papers, and it seems there is a higher incidence of such cardiac defects in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the reason for the correlation is not at all clear.
***No one goes through open heart surgery without some physical sequelae.