My Brain's Big Bang
I sit in a classroom where I clearly do not belong. On the blackboard, the professor writes a scientific formula that stretches into its third line. What looks like high-end mathematics is merely serendipitous to the chemistry, physics of light, and, of course, astrophysics entombed within the squiggles, numbers and characters.
Stunned, I stare at the white chalk marks. I am supposed to take a science course in order to graduate with an M.A. in Economics. But this? Life’s circumstances are pressing upon me: if I complete a single science requirement, I can graduate, leave my husband, take my two babies, and move near the city where the jobs are. I am racing against time. All my plans will fall through if I don’t complete a science course. I will reenter the job market without the benefit of a graduate degree on which I’ve spent the past four years — and money I could ill-afford.
As the professor continues his furious scribbling on the board while spewing incomprehensible narration, I chide myself for having postponed taking my science credits until this semester when the pickings of available courses with no science prerequisite are almost nil; this is the only one.
No prerequisite? What is the professor talking about when he explains how to measure the temperature of a mass of compact matter called “a star” based upon its thermonuclear fusion? And to extrapolate in the process how old this star is and how many eons it will live before its supernova nucleosynthesis? The kinematic viscosity is helpful here, and don’t forget the hydrostatic equilibrium, of course.
Apprehension about the course description fills me as I glance at the rapt faces of students who fill the room. When I had signed up for Cosmology, I had thought it was akin to Astronomy. Beyond learning to point out the Great Dipper and Orion, I would learn to identify a few more constellations. I would flaunt my expertise with friends at a beach party on dark summer nights….
At recess, I go to speak to the professor. He is munching on a sandwich which his wife, who has sat throughout the lecture on a side chair, has unwrapped. As he nods to me to talk, she pours coffee into a cup unscrewed from the top of his thermos.
“Professor, this class was listed specifically as one with no science prerequisite,” I say.
“And it doesn’t. Do you have high school math?”
“Well then, you have all the background you need.”
I point at the blackboard. “I can’t make heads or tails of this — ”
His hand waves in dismissal. “Don’t worry. Cosmology is fun.” He gulps coffee. “Trust me. You’ll be okay.”
After recess, when everyone has written their names on the yellow legal pad, introductions are made. Of the thirty-plus students, I am the only one who is not a science teacher, a Brookhaven nuclear lab worker, an engineer, or a school principal. Unlike me, they all knew what Cosmology was. This is even a “safe” course for some of them, taking it for a graduate management or an organizational degree.
I reassess my situation in the week before the next class. High school math? In almost three out of four years of my Tel-Aviv-based French high school, I couldn’t get it. My brain wasn’t wired to understand math. Having squeaked through ninth grade study modules of chemistry and physics, I shut them forever out of my life in order to major in Social Studies. I took instead sociology, political science, world history, and economics (in addition to English, geography, Bible, world literature, Jewish studies, and a heavy dose of French, from grammar to theater.) Most painful was the fact that I still had to face the required algebra, calculus, and trigonometry. Month after month and year after year numerous private tutors hired by my concerned parents failed to help me grasp the concepts. Thankfully, I found geometry easy enough, and it kept me from failing.
Then one day, in the spring of my junior year, the light bulb went on in my head. Popped with sparks. Suddenly I got it. Math was so easy! It was even fun! I raised my hand in class and wrote solutions on the blackboard. I began acing quizzes and tests. Going back through my workbooks from previous years, I played with math problems as if they were puzzles. Throughout my senior year, I tutored my friends for the dreaded matriculation.
Sure enough, at matriculation, I scored 100, the equivalent of an American score of 800 in the math SAT.
I find myself a decade later reexamining the university class offerings for science. It confirms that no other class is listed as free of a background in science. They must all be worse than this Cosmology business. And this class is scheduled in the evening, and luckily, off campus, closer to my house. It’s difficult to pay for a babysitter and gasoline these days when my globe-trotting husband is suing me for custody of my babies, and my legal fees have already depleted my parents’ savings.
However, I can only switch classes in the first two weeks of the semester. It’s now or never. My entire future is on the line.
In Week Two, the professor rattles off an explanation of why Einstein’s Law of Relativity does not apply to the cosmos. I plant myself in front of his desk again at recess. My weight shifts from one foot to another until his wife finishes serving him soup with chunks of meat and floating celery. Then she produces the yellow legal pad and passes it around for all to sign attendance.
“Professor,” I say, my eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know why Einstein’s Law of Relativity works on our Planet Earth. How can I figure out why it doesn’t elsewhere? This class is for scientists.”
“High school math is all you need,” he repeats.
I shake my head. I would never mention to him that beyond my high school math, while majoring in both sociology and psychology in college I was subjected to a heavy dosage of statistics and the mathematics of probability. It has nothing to do with what he teaches.
“If I don’t drop out today, I won’t be able to get into another course.” I place in front of him the printout of the school program. “Can you suggest one more suitable for a lay person?”
“Look.” He picks a piece of meat caught between two molars. “I believe that if you just sit in class and listen, you’ll get it.”
I am certain that if I lay in the river for months I won’t turn into a crocodile. I shake my head again. “No way.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he says. “If you just show up for all classes, I’ll give you a B.”
Just like that? “What about the quizzes and the semi-final and final exams?”
“You’ll get a B. Just for attending.”
I step back as his wife clears the desk for cake and coffee. I take in the aroma. Maybe it doesn’t look good for him when people drop out of his class. But I am definitely willing to buy the arrangement.
Off the hook, I take a jaunty jig to my seat.
For the rest of the semester, I ignore the two multi-choice quizzes in which I score twenty three each out of one hundred. The probability of guessing one out of four questions correctly is twenty-five percent. I also do not attempt to decipher the long formulas the professor scribbles on the blackboard. I am light-years away from caring what happens to helium at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit or calculating the velocity of matter gravitating toward a nebula (what’s that?) by converting the heat volume to light units. Or perhaps, the reverse deduction? Oh, yes, all these pieces of data also tell us how old the star is. Or is it a planet? Calculate it all, please, with your high school math. Did I mention distance? It can be extrapolated from this data if we also add the color of the light of a given star because it can be deduced from its electromagnetic spectrum….
That is Cosmology. The science to top all sciences because it includes all of them.
I show up every Wednesday at seven in the evening and sit down to doodle. The only thing I learn is that quantum mechanics and molecular physics are also incorporated into the formulas on the blackboard. It doesn’t matter, really. I will get a B. At recess, I sign my name on the yellow legal pad, then leave and go home to my babies. Home to write papers and study for the other classes I must complete. Actually, my home is no longer “my home,” as we are now sheltered in someone’s basement. Soon, I’ll finish this semester and begin a new life far from here.
Three weeks to finals. A judge with an unabashed dislike of women wishing to liberate themselves grants me only twenty-five dollars a week in temporary child support for the three of us. If not for the kindness of strangers, we’d starve. I polish my resume and start applying for jobs.
I stop at the professor’s desk. “Remember our agreement?” I ask. “I don’t need to do well on the final. I get a B.”
“Oh, no,” he replies. “The agreement was for you to sit in the classroom. You left every time at recess.”
The hair roots stand on my head. A split second later, the blood drains from my temples. My life is on the balance, tipping me into the abyss. “You can’t do this,” I whisper. “I can’t graduate with less than a B.”
“Sorry. That was the deal.”
I begin to hyperventilate.
His sympathy must be genuine because he says, “Look. If you get an A, I will ignore all these failed quizzes and the mid-term.”
“An A?” I blurt like a dimwit.
“I’m giving you a new deal.”
I walk away in a daze. My celestial fantasies of a life outside the doomed marriage is sucked into the kind of black hole the professor talked about, some mass so compacted that nothing escapes from it, not even light. In my mind’s eye, I see the basement where, next to my cot, is the pile of lumber the family has hoarded for a renovation project they’ll start as soon as we leave. I think of my babies whom I must remove from there for their safety.
There is no choice. I must get an A in Cosmology as if my life depends on it, because it really does.
I go to the public library and plant myself in the children’s section. I begin reading first-grade books about planets and novas and black holes. I study the colorful picture of the expanding universe and read about stellar dynamics and galaxies and what they are made of. Junk, really, clouds of particles and gasses — hydrogen and helium mostly — that under high pressure change from one chemical composition into something else whose density is measureable via luminosity and temperature.
Equipped to put it all in some context, I move to middle-school level books. I should be able to learn material suitable for a ten-year old, even a fourteen-year old. The Big Bang theory, the Hubble telescope, white and red dwarfs, isometric theory, gravitation, black spaces, nuclear fission. Artists’ renderings are very helpful. I begin to get it. I practice answering the questions in copies of the worksheets. Suddenly, I even enjoy it. The material is fascinating. Presented in a way I can understand, it piques my curiosity. Coming out of the library late on a moonless night, I look at a pinprick of light in the sky and know that I am staring at history: this light left its source eons ago, but only now it reaches my human eye here on earth. How awesome is that?
I am soon in the library’s high school science section. I visit another library for a richer offering of books and pick the easier ones first. I have no idea what material was taught in class; to be on the safe side I read everything.
By the end of an intensive three weeks, I close the last page of The Encyclopedia of Cosmology, having read every value in it. To my bewilderment and surprise, I comprehend it all.
The transcript of my grades arrives. I hold the envelope in my palm. I am scared. I’ve already moved my family, not knowing whether I graduated. My lawyer guaranteed the rent for a small home, uncertain how I would pay it. I took the first decent marketing job offered until I would get my bearings. I glued stickers of galaxies and constellations on the ceiling of my babies’ new bedroom. The unknown, the responsibility, and the fear bear down on me. I’ve lost the grip on who I am.
I open the envelope.
True to his second deal, the professor ignored all my failures during the semester; he didn’t even adjust them into a B.
In the decades that have passed since my last exam, as I read articles about new celestial discoveries, I enjoy the stimulation of this area of interest. Will the universe end in fire or ice? I know the answer and can explain why.
Except that I don’t worry about it. My healing took place while I looked at the Milky Way, our galaxy, merely one of hundreds of billions other galaxies. Rather than feel small, I felt victorious. The vast, ever-expanding universe will forever be less of a mystery to me after my mind explored its farthest reaches. And while the experience of studying Cosmology in three weeks and acing it integrated into my sense of my intellectual abilities under extreme pressure, it has stayed with me mostly as a testimony to the fortitude of the human spirit as it rises above adversity and strife to emerge a winner.