A lot of people have a bad experience with chemistry, math, computer science and physics in high school. So they stay as far away from those classes as possible at the University of Dallas where they can choose their courses.
These subjects seem to be universally disliked by all but a select few. Why do some students love these subjects above all? Is math misunderstood? Is physics really cold and calculating? What sort of tortured soul loves chemistry? This weekend, I chased down STEM majors in an effort to discover what captures their imaginations about their area of study.
The most popular explanation featured the drive to answer the question “why?”, often woven together with an appreciation of beauty.
“In math, you’re always going from the known into the unknown,” junior math major James Mobus said. “I love the extrapolating — given what you do know, what can you find out? You take an active role: ‘I know this because I proved it,’ so it’s a lot more personal than other fields. And within the spectrum of definite right answers, there’s finesse.”
In speaking with these science majors, it was clear that there was never any sense of trying to outperform other students. Learning isn’t a rat race; it’s an experience of moving toward understanding as a group.
“Every day I am amazed by the stark realization of how much I don’t know,” junior biochemistry major William Farrell said. “It’s like the rabbit hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: every time you learn something, you discover how much you don’t know.”
It turns out, some science majors have a sense of humor. While in the cafeteria, Will Rackers, a sophomore chemistry major, described the combined joy of complex carbohydrate molecules with oil’s high specific heat over a plate of potatoes.
“If I wanted to, I could take something, a fry for instance, and using the tools that chemistry gives me, I can figure it out — figure out a fry,” Rackers said. “I could describe the change from a bland sliver of potato to the fried perfection David brings it to. David’s fries are the best fries.”
In the dungeon of the science building, others discussed the deep beauty they find in problem-solving.
“Once you get to a certain point in math, it becomes less about drilling and more about play, about finding an elegant solution to a problem,” James Frisby, a junior math and physics major, said. “You can start with an equation that looks really nasty, and by exploring its inner workings discover a kind of personality in it. There’s an appeal to studying something with such a rigorous logical structure.”
A few years ago, deep in the oft-hated organic chemistry course, I felt the same, to my great surprise. I tried to ignore chemistry, to just get through it, and I ended up enchanted. The electrons move so predictably they almost feel human, dancing around in their orbitals, half-mocking, half-mischievous. I could spend all day drawing graphite arrows showing how those poetic little devils move to make up the world.
Always interested to hear a creative interpretation of a major that, from the outside, seems so black and white, made up of zeroes and ones, I was particularly interested in sophomore Anna Nguyen’s description of her major, computer science.
“When writing code, you’re creating logic castles in the clouds, designing your logic flow as you go along,” Nguyen said. “If you say to a human, ‘Paint a rainbow,’ they know the color spectrum and they just do it. But with a computer, any creative aspect is there because a programmer put it there. Programming is doing the abstract thinking as a human, and then explaining it step-by-step to a computer.”
Finally, perhaps sophomore Aidan Medcalf, math and physics major, put it most appreciably for those not elbow-deep in equations and buffers:
“The best writers have an idea of the strange points of English grammar that are more accidents of history than anything else. In the same way, I study physics to understand how we got to this point and what’s going on beneath the nice equations we’ve spent many years deriving.”