From Woo to Science

ice-axeIn the early 1970s, a skinny kid in Washington State discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Like many nerdy kids at the time, this kid became obsessed with the Trilogy. He became relatively proficient using the runes defined in the Trilogy, even marking up gear he owned with said runes.

That kid, of course, was me.

In the next decade or so, I gradually moved away from the hard science I’d grown to love in high school. Fantasy fiction replaced science fiction in my reading repertoire. I learned how to do Tarot card readings and became enamored of some of the New Age tropes of the day (though I never quite got the whole chakras and crystals thing). When I left community college to head off to a four-year institution, I entered Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, concentrating on geography and anthropology. Huxley featured some fabulous teachers, including the dean, Dr. Ruth Weiner, with a background in physical chemistry.

I didn’t get along so well with the students, however. Whatever their inclinations and good intentions, they didn’t seem to be too interested in evidence-based environmentalism. Looking back on them, I can see mostly privileged white students looking to move the human race back to living off the land, about as impractical an approach as you could get given the population growth trends. Quite a few students — particularly those not taking one of the more scientific majors at Huxley — really seemed into the whole new age woo movement. Intense discussions about mystical energies, transformational healing, and harmonic convergences cropped up frequently. At first, it all seemed like heady stuff, but in the back of my brain, my empirical self scoffed.

I need to digress a moment and discuss just how terrible my work ethic had been until that day. While I’d happily dive deep into any nerdy pursuit, be it board games, Tolkien, or whatever else, schoolwork took a back seat. My GPA out of high school was a distinctly mediocre 2.5. I never failed anything, but only excelled in classes which required — for me — minimal work. For example, I convinced my world history teacher one year that he should let me read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as my entire semester project, writing an essay about it rather than taking any tests. I finished that in two weeks and coasted the rest of the time. While I had some limited talent in math and science, success was more elusive, mostly because those classes required actual work.

My attitude gradually improved over time, though. I worked a little harder in community college, graduating with a 3.0GPA — but that happened partly because I took “easy” classes — anthropology, geography, photography, and related classes. I continued that trend at WWU since my particular major at Huxley didn’t require hard science classes.

During my third quarter at WWU, I took a physical geography class, ostensibly a relatively difficult class. I’d read the assigned material, but never actually studied beyond the first reading. I got a high A on the midterm, after doing relatively little work. That easy “A” proved to be an epiphany: I didn’t like getting easy high grades without actually learning much. I wanted… well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted, except that I wanted something more empirical, where your grades somehow reflected what you actually learned. I didn’t realize at that moment that learning required actual work.

I left Huxley the next quarter and entered the College of Arts and Sciences. I took first-year chemistry, physics, and calculus all in one quarter as any first-year science student might do — except I’d been away from math and science for four years. That quarter turned out to be the most difficult academic quarter I’d taken to that point. I somehow discovered a new work ethic and ended the quarter with a 3.67. I can’t recall which class I scored a “B” in — probably physics — but even that B-grade seemed tremendously rewarding. I declared a chemistry major at the end of that quarter and began a new journey, never looking back.


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