Backstory #3: About the time an interest in SNe and Isaac Asimov cost me a college science scholarship

I first got interested in science via an interest in photography, back when this was based on silver chemistry. When I was 10-11 my dad brought up a box of photo processing equipment from down in the basement and showed me how to develop B&W film in the bathroom.

Seeing the developed negatives was magical. At that point people just dropped their exposed film off at the drugstore and hoped the pictures "came out" when they went back a few days later to get the prints. But everyone seemed to know someone who was an enthusiast ("good with cameras"), a hobbyist who had a home darkroom. After a couple of years trying a Polaroid camera (no negative) I switched to the more traditional and common regular film camera.

By the end of junior high I had a small darkroom under the stairs leading down to the basement, and was starting to get into making prints from my negatives, which required an enlarger, more space, and a bunch of other equipment (trays, safelights, a print dryer, etc.). This was also about the time it first became possible to do color at home, which I got into by the time I'd finished high school.

But I was not that much into science to begin with, beyond growing up when we were going to the Moon and were going to have people on Mars by 1985. In fact I spent my youth in sports and had a college athletic scholarship. Early in grade school I was discovered to be about the fastest kid around, and like they say in the NFL "you can't train speed", so I tried just about everything at one time or another. I was anything but the TV trope of the whiz kid, boy genius, brainy kid, or prodigy. I never won the Science Fair. I did okay in math, but it was more due to the same thing that led to success in sports: putting in the training and practice time, i.e., doing the homework.

I went into high school chemistry with the same trepidations and predispositions as anyone else, fearing it would be both boring and difficult. But it turned out not to be. My experience mixing photo developing solutions gave me a kind of a head start on lots of the basic, simple stuff. And I was curious about how the photo magic worked, so this kept me interested and motivated.

I did well in the course but was as surprised as anyone when my College Board score came back an 800. I came out of the test thinking I'd done okay, but that would have meant anything solidly in the 600's. A score starting with a "7" would have been phenomenally good. There were a couple of really smart guys in my class, genius types who seemed to already understand everything easily and didn't have to work at it, but I wasn't one of them.

Feynman quote from QED

So the next year I took physics, which I didn't like as much as chemistry. I could plug numbers into equations and get the right answer, but it more generally felt like a way of thinking that was distinctly different from what I was used to, from what seemed comfortable. Physics presented a new way of thinking about things.

It was about this time that I first got into science fiction literature, like so many other, and discovered Isaac Asimov. The public library had a ton of his books. I quickly gravitated more towards his non-fiction. One subset of this was a monthly science fact piece he wrote for a magazine. These self-contained little science lessons on various new and interesting things going on all across the sciences were occasionally collected together into books, and at one point I got to gobbling up all the local library had. They were at the perfect level for me. They had such names as The Left Hand of the Electron, after the title essay, which was on symmetry breaking in weak nuclear interactions.

By the time I was a high school senior I was taking AP chemistry, having also somehow managed to get an 800 on the Physics College Board exam, a big confidence builder, especially because I didn't think I was very good at physics, and really didn't want to see another physics class.

At the end of the year there was a college scholarship money competition among all the high schools in the region, put on by the local chapter of the American Chemical Society. There was enough industry in the major league city where I grew up that it was big enough to be able put this on every year. Each school got to send its two top chemistry students, and I got chosen as one of our representatives. There was a two or three hour exam one Saturday afternoon at a local college classroom to whittle the field from 50-60 down to six finalists for the three prizes, the top one of which was maybe double the annual in-state tuition at State U, maybe $10K in today's money.

So both me and my genius-grade classmate made the cut, which meant we got to go in a few weeks later for one-on-one interviews with the ACS members deciding the winners, four or five if I recall correctly. A day or two before my interview I'd read one of the Isaac Asimov essays about some of the earliest supernovae computer models, derived from code used to simulate thermonuclear weapons ("H-Bombs" -- the Cold War was the flip side of the Space Race), and how its nucleosynthesis physics was correctly producing relative abundances of the elements more or less in line with the actual abundances across the periodic table. I thought this was about the coolest thing ever.

If chemistry was my first interest in science, astronomy was second, and this fused the two together so to speak.

This turned out to be the wrong thing to be excited about during the interview, though I didn't learn the reason until the awards dinner a month later. The scholarship winners all had a fairly pat set of objectives: majoring in chemical engineering and then working for, say, a tire company, making better, safer tires for everyone. Nothing wrong with that. If I'd been thinking along those lines I would have gone on about learning all I could regarding the chemistry of photography and then going to work for Kodak, making better color films. But Asimov had gotten me fascinated in science as an intellectual pursuit in its own right, aside from what wonderful things it might produce almost as a side effect. So I wasn't even sure I was going to major in chemistry, since I'd given astronomy some consideration in my choice of schools.

The whole thing wasn't a total bust: I did get a copy of Lange's Handbook of Chemistry with my name stamped in gold leaf on the cover out of it, which has seen a lot of good use over the years.

My trajectory in chemistry didn't last very much longer. When I first got to college I checked in with the undergrad adviser in the Chemistry Dept. -- only to find out they wouldn't take my "5" (basically an "A") on the AP chemistry exam. -Something about it not being fair to get both HS and college credit for the same class. This seemed like a pretty lame excuse. I think his job was just to put behinds in seats. I had the same problem cashing in my AP Calculus score. Eventually I learned that if you took (and passed) a course farther along in the sequence, you could fill out some form and the campus grade computer would give you credit for the prerequisite course(s), which I eventually did. A friend I made in the dorms practically the first day learned this too late, and not from anyone in the Math Dept.; when they wouldn't take his AP Calculus score he got finagled and funneled into taking the Honors Calculus sequence -- which was agonizing because he wanted to go into aeronautical engineering, not abstract mathematics.

Frauenfelder & Henley quote

The net result for me after all this was that I went off and took physics rather than re-do freshman chemistry. This turned out to be a good thing to do as by happenstance I got to have Dr. Lowell Brown for a year. At that time he was closely collaborating with the people at SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator) who were discovering the J/psi meson (J/Ψ, or psion), which led to the "November Revolution" (in high energy particle physics) and half of the Nobel Prize the next year (1976) -- the other half going to the team at Brookhaven National Laboratory who had discovered a particle at the same time which, after they'd figured everything out, turned out to be the same particle (hence it's two names). The J/psi is the simplest and lowest mass form of "charmonium", because it consists of a charmed quark and a charmed anti-quark. (All meson are thought to be quark/ anti-quark pairs) Dr. Brown was really into this. In fact he was so excited about what they were doing he often inadvertently blew off our whole hour of lecture digressing on the very latest developments concerning what they were struggling to figure out at that moment.

After that I took more physics courses while also drifting more towards astronomy, since I had the physics and math prerequisites, where they were much more welcoming than in chemistry. I ended up never taking another chemistry class.


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