Monday, February 4, 2013

Where There’s Smoke…

There’s Physics!

I know next to nothing about physics.

In fact, if you rattle off terms like absolute zero, escape velocity, and breeder reactor

I will be thinking of people and situations that have little to do with science.

I’m blaming this sad fact on my college physics course.

You see, if you paged through my class notebook from those days, you would only find a series of dates and tally marks.

Those tally marks – which ranged from a low of 19 to a high of 27 –

refer to the number of cigarettes smoked by my physics professor during each three-hour lecture.

If you happened to attend a certain Pennsylvania University in the 1980’s, you know that I am telling no tales.

“Dr. Physics” showed up on campus every Wednesday night at approximately 6:25, shuffled into the lecture hall, and unloaded a large thermos, one beige mug, a colossal glass ashtray, and a carton of Camels.

He would then spend the next three hours sucking down black coffee and lighting each new cigarette with the glowing butt of the last.

Trust me, it was hard to pay attention to critical angles or radioactive decay when there were ashes flicking in every direction…

sometimes finding home in the mug of joe, yet unnoticed by the guzzler.

And it was a little hard to decipher those formulas scratched on the board through all the blue-grey haze.

But most distracting of all –

my constant worry that nobody else’s CPR certification would be up-to-date, and I would be the one stuck administering mouth-to-mouth when this guy’s hard living caught up with him on a Wednesday night.

Believe me, I spent a lot of time praying to the patron saint of physicists that semester.

St. Albert the Great, by the way – should you ever feel the need.

Anyway, you may be wondering what this has to do with writing.

A whole lot, actually –

because whenever you’re working on a story set within our reality, you must get your physics right.

Nothing busts up book-magic faster than bad science.

I once read a novel in which a hard right turn sent a canine passenger tumbling into the passenger-side door. Sadly, this book was based in the U.S. of A., not Jolly Old England.

Even my limited (and traumatic) physics education did not protect me from this sad spell-breaker.

To this day, it is the only thing I remember about that book.


But fear not, physics-challenged people!

Now there is a brilliant website just for us. It is called what if? and it’s the place to go if you've got physics questions like…

How long would the Sun last if a giant water hose were focused upon it?

How many model rocket engines would it take to launch a real rocket into space?

or the one that keeps me awake at night…

From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground? 

PROMPT: Create a character who desperately needs the answer to one of the questions on what if’s site. Why does he or she need to know? What happens after s/he gets that all-important info? Does s/he take up a few nasty vices and become a (gulp!) physics professor?