I was clearly in the wrong place.
Walking into the lecture hall, I saw the projector screen as a myriad of seemingly random colors, and thought the VGA dongle on the Macbook must be malfunctioning. But when I squinted my eyes a bit more, I noticed that at least half of those colors were part of an extremely complicated graph. Roughly 15 acronyms crowded the legend, and I couldn’t even understand the units on the graph. “Darn you, Physics Club!” I muttered. I’d expected to walk into an undergraduate talk; instead, I’d stumbled in on a professional research lecture on the cutting-edge discoveries about Neutron Stars and the Dense Matter Equation of State.
Thankfully, I wasn’t completely alone; I ran into an undergraduate friend, and together we braced ourselves against the flood of equations and theories flashing across the projector screen. Still, by the fifth minute, I was entirely lost. The lecturer was just rattling off too much theory, too many ideas and concepts that I, a freshman in Yale College, have never heard of. I hated myself for walking into this room; why did I come in late and ostentatiously sit in the front row? I couldn’t even turn around to see who else was around me. I bet they were all geniuses. (I bet they were all geniuses who were younger than me.) Up at the lectern, Professor Ozel was elegantly explaining the constraints of the different EOS models, and here I was, derping as hard as could be.
But about ten minutes in, I started to smile. I had known when I was accepted to Yale—had even expected—that I would get lost in the grand lectures here, where professors could amaze and stupefy in the same sentence. That is what tends to happen when you are being taught by Nobel prize-winners and seated next to published scientists and journalists. Perhaps it was the absurdity of the situation that made me smile. I was sitting in the same room where my Introductory Physics class meets, and the differential equations of harmonic motion were still on the chalkboard. When I later turned around, I saw in shock that I was sitting directly in front of the professor of said introductory physics class, who was at that moment making a comment to another one of the star-studded faculty here (pun intended). On the left side of the room was Professor Urry, the president of the American Astronomical Society, lobbing insightful questions at the speaker, a Turkish-American astrophysicist currently leading the field in neutron star astrophysics. And then there was me, a toddler among intellectual giants.
But I smiled. Was I really in the wrong place?
The lecture came forth like poetry, every line building to create a spectacular image of the cosmos. While I didn’t understand any of the acronyms for the complex theories or most of the details, I was able to hang onto the logic. I followed how the parameters for the equation of state could be transitioned to a hypothesized mass-radius function in neutron stars, how incredible instrumentation was able to determine the mass-radius relationship to much precision due to frequent thermonuclear events on the surface of these rapidly rotating stars, and how the data were reproducible and seemed to disagree with many current models. Halfway through the lecture, I was confident enough to pull out a notepad; three-quarters of the way in, I was starting to jot down my own questions on the margins of the page.
Did I really come out of the lecture with a full understanding of the current status of Neutron Star measurements? Hell no. Did I come out of the lecture with a greater appreciation of the science? Hell yes. Even though I am surrounded by this type of learning every day I spend at Yale, I hadn’t really invested myself into it. I was still the protected freshman, bumbling from Bass to Commons along with everyone else. Yet, part of the college experience is to try new things – and that doesn’t just mean the extracurricular side. There is a special rush of excitement when you know that you are lost in an academic topic far out of your comfort zone, but you choose to stay for the ride. I’ve had these jolts of intellectual adrenaline every day since arriving on the Yale campus, but clearly, I have only reached the tip of the iceberg. My experience today revealed a bit more of this grand research institution, beckoning me to continue searching for new challenges.
I am clearly in the right place.
Chunyang Ding is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image from here.)