Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Meta Physics

Yesterday I learned that The Teenager has a seemingly irreparable conflict in his schedule for senior year.  Two classes that he really wants to take meet only during the same period.  One of the classes is AP Physics C Part 2.  I’d certainly like him to get the classes he wants, but if I never have to know about another physics project for the rest of my life, I may possibly die a happy woman.

Physics projects have aged me.  Is that a Law of Physics?

The Teenager is driving home from the beach right now with a full sized catapult in the back of the car.  The catapult that was due last Friday and built, for the most part, Thursday night.  The catapult that needed to be designed and constructed to hurl an egg an unknown distance to hit the instructor.  A distance that could be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet.

The catapult was the final exam for AP Physics C Part 1.  The students had already spent the year designing and  building other irksome projects. A balsa wood tower that had to adhere to height, weight and girth requirements and also be able to sustain 30 lbs.  A mechanical helicopter that needed to fly and remain airborne for at least 60 seconds.

Both feats were miraculously accomplished by boys who, I’m fairly certain, have no idea how to make a bed.

I try not to get involved in these projects, but when the assemblage takes place in my home, the stress permeates the premises.  I am a sponge, and I absorb any and all angst within my purview. 

Unlike the tower, where I was called upon to fetch more balsa wood, replenish glue-gun glue and procure Venti Lattes, or, in the case of the helicopter, order a sanctioned building kit (replete with 23-page instruction manual) to be delivered overnight and secure three different types of modeling glue, I was not asked for any assistance at all with the catapult – a shame, really, because the project reeked of Monty Python to me, and, as a result, warmed my heart.  In fact, when The Teenager’s lab partner jokingly intimated that they were just going to buy a catapult and call it a day, I didn’t even try and dissuade them.  “I don’t want to spend countless hours building this thing . What a colossal waste of time,” he said.  And I was like, Yeah, I could think of better things to do.

So, wasn’t I surprised when, two weeks ago, they came lumbering in with two-by-fours (sorry, bad pun) and rope, and headed to the basement workbench?  They spent a chunk of time building the base that night and, once complete, left it, in typical teenager fashion, untouched for nine days until the eve of its due date. 

“It’s almost halfway built,” said The Teenager.  “We’ll be able to bang out the rest of it really fast.”

I won’t bore you with their hapless setbacks, I will just say this:  The whole point (it seems) of a physics project, is to give yourself time to make the types of modifications necessary when you can’t get your egg to sail more than 18 feet.  Time that simply does not exist when you begin the project in earnest at 7 o’clock the night before it’s due.

“Is it the torque or the trajectory?” I asked, pacing the basement and trying to sound helpful but, in truth, barely knowing what either of those things mean.  By this time it was almost 11 o’clock and I wanted to go to sleep.

Unfortunately, one of my many shortcomings is that I can’t sleep when a catapult is being built in my midst.

Every time they needed to test the catapult, they had to haul it up the narrow basement stairway and around the island in the kitchen, and out the back door to the yard.  They'd set it up on the driveway and let it rip.  The egg would barely make 20 feet.  They’d then haul it back down to the basement again to make adjustments.

The Teenager and his lab partner argue a lot. They’ve been friends for years and they’re like two old men on a park bench with nothing in the world better to do than contradict each other. Much of the building session was spent this way, with both of them taking seats on the patio, trying to reason and cajole each other to modify this way instead of that.

“We need a longer throwing arm.  We need to get to a lumber yard,” one of them finally declared.

“There are no lumber yards open at this time of night,” I told them.  “You’ll have to use what you can find around the house.”

They texted other classmates to check on their progress.  They replaced their wooden arm with a lacrosse stick.  They barreled through my ($5.99/dozen organic!) eggs.

Splat, splat, splat.  My driveway was full of yolk.  None of it landing further than 22 feet.

“Forget it,” said The Teenager. “Twenty-two feet will have to be good enough.  I’m going to bed.”

But his lab partner talked him into further adjustments and modifications while I lay tossing and turning on what may as well have been a bed of nails.  Is there anything in the medicine cabinet for a Catapult-Induced Sleep Disorder?

Eventually, they too called it quits.

Bleary the next morning, I asked him how it went.  My past experience with The Teenager is that things always seem to work out. I somehow let sleep overtake me and when I wake up, the thousand page paper has been written or the minutia-laden architecture model has been constructed.  I don’t ever believe these elfin surprises will materialize, but they always do.

“The egg never landed beyond 22 feet,” he said in his gloomy voice, a situation we both knew would not bode well for his grade.

Yet, six hours, eight two-by-fours, two bungee cords, one lacrosse stick and two fresh eggs later, catapult magic happened.  An egg was launched and landed inches before the teacher, a distance of over 49 feet. 

There is no scientific explanation as to how this was possible.  How someone can repeat a process dozens of times and get the same lousy outcome every time, and then, finally, that one time that it counts, everything falls into place.  Is that a Law of Physics, too?  Or is it something bigger, like a blessing, or just good old-fashioned grace?

I know it’s too much to hope that the schedule conflict magically resolves itself in a similar way.  I mean, it’s just not possible.  Everyone has already told me so.