November 12, 2007
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch

From the Desk of Jim Ottaviani


Calculus. Most people who end up like me — nuclear engineer
turned librarian turned comics writer — took it in high school. I didn’t,
though not by choice. I don’t remember it being offered, for one thing, and I
wasn’t ready for it if it had been available to me, but entering college behind
the curve turned out great.

I didn’t think so at the time, of course. Every other first
year was ahead and doing well and having a social life while I was struggling
to wrap my mind around limits and integrals, and doing while additionally being
bored by the classical physics we all had to suffer through. Let me at the cool
quantum stuff so I can finally lick this teleportation thing once and for all!

In the end, I actually looked forward to the problem sets.
Learning stuff is fun; who knew? But by the time finals crashed the party I
still didn’t know whether I understood enough to make the cut. And when I sat
down to the physics exam I was sure I was done for. In later classes you got to
bring in a sheet of notes, on the (justified) premise that having them wouldn’t
do you much good. But not so for that first, basic class. I showed up with my
brain, a pencil, and a calculator that could do square roots(!) and trig
functions(!) and delivered the answer in glowing red LEDs.

And I also showed up with an urge to cower, made more acute
when I promptly forgot all the equations of motion and how to calculate energy
and momentum. Completely blanked. All I could dredge up from memory were force
= mass x acceleration and distance = rate x time. Cutting edge stuff…if you’re
Isaac Newton in 1687.

And, it turns out, I could dredge up calculus too. Also
cutting edge Newtonian tech, but if you know the force and distance equations
and you know calculus you can derive everything else you need for a first
course in classical physics. (Especially if you vaguely remember enough of what
the results look like to recognize the formulae when you’re done.) And on the
fly, under pressure, I derived ‘em.

Even if I’d flunked out then and there I think this
experience alone would have made college worthwhile. It’s certainly one of the
few moments I remember from a whole lot more higher education than I like to
admit to.

Oh yeah, comics. 

can’t replicate that revelatory physics experience any more, at least in
context — those mathematical tools have long since rusted away in the damp
back corners of my brain. But I can replicate the panic: I still get
it every time I sit down to make a new book, because I arrive at each project
with my brain, pencil and paper (or rather, their modern analogue, a keyboard
and a blinking cursor), and no clue as to how to solve the problem of writing a
comics script. But I can always dredge up that fundamental image or idea that
got me excited about doing the book, and that eventually becomes words and
those words describe dialogue and panels and pages and spreads and scenes. And
all of a sudden (well, actually many months later, and thanks to heavy lifting
by an artist) there it is, a new world, fresh for me to marvel at and enjoy as
if I were discovering how gravity works, a
Isaac Newton.

Who I really ought to write a comic on, someday. First
Second has me doing Richard Feynman’s cool quantum stuff first, though. And
Mark’s letting me bring my notes.


One Comment on “ Why Physicists? ”

  • Trochee | November 12th, 2007 2:00 pm

    As a fellow nerd, I must agree that this sense of victory — deriving something that seems incredible from first-principles, under pressure — is exhilarating and scary and wonderful all at the same time: intellecting without a net.
    Thank you for this bit of writing.

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