Mar. 14, 2005

Tuition Costs

by Victor Depta

MONDAY, 14 MARCH, 2005
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Poem: "Tuition Costs" by Victor Depta, from The Helen Poems. © Ion Books. Reprinted with permission.

Tuition Costs

I'd raised a child, practically
as if the end were something I'd thought about
prepared for, worked toward
when, in fact, I was amazed how little time was left
what with the ACT, SAT, the mailbox cluttered with
     college ads

loan forms, tuition costs, room and board
as if I were packaging her, fully insured
for Berkeley, Davis, somewhere deliverable to
and tampered with, probably
opened like a certified intelligence.

I'd raised a child
as if a million million hadn't done the same
yet it was fresh to me, fragrant as irises
as the climbing rose on the back porch
where I kept busy to distract myself

sawing fretwork, attaching it to the posts
and painting everything white, white as the roses
wonderfully unreal, a dream-labor
old fashioned as the moon in May, delicate
as she readied to go away.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, born in Wharton, Texas (1916). He's best known for writing the screenplays for movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983). He also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995).

It's the birthday of the humorist Max Shulman, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1919). He wrote several books including, Anyone Got a Match? (1964) and Potatoes Are Cheaper (1971). He grew up during the Great Depression, and he said he became a humorist because, "I turned early to humor as my branch of writing... [because] life was bitter and I was not."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Beach, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She moved to Paris when she was 30 and opened a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, which became a gathering place for writers. She met James Joyce in 1920, just as he as finishing his novel Ulysses. When all the major publishers in Europe and America decided that it was too obscene to publish, Sylvia Beach said she'd publish it, even though she'd never published a book before.

She had to contact a printer and get people to buy advanced copies to fund the cost. Because she had no editors, she edited the enormous manuscript herself, and managed to get the novel published by James Joyce's birthday, February 2, 1922.

It's the birthday of the physicist Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany (1879). He first became interested in science as a young boy when his father showed him a compass. He spent hours watching the needle move by itself, pointing toward north. He said, "[I realized] something deeply hidden had to be behind things."

He was home schooled for the early part of his life, and when he finally went to school with the other children, his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled. He hated sports, he almost never talked to the other children, and he refused to study any subject he didn't find interesting. The only subjects he did find interesting were math and philosophy. He spent his spare time building huge houses of cards and playing the violin. His mother said he carried his violin wherever he went, "like a dear child."

In high school, Einstein's teachers grew even more frustrated with him. One teacher tried to have him expelled because all he did in class was sit in the back of the room smiling. He finally dropped out at the age of 16.

His father persuaded him to apply to a technical college in Zurich so that he could at least get a degree in engineering. Einstein flunked the entrance exam in all subjects except for math. But one of the professors at the school was so impressed by his math scores that he accepted Einstein anyway.

Einstein began working toward a PhD in physics, but he didn't get along well with his professors. He was constantly questioning their ideas, and refusing to show the proper respect. He often missed classes and only passed his final examination because his friend let him borrow all his lecture notes. But even though he passed, he was the only member of his class not to receive an assistant professorship.

He was planning to get married, and suddenly he didn't have any way to make a living so he sent out applications for every scientific position he could find. Everyone turned him down. His mother had warned him that getting engaged too soon would ruin his career, but he refused to break off the engagement. He was in love. In desperation, he applied to a job at an insurance company, resigned to the fact that he would have to give up a career in science in order to get married. But at the last minute, he got a decent-paying job at the Swiss patent office.

Einstein's job was to evaluate patent applications and determine whether the inventions described would actually work. He rejected a lot of perpetual motion machines. Though it wasn't the university job he had always wanted, he found that it was the perfect job for him. He was inspired by all the people in the world who were thinking up new inventions, and since he didn't have to bring any work home at night he was free to work on his own theories about physics.

He began to publish a series of papers about the behavior of molecules, but they received little attention. Because he had no access to a university, he didn't have a laboratory to explore his theories. He just worked on the problems in his head and on paper, and he was removed enough from the scientific community that he didn't worry about whether his theories were fashionable or important. He just worked on the problems he found most interesting. Above all, he was interested in finding some law that could explain all the forces in the universe, from gravity to electromagnetism. He loved the idea that different forces were really different aspects of the same forces and that different substances were really different configurations of the same substance.

His son was born, and Einstein began studying and thinking at all hours of the day and night while taking care of the baby. He kept a notebook with him, even while sleeping, so that if he suddenly got an idea he could jot it down. He became obsessed with strange questions, like what would it be like to travel on a beam of light. Would the rest of the world look different while traveling at that speed?

In the spring of 1905, he asked his best friend to help him solve the questions on which he'd been working, but they gave up after several hours. Einstein went to bed extremely disappointed. The following morning, he woke up and suddenly everything made sense. He said, "It was as if a storm broke loose in my mind."

Einstein spent the next several weeks writing a paper on his theory, which came to be called the Special Theory of Relativity, the theory that if the speed of light is constant and if all natural laws are the same in every frame of reference, then both time and motion are relative to the observer. In other words, time and motion appear differently to someone traveling in a rocket ship than they would to someone standing on the ground as the rocket ship flies by.

That same year, 1905, Einstein published three more papers, each of which was as revolutionary as the first, including the paper that included his most famous equation: E = mc2, which means that there is tremendous energy trapped inside all particles. That equation was the theoretical basis for nuclear weapons. Years later, after the creation of the atom bomb, Einstein said, "If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith."

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