Physics and the Meaning of Life


(a version of this post was published by Emory’s student newspaper, the Wheel, in August 2010)

During the second semester of my junior year at Emory, I took Physics 142 for my GER lab requirement. My next most recent exposure to math or science was four years before that. For those of you similarly naïve in the ways of med school prep, I should mention that Physics 142 is the second semester of required physics for pre-med students. I’m an International Studies major. I can talk politics all day long, but you’ll find me tongue tied over trig.

All of this serves as a warning that what follows is written by someone who knows very little about physics.

But I am not myopically focused on the “arts.”

My GPA is giving me a funny look, but I liked physics. In fact, most of what I learned applies to my real life—at least metaphorically. In particular, I have a vision of an optics concept turned metaphor that invaded my mind as the semester ended. It’s called the point of total internal reflection, which refers to a certain way that light rays refract and reflect. To me, this point is like the point at which a college student takes the final step in committing to do too much. Let me explain.

Reflection is easy. Basically, it’s what mirrors do and it’s not so deceiving to our eyes. When you look in a mirror, the reflection of you bounces back at the same angle and the same speed and the light stays in air. Refraction is a little different. Light travels through different substances at different speeds. When you look at something through a lens or through water, the light moves differently because it passes through different materials, slightly changing speed and angle. Imagine a block of glass. If you direct a laser beam through it at anything other than a 90-degree angle, its path is not straight. The light enters from the air to the glass at one angle, refracts at this interface, and continues through the glass at a different angle until it reaches the other side (the second interface between the glass and the air), where it again refracts (or changes angle). Light traveling through different substances doesn’t travel in a straight line.

The rote example of the phenomenon of refraction is a fish in the water. When we look at the fish, light isn’t traveling to our eye in a straight line, but it appears that way, and so we see an image of the fish slightly above where it is actually located. If you’re a cavewoman spear fishing, then you have to aim below the image you see in order to kill the fish. This illustrates a basic concept of refraction; the bending of light as it passes from one material to another.

But the point of total internal reflection is easier to explain in the block of glass, where there is what I imagine to be a magical entry angle, like a black hole or the island in Lost, where the laser light enters one side of the block and doesn’t come out on the other side. It’s as if it gets stuck in some space-time continuum and there we are, watching light disappear into, well, not thin air, but glass! Light disappearing in glass…ladies and gentlemen, that is total internal reflection.

Or…that’s close. It’s somewhat mystifying at first, but here’s my best interpretation of what actually happens. According to my physics book, “total internal reflection occurs only when light attempts to move from a medium of higher index of refraction to a medium of lower index of refraction.” Basically, the index of refraction is a number assigned to a medium (air, water, glass, other stuff) that tells you how fast light will move through that medium. So glass has a higher index of refraction (light moves slower there), and that means that sometimes, if light enters at that certain special black-hole angle, it will travel to the other side of the glass and, at that second interface with the air, instead of coming out, it will reflect internally, and bounce out a different side. It’s as if the inside of the glass block turned into a mirror for a second. The light does actually come out of the glass, but it just follows a path that someone like me (and maybe you) finds a bit unpredictable.

To me, total internal reflection is the point at which everything got a little crazy. Some light entered a block of glass, got overwhelmed, forgot where it was going and ended up hitting a mirror so hard it didn’t recognize the reflection of itself. It’s light stuck in a block. Things are bad.

When the average over-achieving Emory student over-commits, it’s like we veer off the path we were apparently following and when someone thinks to ask what we’re up to, we hardly know the answer.

Sometimes over-commitment feels good. It’s comforting to be busy; we are mainstream if we’re properly driven; it’s nice to fit in.

Sometimes, though, over-committing feels bad. We lose a sense of direction, our center is no longer centered; we have to skip our yoga classes to study for exams because we can’t miss another General Body Meeting of the Students for a Free Mind to plan our Service Trip to carry small children on our backs to the World of Medieval Juggling Convention to Promote Cancer Awareness and a Stepping Competition that we will be filming for a new website initiative at the Emory Wheel, which is partnering with our radio show on WMRE—SGA wants a copy to show at the Inter Religious Council’s next Unity Café (we have a poem to perform, too).

We end up like totally internally reflected rays of light. A little refracting is fun. We are supposed to change directions and try new things. If we keep things under control, we refract from one substance to another, changing angle and direction slightly as we move along, but always keeping on in a forward direction. If we get too deeply involved in too much, though, we lose control of the direction of our lives, and start to bounce off walls that we used to pass right through.

Typically, this is when we stop sleeping, we reflect instead of refract, and suddenly we’re staring in a mirror, drawing a blank on the eyes staring back.

Much of the Emory undergraduate population, like me, not only over-commits habitually, but continues to experience deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, which alternately manifest themselves through hostility toward those who appear to do more and a sort of anxious terror that drives us to the attainment of goal after goal. It’s not as if we don’t know this is ridiculous. We do. But we still feel it, and the insatiable push of our combined ego-conscience overcomes whatever rational desire to slow down we may have conjured over the weekend.

It’s hard to say what drives each of us, though.

Sleeping is a good. So are the conversations that have no point, and the occasional night at the Thinking Man Tavern. In the morning, when we see ourselves in the mirror, it is relieving to feel that the person looking back is not only a pretty decent human being, but also one we recognize.

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