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Beneath The Surface

Click here for Allan’s profile.

I took physics back in my college days, but it was definitely the “for poets” version—you know, greatly simplified so that we poet types could learn a little physics without risk of our heads exploding. Now I love to read about physics and even more so, to hear physicists explain the world to me in the comfort of the magnificent “Secret Life” studios.

Still, I have to admit that my eyes do glaze over when faced with an equation more complicated than peanut butter + chocolate = happiness. My attitude can be summarized thusly: Tell me about it, but don’t make me do the math.

And so we come to Allan Adams.

Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of an equation!

Allan is so enthusiastic about physics (and everything else that he loves) that it’s pretty much impossible to not jump onto whatever ship—or glider plane—he happens to be piloting at the moment. He explained to us during his interview that “the equations [in physics] are a way of telling a story and giving a description to some complicated phenomena that are beautiful.”

But it wasn’t until Allan gave me a concrete example that it really made sense to me:

“You know, you sit on a surfboard looking out into the ocean, and you watch sets of waves come in. And you might think that it’s weird that the waves seem to die out before they get to me. But there’s a beautiful explanation for that, and it’s encoded in an equation. And you look at the equation, and the equation isn’t very interesting. But it’s telling you that when you’re out on the surfboard, wait a little while. Wait till a few waves have gone by. That’s when you’ll catch a really good wave. So physics is not telling you some set of equations. It’s telling you about sitting on a surfboard, catching waves in the ocean. And the most important thing in studying physics and in coming to physics is seeing the difference there, not getting distracted by the equations on the surface, but reading the story that’s encoded.”

The equations tell a story. Just like sheet music can never actually be a sonata or an opera or even a Lady Gaga tune, so too the equations aren’t the thing itself, but the language that gets us to the thing itself. So I understood Allan to be saying this—learn about the equations on the surface, understand them, but always keep in mind that the surface is only there so we can go beneath the surface.

And surfing is a pretty great way to do that.

It’s a message even a poet can understand.

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Tom Miller

    Tom Miller is the producer of “Secret Life” and co-editor of the site’s blog. His job involves interviewing scientists and engineers, getting them to tell their amazing stories and occasionally trying to get them to sing. It’s a fantastic gig and Tom is extremely grateful for it.