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I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

I didn’t say that. I’ve never said that. I mean, after studying it for a decade or so I probably come closer than some people but I would never, ever claim that I understood it. I’m arrogant but not that arrogant. No, those words were uttered by someone I knew in grad school. It’s been more than thirty years so I don’t remember much about him — just his appearance (a physicist, so bad haircut, distressed (but not fashionably) jeans and a T-shirt with an allegedly humourous saying on it). In particular I don’t remember his area of study (given the quote, possibly astrophysics but I’m far from sure about that) or even his userid name.

I didn’t know him all that well (he was approaching graduation when I was starting and there wasn’t whole lot of ‘generational’ interaction among grad students) but he was the TA (teaching assistant) for a sophomore course in electricity and magnetism — a course I had come uncomfortably close to failing only a few years earlier. I considered myself lucky that I did not TA this course.


I was sitting in my office one evening recovering from one WAB (being pre-internet, we called it a WADG) and preparing for the next when the phone I had (against all rules) tampered with began to ring. It was another senior (ish) student that I didn’t know all that well.

“Hello?” (I probably didn’t actually say ‘hello’ but it’s the conventional response.)

“Rose? Dude!” (Being pre-Farglik, people didn’t often say ‘Dude’ which is one of the many good things I remember from that era. I’ve inserted it to sort of illustrate the tone of the phone call.) He continued:

“I’m sick as a dog so I’m looking for someone to take my lab tomorrow. It’s actually a tutorial so you wouldn’t have to learn any of the experiments. It’s kinda last minute and I’m a little desperate.” I wondered idly how many people he had tried before getting to me and if I should be flattered or insulted. But this seemed like an opportunity to unload one of my Friday afternoon labs, so…

“Yah, I can do that. What course? What room? What time?”

“Thanks. You’re a life saver. It’s 230 with Dr. H–. Room 4-something at 2:30 — it’s on the schedule in the break room.”

Crap. 230 was the course I had come uncomfortably close to failing. (As an aside, it just occurred to me that doesn’t narrow things down as much as I’d like it to.)


I was doomed.

And to make matters worse, it was the same prof that ‘taught’ it to me so he would be acutely aware of my, um, let’s call them ‘shortcomings’. Damn. And it was a tutorial. Labs involve more prep work, it’s true, but they’re a little easier to fake. In a tutorial, you actually have to know the material. Or at least look like you know the material. And I definitely didn’t.

Did I mention I was doomed?

Turns out some parts weren’t as bad I thought. Professor H– treated me with something approaching respect (which was more than a little unexpected and almost certainly undeserved). Some of the tutorial problems I could actually do. For the ones I couldn’t, I figured out who the class brain was and asked him. The other TA was experienced, knowledgeable and congenial (that last one is often hard for a physicist). It wasn’t that bad.

Yeah, right.

About two thirds of the way through the list of ‘suggested questions’ was a Difficult Problem. An extremely difficult problem. A scary difficult problem. I had no idea. The class brain had no idea. The other TA had no idea. I was going to have to ask Dr. H–, at which point he’d write me off as a brain damaged moron and probably ridicule me in front of the entire room. It was time to sing the doom song.

It was at that moment, though, that the other TA went up to Dr. H– and said about that particular problem

I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

Way to take one for the team. Many thanks. I owe you one. Still.

All of this went through my head on a recent Sunday as Ms. Rose and I drove northward towards crows, pigs and guys with flamethrowers. It was the weekend that in Canada semi-officially marks the start of spring — not only can you incinerate pigs but you can plant your annuals and get your white clothes out of storage. It’s kind of a big deal to Canadians after a long winter.

It’s apparently also some sort of Significant Date for people who like to fish. I mean, I don’t know much about fishing but that day it seemed like every second vehicle on the road was bristling with rods and towing a boat. Not only that but every boat launch ramp that we passed looked like a Buy More on Black Friday.

So I learned something. Not exactly a revelation or an epiphany but a discovery. Guess you do learn something every day, even if that something might be small. But then I learned something rather bigger and rather unexpected.

Now I don’t fish. I haven’t fished since that time I flung someone else’s fishing rod out of a canoe forty years ago but I thought I sort of knew how it was done: you climb into a boat with a hook, a string and a tub of annelids and then you let mosquitoes bite you until your sunburn is so painful it drives you indoors. Simple. But speeding toward the Verona boat launch was something that suggested that fishing is rather more complicated an activity than I had suspected.

It was two guys in a pickup. (No surprise yet.) Behind the truck was a boat (ditto) with what looked like several hundred fishing rods in it (double ditto). What was revelatory was what was in the bed of the pickup — a piece of equipment I had never, ever associated with piscatory activities.

Because there (barely held down — you could tell they were in too much of a hurry to secure their load properly) was a trampoline.

A round one. If that matters.

It’s a good thing Ms. Rose was driving because I spent the next several minutes wracking my brain to try and guess how one (or two I suppose) might use a trampoline to catch fish.

I failed.

But then I remembered that TA back in ’82:

I understand general relativity; I just don’t understand this.

Even though you might learn something every day doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.



The Author

Rose Glace is the pseudonym of nobody important.


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