Thursday, January 29, 2015

Post-exam Enlightenment

6:13 PM

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(WARNING: There is math in this article.)
Dear reader, from this point onwards, I give you permission to call me a nerd. It’s perfectly fine; I really don’t mind. You could call me that, or you could call me passionate. I’m madly in love, and the idea of love frightened me until, well, I fell in love… with…

Physics (say what?). And, more recently, maybe even Math (are you for real?). Seriously!

When I first started off in university, I set my mind on pursuing a degree in Physics. After lots of thinking and consulting, I decided to try going for a degree in Physics and Mathematics, mostly because learning Math extensively would improve my flexibility in and understanding of Physics. It’s not a path most people choose to tread, but it’s the path I’ve chosen, so I made the necessary preparations for it and registered for three First-Year Honors Physics courses. People told me it would be difficult. After all, it was an Honors course, but I thought it would be manageable.

And yet I fell so hard. In the middle of the term, thing went terribly wrong and I began falling behind. I wouldn’t blame the course itself: aside from this, I was taking a Computer Science course demanding 14 hours of studying weekly (I’m guilty of not committing all 14 hours), a Calculus course with daily assignments (except Tuesdays), a Chemistry course with time-consuming lab assignments, and a science-writing course that involved lots of drafting, peer-reviewing and editing. I may sound a little whiny here, but in a way I cannot explain, my professors’ teaching styles felt somewhat different from how my previous instructors taught, so getting used to learning in a new way really did take time for me. In the end, I couldn’t spend as much time on Physics as I’d hoped.

When I received my mark for the first midterm, I didn’t think too much about it. It was the same as the class average, and because I was still getting the hang of things, it wasn’t too bad. I felt that it wasn’t good either, but I was looking forward to pulling it up further into the course.

But then the second midterm happened.

I felt like I prepared a sturdy and well-structured parachute and dropped myself (my initial speed v0 is therefore 0 meters per second) into a vacuum-pit with negligible air resistance, thinking I was all set. But my parachute malfunctioned, and I fell incredibly and increasingly fast.

My fall was an hour long (that’s how long the individual exam was), so we take our time t to be equal to 3600 seconds. Given values for initial time (t = 3600 s) and initial speed (v0 = 0 m/s), we can determine the height of the pit y with the formula:


where g, a constant representing acceleration due to gravity, is equal to 9.81 m/s squared.

After some Math, the height of the pit was found to be 63,568.8 km. That’s almost as large as Jupiter’s radius (69,911 km), which is already way bigger than the Earth’s! It would be wrong to conclude that I fell into a pit on the planet Jupiter, however. The gravitational acceleration on Jupiter is more than twice as large as Earth’s at 24.79m/s squared, and changing this would mess up calculations. Besides, I’m pretty sure I didn’t blast off when I wrote that exam.

My final speed v when I crashed to the ground (let’s assume I didn’t burn up as I fell) could also be calculated with the formula:


After more mathemagic (sorcery!), we find Andie’s final speed to be 35, 316 m/s, which is faster than the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and definitely way faster than your internet speed (I’m sorry).
All these calculated values are unrealistic, but this is also due to the fact that the situation presented was extremely unrealistic and very much hypothetical.

I could also calculate for other things like my potential energy when I dropped myself and my kinetic energy when I crashed (they’d be equal to each other due to the pit’s vacuum conditions!), but I’m afraid you’ll start hating me.

This exam was only worth 13 points, leaving less room for mistakes and fewer questions to pull up scores. I wasn’t in the best of physical and mental conditions when I took it, and panicking definitely made things worse. After taking the exam alone, we retook the entire exam in little groups of three. The worst part came when we were provided with the exam solutions after the group exam, revealing everything we did right and wrong. Tiny mistakes cost me points allotted for entire problems, and the chances of getting a decent mark became slim. I left the exam devastated.

This particular midterm was only worth 4.875% of our final grade (I calculated it), so even if I failed, I knew it wouldn’t pull down my grade that much. I wasn’t thinking about the grade after the exam, though. I loved Physics so much that I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to do well in it. On the way back to my dorm, I was consoled and calmed down a bit, but when one of my floormates asked me how the exam was, I broke down and cried (don’t judge me please! I suppose I really am lovesick).

My bones were very broken from my fall (much like my heart, actually), but hey, the damage was done. 

And so I moved on. I continued to make my way through the course until the term ended and I received my grade. It was barely a smooth journey since the second midterm—I still had requirements to complete for my other courses—but I knew I at least had to pass. I was, so to speak, crawling towards the light at the end of the tunnel... which, I imagined, was being blocked by an intimidating and powerful monster that was the final exam.

I overcame this and reached the light, but not unscathed. I ended the term with a not-so-high mark, and the light wasn’t as bright as I’d hoped it would be, but my mark really wasn’t that low either. More than anything, the course opened my mind about Physics and made me realize I still had a long way to go, and that I should maybe spend less time procrastinating. Grades don’t always accurately gauge how much you’ve learned – the grade I received definitely didn’t. (Lots of reflecting happened about Physics and myself, as you can probably tell).

All I can do is move on and improve. Learn from past mistakes and all that jazz. I have decided to put on a more optimistic attitude and embrace the future and all of the patches of darkness and bright lights ahead of me.



Article by Andie
Art by Trianne
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Science has been Andie’s thing since she was four (she once thought the Milky Way was the gateway to heaven). She doesn’t mind being called a geek—because it’s obviously true—and is now a physicist in the making. She believes her puns, jokes and pick-up lines are amazing, even if everyone else around her doesn’t. Andie constantly thirsts for adventure, and is ready to give almost anything a try.


Trianne is a girl who enjoys meeting new people but tries not to be socially-awkward. She has never ending thoughts about everything and daydreams of lying on a bed of fries. Most of the time you'll hear her passionately singing the wrong line to a song.

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