An Infinitely Significant Step

By: Jee Min Lee

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10:25am, the back door of Garrett-Strong lecture hall 2550 clanked opened. The room hushed into silence. Someone stepped down the stairs and stood in front of the black lecture desk. His hair was combed to the sides and back. His blue polo shirt was plain yet sleek. He wasn’t robust or rotund, but his presence had an inexplicable formidability and sense of awe. I pushed my hips back to the chair, clasped my thighs tightly together, and placed my fists on my lap. Instinctively, I knew that my first American college class would be nauseating, like a long, rough roller-coaster ride; I knew that understanding an American college course in English would not be the same as understanding a Korean high school English class in sloppy Korean-English. The formidable gentleman pinched a portable microphone on his collar and pointed at the back of the room.

“Can you hear me back there?” he said.

“Yeah,” someone said from the back.

“Okay. I’m Dr. Rick Toomey, and welcome to an Introduction to Chemistry.”

Dr. Toomey started his lecture by showing a photograph on the overhead projector. It was a grey staircase. On the bottom of the staircase was a fuzzy figure crouching with its knees bent in and arms crossed in front of its chest; it was a ghost.  A shiver ran down my back.

“Do some people believe phenomena like thatcan occur? If so, do  they conduct experiments to get similar results?” Dr. Toomey said pointing at the fuzzy figure.

Silence dominated the room. Everyone sitting in front of me stared at the screen, just blinking their eyes. I looked at the screen and then at Dr. Toomey. I couldn’t organize his abrupt question into a full comprehensible sentence. Only the accentuated words—“believe,” “phenomena,” “conduct,” and “similar results”—remained slithering inside my ears, while other words faded away.

“To rephrase that, do some people believe in supernatural phenomena?”

“Yes,” a few said.

“What’s the possibility that this figure will reappear on this staircase for the next photograph? What about other stair cases? Is the possibility high or low?”

 “Low,” said other students.

 “Then can people exactly or even closely reproduce the same phenomenon?”

“No,” said students in the front, shaking their heads. I shook my head along with them.

“Then are their beliefs subjective or objective?”

“Objective.” This time I whispered along with everyone else. Though my logic bridging between reproducibility and objectivity was thin and puny as a strand of hair, I was at least grasping the relationship of both concepts superficially—it was better than nothing. I smiled.

“So thisis not science,” Dr. Toomey said. He put his right hand inside his jeans pocket and lightly gripped his left fist. “What we study in science must have standards that can be consistently maintained. It is the standard that changes subjectivity to objectivity. And we are going to call such standards as fundamentally or operationally defined standards.”

Then my bridge broke apart. What are these standards? Why do they have to be fundamentally or                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    operationally defined? I picked up my backpack on my lap and rummaged through unlabeled notebooks, but my electronic dictionary wasn’t there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Toomey had written “FUNDAMENTALLY =OPERATIONALLY DEFINED” on the white board. I put down the backpack and jotted down FUNDAM, and stopped. I leaned forward and squinted at the board. A flipped 3. I finished spelling out the terms: ENTALLY equals O, P, another flipped 3, and RATIONALLY. The capital letters thickened and stretched out into a black wall and then slowly blurred out of sight. A low voice kept on talking in the far front, but I was mainly concerned of why scientific units of quantity, length, mass, time, and temperature are fundamentally and operationally defined. I was lost in chemistry terms.

Time flew with several more blackouts until the clock reached twelve. Everyone else was getting packed except for a red haired girl. She was down at the lecture desk, telling something to Dr. Toomey while pointing at her notes. Then with shrugged shoulders, she looked up at Dr. Toomey.  A few “is that clear to you” and “yes” or “no” went back and forth between them.  During the entire time, Dr. Toomey kept looking at her. Whenever the girl answered “um” to a question, he proceeded talking to her with greater emphasis on each word until the girl vigorously nodded her head. The girl also kept looking at him. She didn’t look down at her feet or looked sideways or roll her eyes away from Dr. Toomey’s. Their constant eye contact and feedback had formed a strong communicational interaction—a skill that I felt greater disconnection with than chemistry. For me, eye contact was only one of the graded requirements during public speaking classes. Looking into someone’s eyes made my muscles tense up from feet to neck and made words clog up my throat.

I plunged my notebook into my backpack and scurried up the stairs, out of the classroom.

For the next three days, I walked out the classroom like everyone else when the clock hit exactly twelve o’clock. While pushing the door open and walking down to the first floor, however, I mumbled possible questions to ask: I understand we use the term “equivalent to” to refer to, let’s say a same distance such as a meter and a hundred centimeter, but I don’t get what is the difference between “equal to” and “equivalent to.” Then by the time I passed by the B.D. Owens Library, my self-talk echoed across the square and a passerby turned back to glace at me. During the afternoon I knocked on Jae’s door for clarification. Unlike myself, Jae was a tomboy who worshiped math and science, but like me, she was also a Korean. According to her notes, the “equals to” refers to only figures and “equivalent to” refers to both figures and units.

“Then what’s a magnitude? Is it the same thing as a figure?” I said.

“Figure is the number. Magnitude is the amount of something, but not quantity.”

“Huh? Now you’re getting me confused.” Jae reread her notes and then mine.

“You should just go and ask,” she said.

“Eh.” And I moved on to another question.

On the fourth day of class, Dr. Toomey taught us about significant numbers and conversion factors. Conversion factors helped to convert an amount or value to an equivalent expression. Converting units seemed pretty easy to follow. When Dr. Toomey turned around and wrote an example question in the board, I wrote down the calculations. When he demonstrated the same calculation, I nodded my head. But when he wrote the final answer, I froze onto my seat. I glanced at my notebook, , and then at the board, 7.3 . Why is the significant figure two digits? I skimmed through my calculations. The numerator of the conversion factor was 1 mol, which I had circled as the significant figure. (In calculations done by multiplication or division, the figure with the least significant figures is the overall significant figure.) Were we not suppose to include conversion factors into sig. fig. calculations? I had no clue. I bit my lower lip and chewed it with my teeth. The numerical error hidden somewhere in my calculation drove me insane.

Then the clock reached twelve o’clock. Dr. Toomey said goodbye and removed his microphone from his shirt and put it inside his pocket. I looked down at my notes. A high pitched whistle pinged across my head, fading in and out. Taking a deep breath in, and out, I grabbed my notebook and stepped down to the front.

“Um, excuse me Dr. Toomey. I have a question.”

Dr. Toomey stopped organizing his file and looked at me. A sharp metallic ping darted across my head. Dr. Toomey raised his eyebrows. I proceeded with my question.

“Oh. From of the ex, ex… example questions. So, when the denominator or the numerator of a conversion factor is an integer without any decimals…”

I glanced around the room trying to search for my lost words and guts: a hooded guy was holding the front door, which is next to the white board, for a girl. The beige ceiling was so high. My hands looked so coarse and dry, holding onto my notebook.

“Go on,” said Dr. Toomey. He sincerely looked at me.

“So, okay,” I said and took a deep breath in and then out. “I don’t get why this answer should be in two significant figures. Isn’t 1mol suppose to make it one?”

Dr. Toomey nodded and pointed at a chair in front of the lecture desk.

“How many chairs is that?” he said.

“One.”

“Can we say there is 1.0 chair?”

The pulse near my ears started racing, bumping up and down madly. I never expected someone to ask me a question like that. A 1.0 chair. There was 0.0 more chair in the 1.0 chair, but a 1.0 chair was simply the same as 1 chair. The same shiver from the first day of class ran down my back, but this time the shiver was like a cool summer breeze: I had finally taken my first step up the Mount Olympus towards chemistry, American college, and most importantly English communication. I looked up and squinted at Dr. Toomey.

“Ye……yes.”

“Can we also say there is 1.000 chair?”

“Yes.”

“Good. A counting number like one chair can have infinite significant figures. It could be just 1 chair but also 1.000000000 chair. Since 1 mol is also a counting number, then?”

“We don’t consider it in significant figure calculation.”

“Right.”

“Oh. Wow. Thank you.”

I smiled. Dr. Toomey smiled and gently nodded back. I walked up to my seat, grabbed my backpack, walked out of the classroom, and out of the building.  Summer sunlight shimmered on the concrete floor. The air was hot and moist. I took in a deep breath in, and sighed.

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