Getting Inside the Atom

By Jorge Ribeiro '75

Dear Mom and Dad,

Better put down your cups of coffee before you read on, because I’ve got a surprise for you! No, no, not that kind of surprise. You remember how I said I’d never take another science or math class after high school chemistry and calculus? I lied. I’m taking a physics class, and it’s cool.

I can write that now, but actually I was pretty scared when my adviser told me I should take some classes outside my major, but in my division. (Psychology is a science here, you know. Okay, a soft science, but all the other ones are hard.) I was relieved when I found out about this class, A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo. It’s a six-week, half-semester class that’s aimed at math-and-science weaklings like me. Istopped by to see the instructor, Cindy Schwarz. Yeah, that was my reaction, too, even at Vassar. “A woman physicist?” I blurted out. She laughed and said she gets that all the time. (No plastic pen holder in her pocket or slide rule in her handbag, though.)

Professor Schwarz told me she started this class back in 1986 or ’87 when she became a bit worried about students graduating without taking a science class. She’d been doing some particle physics research and thought a physics class without much math in it would appeal to us non-science types.

The problem, of course, was that there weren’t any books that fit the class. The “easiest” ones still had too much math in them, and others were just picture books. She did tell me, when I asked her about the class, about a book called Alice in Quantumland (by Richard Gilmore) that mixes fantasy and an allegorical approach with some really hard science. When I took a look at it, a couple of sentences stuck — and I remembered them when Professor Schwarz explained her rationale for the course.

“However nonsensical quantum mechanics may at times appear to us, that seems to be the way Nature wants it — and so we have to play along,” Gilmore wrote. I have to admit, thinking about physics that way got me curious. “The way things behave in quantum mechanics seems very odd to our normal way of thinking and is made more acceptable when we consider analogies to situations with which we are familiar, even though the analogies may be inexact.”

I think Professor Schwarz could have written those words herself, because that’s kind of her approach to the course. She ended up writing her own textbook, A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo: A Guide to Particle Physics, for the class. It’s straight science, but with lots of useful diagrams and straightforward, simple explanations of particle physics — minus the analogies.

The class has been fun not just for her, but for her students — especially because of the final project, which involves producing something creative to show what they’ve learned — in effect, putting the analogies back into the class. Professor Schwarz admitted she worried that students would take the obvious approach and write about Ernie the Electron meeting Patty the Proton and the two falling in love. But the results were far more sophisticated: she got short stories, fairy tales, poems, even a paper purporting to be newspaper ads, all with “characters” right out of particle physics!

One story, written by American culture major Julia Einspruch Lewis ’89, was a “transcript” of an Oprah Winfrey show, “Particle Decay in the ’80s: One Proton’s Story.” It went like this:

Oprah: You are now a proton, but I understand that you were once a neutron. That sounds a little bit confusing to me. I want to know, and I’m sure the studio audience shares my curiosity, how that happened….What was the process like? Tell us everything.

Proton: Until recently I was, as you said, a neutron, one of eight neutrons and six protons inside the nucleus of a carbon atom.

O: And what was that like?

P: It was awful. Carbon 14 is an isotope. It was a very unstable situation. All of us wanted to form a lighter, more stable nucleus. I wanted out. I had always felt different, like I didn’t belong.

O: Oh, I know how that feels, honey. So how did you react to the situation?

P: Well, in a fraction of a second I decided to convert.

O: Spontaneously? Just like that? Without any outside influences or external forces?

P: That’s right. It was beta decay.

O: But where did you get the energy? I hardly have enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. I mean it must have taken a lot of energy to convert from one species to another!

P: Believe it or not, it was easy. It was radioactive decay. There was no outside supply of energy. It all came from within the nucleus. It was perfectly natural.

I tracked down Jennifer Allen ’04, a psych major who took the class. She wrote a funny yet serious story about a proton’s midlife crisis. She emailed me and said, “I really enjoyed the final writing assignment. I think it is significant that we were allowed to ‘show off’ what we learned during the semester in a creative way. This assignment allowed us to turn…empirical facts into a sort of art — fictional stories with a basis in fact.”

Professor Schwarz liked some of the papers so much, she shared them with her physics colleagues, who loved them. Eventually, she decided to compile them into a book. She set up her own publishing company (Small World Books), researched private printing companies (she decided on one in Albany, New York), and got someone to design a cover (using artwork by her son that was as playful as the works she included).

The first story in the book, Tales from the Subatomic Zoo, is the Oprah interview. Two other stories feature particle “detectives,” and another tells of a jailbreak by an immigrant electron who is constantly discriminated against and then falsely jailed in the land of protons. There are five fairy tales, one of which features Alice — this time in Subatomic Land. Another starts out like the three little pigs, with “bad” particles blowing away two poorly built houses, but then turns into a Star Wars-like fight to the finish. There are nine poems ranging from a classical sonnet to free verse and, at the end, a section of ads from the Particle Press.

“I really don’t think I could have written these stories myself,” Professor Schwarz told me. “I have too much of a physics mind.” She admitted, too, that her own physics training was pretty cut-and-dried, but she was pleased with how the Vassar liberal arts training enabled students to bring their strengths from other disciplines to this task.

She’s sold maybe 150 copies of her book — one to a policeman who’s a friend and one to her eye doctor, as well as some to colleagues in drama, English, and computer science. And she took copies of it to a big physics brouhaha in October.

Even though Professor Schwarz is all gung ho about the book, she admits it just scratches the surface of what her students have done. And she also noted that not everyone has liked the creative aspect of the final project, and she’s accepted traditional essays (e.g., “Uses of particle accelerators in medical research”) from some students.

Professor Schwarz and I spoke for only half an hour, but I got all excited about the class. I borrowed a copy of Tales and devoured it. We’re only halfway through the course now, but I can’t sleep at night trying to think of my own final project. I’m thinking of using Seinfeld or maybe Friends as my model…a script of a show, of course — but I’m not sure subatomic particles are that strange!

Love and kisses,
Your Son

Jorge Ribeiro ’75, who struggled with science at Vassar and now teaches ESL and English composition at Cal State LA, admits to taking some artistic license in this letter.

Professor Schwarz’ book Tales from the Subatomic Zoo can be ordered online at www.smallworldbooks.net.