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Surprise It's Maxwell's Equations -

Maxwell's Equations

It was about ten or more years after I had graduated from high school when an unexpected event occurred one day. But before we tell the story of the event itself, some background is in order. The day started off innocently enough with a trip to Cape Cod to visit my family. It was a Saturday in the middle of the summer and I was thirsty. Pulling into a local gas station with a convenience store seemed a fast enough way to purchase something to drink and satisfy the thirst.

I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism on the front and rear of the shirt. In the middle of my nerd phase, I also wore other t-shirts with other famous mathematics and physics equations on them. My job was developing mathematical models of physical phenomenon at work and it was the life I was living. I had made a transition from the arts to science and engineering, and was working with some of the brightest people from all over the world. In addition to mathematical modelling I was responsible for the computers we used: from mainframes, minicomputers and time sharing services, to the new microcomputers, desktop programmable systems, paper tape loaders, teletype machines, magnetic storage, home brew computers and real-time signal processing systems.

That day on the Cape, after selecting something to drink in the convenience store, I went to the cashier to pay for the drink and found what appeared to be a middle-aged man at the counter in front of me paying for his selections. When he completed his transaction he turned around to leave and looked at my t-shirt.

He asked what the equations were for. After explaining to him it was Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism he mentioned he’d been a math teacher his entire life, had never seen these equations, and was not even sure what some of the operators meant. I started to explain further but he dismissed the explanations.

Instead of boring him further I asked him where he had taught math and out blurted the name of the high school I had graduated from 10 or more years ago. Then he introduced himself by name, and when he did all the details of a once fateful day in high school came flooding back for me.

Surprised

At the time in high school I was not really focused on math and science. I was a history, humanities, language and arts nut. But sometime late in my sophomore year my then math teacher – not the man standing in front of me in the convenience store – struck a nerve as he connected the dots between the Geometry of the Greeks, the Cartesian coordinate system of Descartes and the Unit circle and complex number system of Euler. I was mesmerized by its simplicity and beauty, and the connections between human conceptual effort over many centuries. I was so hooked I wanted to take the next sequence in Algebra for my junior year, whatever it was at the time.

One day late in the Spring of my sophomore year I was asked to meet with a teacher I had never met. It was the same man now standing in front of me in the convenience store. On that fateful day many years ago in high school this man told me my grades in math were not high enough for me to qualify for the the next sequence in Algebra and that my application for the course was being rejected.

At the time I felt rejected and dejected. My brewing interest in mathematics seemed to be on hold and I was not sure how I was going to fulfill my interest in it by being placed into a more remedial division of Algebra for the coming year.

However, that day in the convenience store meant I had to make a decision. Do I tell this person standing in front of me what he had done to me many years ago or do I simply go about my business and not say a thing about what had happened. 

I opted to not say anything to him that day about what had occurred 10 to 12 years ago. Instead we exchanged pleasantries, I suggested he look up something about Maxwell’s equations, and we went our separate ways, never to meet thereafter.

Saying something to him about what occurred years ago would not have changed that day in the past, and would only have embarrassed him this day in the present.
 
The experience left me feeling a bit bewildered, contrite, humble and thankful. 
 
One of the lessons of the experience for me is that everyone can reach heights not seen nor understood by others, and that it is far more important for teachers and mentors to help students to explore and reach for stars than to snuff out curiosity and self-guided interest.

The other lessons for me were that not all things are as they seem, and that one can try to influence as appropriate – without harming – the paths our fellow travelers take.