Last night over dinner, my 11-year-old son announced that he wants to be a professor of physics. This was a deviation from the lawyer/pro-hockey player/Lego builder/inventor career path he had previously chosen. He begged to stay up past his bedtime so he could watch a TV show on the Science Channel narrated by Morgan Freeman. It was all about String Theory and the various physicists around the world who are on a quest to discover upwards of nine dimensions. Nine? I thought there were only 4, and even that was too confusing for me.
Life was easy when he was a toddler, fascinated by trains and construction equipment. That was a passion, boring as it may have been for a grown up without testicles, that I could help foster. The library was filled with books about choo-choos and excavators. We could kill time sitting at a train station waiting for the next NJ Transit to come roaring through. I got on the floor to play with Thomas and Gordon, Salty and Murdoch and Lady and Duck. (Who names these toys, anyway?)
But how do I open up new worlds for my son, encourage his passion and curiosity, when the mere thought of ‘quantum mechanics’ and ‘general relativity’ puts a kink in my brain function? Not to mention, conjures up painful memories.
High school chemistry, as I recall, was totally fine. It’s like math with chemicals. I would have like to have skipped the section in biology where we dissected animals, but the study of genetics absolutely fascinated me. Physics, however, had me in tears. I remember very little of that class my senior year. I must have blocked it out.
I wish I could block out my experience in college physics. Never in my life have I felt more stupid. I sat in that class, eyebrows squinched, squeezing my brain in an effort to comprehend at least every fourth word. But to no avail. It wasn’t the professor. Rumor has it, he had appeared on Letterman, performing in a physics circus. He was fabulous – energetic, passionate, humorous. I just didn’t get that brand of humor. So there I sat, across from a student who looked exactly like Gary Larson’s character of the nerd in his Far Sidecartoon series. And this student – complete with thick glasses, spiked hair, teeth that ran perpendicular to his mouth, and esoteric t-shirt – raised his hand every two minutes to answer questions, laughing at the joy of it all. After 45 minutes, I too raised my hand. Only I was seeking clarification.
“What part do you not understand?” The professor asked kindly.
“All of it,” I said. He tried to get me to articulate what exactly was confusing so that he could help me, and perhaps others. “The last 40 minutes,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand it enough to even be able to tell you what part I don’t understand.”
And then I ran back to my dorm room and sobbed.
So, imagine how it felt to coax the remote out of my child’s hand just as Mr. Freeman was getting to the good part… something about what might happen if scientists do in fact prove String Theory and identify the 9th dimension. Our universe could turn into a black hole. (All the more reason to leave this scientific mumbo jumbo well enough alone, as far as I’m concerned.) Pushing my son up the stairs towards his bedroom, he asked me, “Do you understand this stuff?”
“Um, do you?”
“Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
Never has parenting been more humbling. Clearly I’ll have to find other ways to stay relevant. He can delve into the world of bosons and fermions and dual resonance models. And I’ll keep it real by knowing whether the song on the radio is by J-Lo or Lady Gaga.
This article originally appeared on Care.com.