10/15/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

How to Survive a Grad-School Physics Course While Staying Normal and Singing in an Opera

I walk over planning not to do it, not even knowing exactly where the building is. Jefferson -- I can picture it, a squat front of bricks, but not place it. By the time I do find it, the room's almost full. Most people here I don't recognize, but Mariel is in the back. I sit next to her and scramble in my bag for a notebook, except there isn't one. Instead I just stare up front, trying to follow the stream of symbols rushing out white and chalky on the board. It feels like being pulled by my eyelids.

Fast forward and I'm looking over the list of courses I plan to take. Shopping period is over; time to commit. Three courses fit right in -- playwriting, a poetry seminar, and a class on early English literature -- and one is incomprehensible. Physics 210, the paper says, that 2- prefix implying a graduate course. General relativity, the theory of gravity. One of these things is not like the -- before I can catch up to myself, I let go of the slip -- watch it fall, fluttering, until it settles with the others.


When I first got to college, I had already taken a fair amount of college math (although no physics). I kept at it for my first few semesters, but my enthusiasm disappeared. Sophomore year rolled up and I only panicked for a few blinks before declaring that I wanted to study writing. Math became a side project, an exercise performed about as frequently and with as much enjoyment as going to the gym. By junior year I was thickly ensnared by the literary community at school: the magazines, the writing workshops, acting and singing. Friends too, no longer looking at me like an ugly duckling from another world. Almost happy -- then, there was physics.

Three weeks into relativity, I'm near collapse. Monday night seeps into Tuesday morning -- too many problems left, and in each one the indices run together blurrily, and over all there is a distinct lack of desire to deal with it. Mariel grins at me from across the table, her face ashy with sleep debt. Grinning or weeping are the main options available. She laughs at the horror-scene face I make and asks what I'm listening to. James Blake is a shared favorite, and every so often we take a break to blast Retrograde. It almost helps -- you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on, a Beckett line goes.

Problem sets are due Tuesday morning at the start of class, a class during which my eyelids flicker like a short-circuiting lightbulb and I re-fall asleep countless times, and after that I retreat back into my bed like the shattered frame of a human I am, before waking up at night to slink over to rehearsal for The Pirates of Penzance. There I'm still so tired I punctuate my singing with yawns, and although the music is familiar enough to me that I don't struggle to learn it, blocking rehearsals will start soon, with a more exhaustive schedule and no chance to slack off. It hits me like a sudden blow -- my brain can't process all of the things I have to do. They just pile up like wreckage in front of me, while a storm carries me backward from Paradise.


Mariel is magnetic and much better at physics than I am, although she has the benefit of being a physics major. She has been dating someone else for two weeks; I'm not thrilled. It's never that simple, though. During late nights in the dining hall, we laugh about music and thrill over typography and get side-tracked easily. At the end of those nights, too, I struggle to find motivation for trekking back to my own dorm. Normally I just sleep in her common room. I assume that tonight will be the same, and when my eyes almost roll back into my head from tiredness near four in the morning, we decide to take a 3-hour sleep break before continuing in the morning. Following her back to her suite, I joke about the uncomfortable abandoned mattress in the common room -- I know and don't know why I make the joke. She lets me into the suite (it's the sixth floor and I think we both almost fell asleep in the elevator) -- and then she says, do you want to just sleep in my bed? it's more comfortable -- and yes, please, although what about -- I think, I mean, I hope he'll think it's fine, it's just for a few hours -- yeah.

It isn't, for either of us, the highest grade we've ever received on a problem set. Actually, it's near the low point. But then again, there had to be a low point somewhere.


Rehearsals have become six to midnight affairs, complete with costumes, make-up, and order-in dinners. My make-up is hiding several grotesque hickies -- never have I been more thankful for the miracle of foundation. Opening night is three days away, and I'm already running on fumes after this week's problem set.

In class, we've been learning about covariance. It's the idea that physical laws about the world should stay true even if the coordinates we use to describe the world change: because coordinates are just a label for things, they shouldn't affect the laws themselves. So if I call the location of my bed "2.5, 0" or "-11, -15", it doesn't matter: falling off the bed will still cause me to bang my butt the same way. That idea is surprisingly powerful -- it establishes what form gravity has to take, because only a certain law of gravity is true throughout every coordinate transformation. Gravity has to look this way: everything falls in a straight line on the surface of space-time. Straight lines are the only thing that make sense in every coordinate system. But the trick is that space-time is curved, that time itself gets a little bit warped along with space -- so an object in the world bends time and space toward itself. A ball rolling along in the world is pulled toward other things. But it still goes in a straight line (in the sense that it takes the shortest path) over a curved surface, the way airplanes flying over the earth make big curving arcs to save time, the way a bowling ball weights a mattress down and makes other things slide toward it.

The big joke about relativity is that figuring out in what way an object warps the world is really hard, even if you understand the principles.

I feel like I'm falling through something.

Or being pulled in a straight line along a curved surface, except all of the things that are pulling me are hard to see.

Mariel is no longer dating the other guy; we're not a secret; it makes me happy.

Three days until opening night -- I feel like I can't remember most verses, and none of the dancing is clean, the endings of the words are all sloppy, the intentions of the actors are nebulous --

I don't know how it will go, but I've committed, and that in itself is near-enough.


Writing feels the same to me. Take some objects: at first you don't understand them; you feel them out, play around with them, and get nowhere; somehow you start to see how each object warps the world -- how each person warps other people -- how each line warps the next line -- and then you fall along their gravity. It goes, and mostly the objects themselves pull you through. You don't need to lead.

I don't think I so much finished that semester as survived it.

Sometimes we got off track. Sometimes I was almost locked out of my mind by the anxiety. But balancing, to me, is possible if you're willing to stop planning a little bit. On any given day, the next day doesn't seem possible -- but it has to be possible, because you're being pulled.