It’s about twenty minutes into my PS11 class when Professor Anderson suddenly stops talking. The topic for this morning lecture is energy, and so far we’ve discussed various categories of energy, ranging from electromagnetic to kinetic. But just after Anderson finishes up his discussion of transferring energy from the macroscopic to microscopic realms, he pauses before asking, “I haven’t really defined energy yet, have I?” It’s an amusing revelation at first, until he follows up with a surprising statement: energy itself has no strict definition. As Anderson goes on to explain, even Richard Feynman, one of the most celebrated modern physicists, admitted that energy “is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete,” but somehow always manages to obey some strange fact that it never changes in numerical value no matter through what process nature tries to transform it.
Several months ago, at the start of my freshman year, the discussion such as the one above might have frustrated me. As someone who wants to pursue science and loves learning about why certain phenomena occur the way they do, it can be an unsettling feeling when even a great Harvard scientist tells his class that some of the most fundamental concepts (concepts that we as students often take for granted or do complex analyses and calculations on without fully understanding them) are not entirely understood. Outside of just adjusting to the complex and more fast-paced nature of college science courses, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my classes this year is learning to be comfortable with the unknown. In high school, what with the focus sometimes on perfect AP scores, it was often easy to approach the material in my science classes as a sort of checklist, that by covering x, y, and z topic, you can assume that you understand the content well. Whether it was biology or physics, the standard model for learning was to review lectures, do as many practice problems as you could, take the test, and then move on to the next topic.
And while that model is obviously still similar to that of college science courses, what Harvard, and college in general, has shown me is that paradoxically, the more in-depth you wish to learn a subject, sometimes the more you realize how little you actually know. You realize that for all the difficult calculations that are performed in your physics class, sometimes the seemingly “basic” ideas can be unclear because physicists themselves do not understand them in concrete ways quite yet. You realize that in order to understand how a certain drug precisely works in a biological system requires a deeper understanding of chemical and physical principles and a realization that to understand one field in depth often requires understanding other, related fields in great detail as well. You realize that even your amazing, established professors don’t have all the answers sometimes because the scientific questions are actually a lot more complex than they seem.
And while that can be a slightly unsettling feeling at times, this realization that you’re not going to learn everything there is to know about the subject from just one class, it can be liberating as well. Instead of being frustrated about not knowing every concept in great detail, I’ve learned to approach my classes from the mindset of just taking in as much information as I can and trying to understand it in as much depth as possible given what we know at this time. After all, it’s not the concepts we do know, but rather the realization of how much we don’t understand and of how many unsolved, interesting questions there are still out there that pushes science forward and makes it so exciting in the first place.