Monday, February 03, 2014

Monday Morning Stories With Mookie - Episode 103

The Time Mookie Went To The Physics Olympics

Do you ever have times where you recall a situation from many years ago that you more-or-less had forgotten about, but at the time it happened it made you so angry?  So angry in fact - that you almost get a little mad about it now when you remember it?  This story is about one of those situations.

About a week or so ago I was having a conversation with my kids on the way home from school. They often like to ask me things about what I did when I was younger, and what sorts of activities I was involved in. The topic of "science" came up, and immediately recalled that I once participated in the "Physics Olympics" in high school. Once I uttered the words "physics olympics," I felt a feeling of bitterness come over me as my brain flashed back to that sad and sorry day. What happened? Let me tell you.

Back in high school I took a year of "Physics." I was good at it, and most-of-all....I "got" it. I tried my hand at chemistry and about flunked out of it because I couldn't do the math involved. But somehow..I understood the math when it came to physics. Half-way through the year, the teacher announced that our class would be participating in the "Physics Olympics." It was going to be held at a near-by community college, and would be attended by physics students all over the state. We were given a list of various "events" that would be held at the Olympics, and we were told to pair up up with a partner and choose one event to compete in. My pal "Rick*" and I studied the list and decided that we needed to do the "soda straw arm" event.

The basis of the event was that we had to build a structure with a protruding arm - out of restaurant drinking straws and straight pins. Once it was completed, weight (in the form of heavy washers) was gradually applied to the end of the arm until it eventually collapsed. The team who had the structure that held the most weight before it collapsed won the event.

We were allowed a specific number of straws and pins - which could NOT be creased or bent, and the straws could only be pinned together at the ends. This device had to be completed on-site in a given time (I think it was 30 min), and you could not follow any previously created documentation or instructions. You had to do it from memory. Upon the completion of the construction time, the devices were all tested one by one - in front of everyone - to see how much weight it could hold.

In preparation for the event, we "borrowed" a few bags of straws from my employer (Hardee's), got some straight pins from one of our Moms, and we spent many nights working on and devising a contraption that could hold substantial weight. We built and tested device after device until we thought we had something that was a winner. Once we were positive we were building the strongest device we could, we practiced building this thing over and over again so we knew what to do in the heat of competition. We each had our own "jobs," and were responsible for the various parts of the device. We could have built this thing in our sleep if we had to. The night before the event, we were pretty confident we were going to win.

The day of the event arrived, and everyone in the class was excited to represent our school in their chosen events. There were some pretty cool events - one of my favorites was where the participants had to reflect and bounce a laser beam through an obstacle course using a number of mirrors in the shortest amount of time using math to set up their mirror trajectory before the laser was even on.

Rick and I were finally called to the Straw Construction area, and we were ready to play. When they announced our 30 minutes was starting, we took off. After 30 minutes of building, pinning, and inserting straws into one another - we had completed our device. Not only were we confident this thing was going to work, but we were even more confident because the straws we were using were even more sturdy than the crap-ass Hardee's ones we had practiced with.

As some of the first few participants were lining up to get their device tested, and you could tell from the get-go that some of them weren't going to go far. We watched as the judge placed the washers one by one on the hook (a bent paper clip) that was built into the end of the straw arm, and watched them tumble after 2 or 3 washers. Then there were one or two where you could tell that the participants had practiced like us. They were getting up to five, six, and then 7 washers. Again, I mention that the judge was placing them on the hooks of those respective devices.

Then it was our turn.

We placed our device in front of the judge, and he began putting on the washers. He placed the first one, and then we noticed with the second washer - he kind of dropped it onto the hook. He didn't set it nice and easy onto the hook - he was letting gravity have a little more influence in the force being applied. Then he proceeded to do the same to the third, fourth and fifth washers. Each time he did this, you could see the stress being put on the straws, and at all of their connected fulcrums. The arm would BOUNCE at each added dropped weight he added to it.  One of us went "Um hey...that's not fair - you are dropping the washers onto the hook!" The judge looked at us and said that he was doing it "correctly."

I don't have to tell you want happened on the next washer - but I will.  That son-of-bitch dropped the washer onto the hook again - and the whole damn thing came toppling down. We protested but it was like no one cared. The team that beat us - one of the teams where the judge was placing the washers on the hook all nice and soft-like - beat us by two washers. I should mention too that the judge did not continue with his weight dropping technique on anyone else either after we were dismissed.

We left the event dis-gust-ed. When we told our teachers about what happened, they seemed mildly concerned but thought we were being a bit too dramatic and competitive about it. One person even told us that the event was more about learning and having fun with physics than it was about winning.

Bullshit. We came to play - and everyone knew it. And we got cheated. Where is the fun in that? Was it an "inside job" or some conspiracy to get some other team to win? Did someone realize we were a bit cocky with our "In it to win it" attitude, and felt the need to take us down a few notches? I don't know. All I know is that Rick and I should have won, and that's that.

Looking back, I can laugh a little bit about it now - but I can still feel a bit of the frustration that High School Mookie felt that day. I can also say that those teachers were right - I did learn something from the event. Well - I already knew it, but it sure did help strengthen up the fact in my mind:
Life isn't fair.

It isn't, and that sucks.

Have a good day. I hope nobody "drops the weights" on your efforts today.

(*) - Names changed to protect the guilty/innocent/cheated

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