The Poetry of Physics



The Poetry of Physics


I never imagined I would teach physics. I was a woman of words, not science. In my senior year in high school in 1967, I elected to take a “creative writing” class instead of the suggested physics course, and I majored in English my first two years of college.

After getting married and with a move to upstate New York, I ended up a biology major. Later, in Michigan, I went on to get a master’s degree and a teaching credential.

Almost twenty years later, living in California, I decided to get a full-time teaching position when my daughters were in high school. Fortunately, science teachers were in high demand, and I reentered the classroom in 1993.

The caveat was that in addition to biology, I also had to teach physical science to the eighth graders. A minor glitch. No problem, I thought. My husband is a physicist.

Carl tried explaining basic concepts to me as we went from Newton’s Laws to Einstein’s theory of relativity. I realized I was a neophyte in this realm –– I didn’t even know the difference between the two ends of a battery.

Each new chapter of my first year of teaching physics was a revelation. Although Carl was happy to tutor me, he eventually got frustrated with my questions.
            “I understand inertia,” I said, “how something in motion will stay in motion, but I don’t understand why?”

“Betty, it is a law of physics – some things are observed in the natural world, and there is no why!” He gave me example after example – the person in a car hitting the windshield when the brakes are put on too hard, the feeling of being pushed backwards when someone steps on the gas, the dishes that stay on the table when a tablecloth is pulled away quickly . . .

But I was confused, frustrated, and hopelessly lost, kicking myself for not taking physics in high school. Eventually, I enrolled in an online physics class through UC Berkeley, continued to attend workshops, and reread my textbook every night. I was determined to conquer the basic concepts, one step ahead of my students.

For a subject that was once anathema, I grew to enjoy the logic, the “aha” moments, and the poetry of the physical world. l marveled at how a battery worked, the beauty of chemical compounds and the magic in atomic theory.

The silver lining of teaching physics was that the labs were so much fun. We made roller coasters out of pipe insulation and marbles, electric circuits with lemons, and heated sugar in test tubes, which made the classroom smell like charred marshmallows. Kids from all over the school followed the scent to my room, drooling for Smores. 

In 2007 I decided to have my students make mousetrap cars for their quarter project. The challenge was to make a lightweight frame, put wheels on it, with a standard mousetrap mounted on top, extend the lever arm of the trap, tie a string to the lever and wind it back on the front axle. The mousetrap would provide the sole energy for the car to move. When the mousetrap lever arm “snapped,” the string would unwind from the front wheel axle and propel the car forward. Many science concepts were embedded in this project, from Newton’s Laws to kinetic energy.

When I announced this assignment the first time, my boy students clapped and yahooed, while most of the girls sat silent. I think they were intimidated by the word “car” or “axle,” vocabulary they may have associated with boys’ interests and with which they had no experience. Times were changing, but the girls still shied away from physics concepts and hoped their fathers, brothers or uncles would help them build the car. 

One year, I had a girl who took on this challenge with zest. She showed up each lunchtime with a friend to test out her car and asked lots of questions.

“Hey, Mrs. Naegele, what do you think of my car?”

“It looks great, Emily!” That design is pretty clever! Did you get any help at home?”

She laughed, “You think I couldn’t do this without my parents? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No, not at all,” I said, “just asking.”

Emily continued, “I looked online and found some good ideas, and I think I have it figured out. My parents took me to the store to get some of the supplies, but that’s all.”

“Good for you! But please ask me if you get stuck on anything.”

I always had a group of boys who were eager to have the fastest car and worked on their inventions at recess and lunch. When Emily and her friends came into the classroom to test-run theirs, her car impressed me once again. The boys also took notice. Emily was artistic, so she had painted her car’s name with swirls of pink and yellow. Her confidence was infectious, and she now had a cadre of girls rooting for her car and asking for advice.

Emily named her car “Poetry in Motion,” which also described the energy of my classroom that day with the eclectic group of mousetrap cars attempting to reach the finish line – some in slow motion, some with fits and starts, some quick and efficient. Cars decorated with racing stripes, crazy names, and funny ornaments made the room dance in a kaleidoscope of color. Later, the students gave reports on how their cars worked using the physical principles they had been taught. Seeing a glimmer of “I get it now” in their eyes made me catch my breath.

When it came time for the final competition, one team of boys won the grand prize, but Emily’s car came in second. The smile on her face matched mine – we had a lot more in common than she realized.


Betty Naegele Gundred


Betty Naegele Gundred has enjoyed writing since high school when she was editor of her school’s literary magazine, though she taught middle school science for twenty years. She received her B.S. from Cornell University and her M.S. from Michigan State. Her work has appeared in publications such as Current, The Heron’s Nest, Frogpond, Last Leaves, Months to Years, Orchards Poetry Journal, and Open Door Magazine. Her chapbook, Aperture, is scheduled for publication by Kelsay Books in early 2023. Betty lives with her husband in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California and enjoys Zumba, hiking, and photography. 

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