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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

The Junior Spring Line-Up, Part 1: Classes by Anna H. '14

Learning Middle English, sketching constellations, holding meteorites

Last year, my class sizes were on the order of 100, 50, 60, and 20.

This year, my class sizes are roughly 5, 6, 8, 6, and 25.

I’m learning to read and pronounce Middle English, writing pieces on radio astronomy for my Science Writing class, taking field trips to MIT’s Wallace Observatory to look through telescopes and sketch constellations, learning about our solar system, and getting a broad introduction to the universe using quantum physics and thermodynamics.

Three of my professors have Wikipedia pages, and one just published a book. One has a function named after him.

In college, I think it’s important to take classes that are special, in addition to classes that are “useful” – which isn’t to say that useful classes can’t be special. My astrophysics class is, for example, very useful and very special.

But I want to start by introducing a class that isn’t so obviously useful – but is probably one of the most special classes I’m going to take as an undergraduate. Without further ado, I’m taking:

 

21L.460 Medieval Literature: Chaucer

Arthur Bahr. What a man. First of all, his last name is an anagram of h-bar. Second of all, he is officially a “Medievalist”; he is versed in Old English, Latin, Old French, Old Norse, Middle Welsh*, and Greek.

*Did NOT know that that was A Thing.

This semester, he’s teaching a class on Chaucer, as well as a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I didn’t know he was teaching the former, and signed up for the latter along with half of MIT, because how could anyone resist a syllabus that includes Beowulf, The Hobbit, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe?

Before the first class, I went to a Burchard Scholars reception, where I identified Prof. Bahr by his nametag and introduced myself. He told me about his plans for CS Lewis/Tolkien, then about his plans for the Chaucer class.

I was sold. This goes back to what I was saying about taking classes that are “special”: this is a chance to read Medieval texts – significant, milestone-in-western-culture Medieval texts – with a Medievalist. In the original Middle English. If I picked up Troilus and Criseyde without Arthur Bahr to guide me, I wouldn’t get anything out of it. On the other hand, The Hobbit is pretty accessible.

Also, it turns out that Arthur Bahr carries around course materials with him everywhere he goes. “Wait here!” he said, and disappeared to the back of the room. When he returned, he piled a Middle English glossary, a poem by Chaucer in the original Middle English, a translation of the first few hundred lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and a syllabus (written, to my surprise and great relief, in modern English) into my arms.

Woah.

There are six of us in this class, and it is not for the faint-hearted. For each session, we read hundreds of lines of Troilus and Criseyde in the original Middle English. Each class begins with a short quiz, to test our grasp of the language (Middle English grammatical structure is more flexible than modern English grammatical structure, which means that the sentence subject can acquire a lot of distance from the verb. Connecting verbs to subjects can get VERY confusing.) After Troilus and Criseyde, we’re reading the Canterbury Tales, also in Middle English (AHHHHHH SO EXCITING)

My favorite passage from Troilus and Criseyde so far:

“Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so”
(I.22-25)

21W.777 The Science Essay

Personally, I think that every scientist should be forced to take a science writing class. Learning to communicate your work to the layperson is doing a great service not only to your specific field, but to all of science. It speaks volumes that an institution like MIT has a master’s program in Science Writing. The co-director, Seth Mnookin, recently interviewed Nate Silver when he came to MIT. All those pictures Michael has of Nate Silver waving his arms? Seth was a foot away, sitting at the table with him, wearing he same clothes he wore to our class that day.

Seth also teaches my Science Essay class. And has a Wikipedia page.

Anyway, there are five people in this class; we discuss the reading (highlights have included this, this, and this), discuss each other’s writing, or workshop our own pieces. I recently wrote a few pages about radio astronomy, for example, for the “My Science” assignment. That’s because my major is physics, my minor is astronomy, and my research interests are in:

 

8.284 Modern Astrophysics

On the first day of class, Paul Schechter (the professor) said “this may be the first subject for you for which physics is not the subject”. The idea: most of us in that room are physics majors, and are used to taking physics class in which the purpose is for us to learn more physics. In this class, the purpose is for us to learn astronomy: physics is a tool.

Paul Schechter has a function named for him, and has been teaching the class for longer than I’ve known what a function was. Some of the astronomers that I spoke to at the AAS conference took the class with him when they were undergraduates, and went on to become professional astronomers; Prof. Schechter says he sees us all as potential future colleagues.

It’s not a class that you can glean from a textbook; the syllabus says that “no single text covers the material of 8.284. The treatments for each major topic…have been appropriated from a large variety of sources. The following list of texts covers most, but not all, of the material covered in this subject.” A list of 17 textbooks follows.

So far, we’ve covered various coordinate systems (my brain has a REALLY hard time with astronomical coordinate systems), stellar distances, stellar magnitudes, Kepler’s Laws and their application to binary star systems, the mass-luminosity relation, and are launching into stellar structure. Each of our problem sets requires us to write scripts in a programming language of our choice, which I appreciate – one cannot practically hope to become an astronomer (or a physicist) without knowing how to code. This week’s problem set has us solve the Lane-Emden equation for a polytrope of index 3, by coding a 4th order Runge-Kutta method; if that sounds a little scary to you, know that it sounds even scarier to me, because my solution will get graded.

To my delight, my theoretical training in astrophysics is balanced by:

 

12.409 Hands-On Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets

The professor, Amanda Bosh, was an undergrad at MIT. She took this class, with a man we’ll call Mr. Bosh, for reasons I will let you determine. She then went on to TA this class, also as an undergrad, with another physics major in her year: my current UROP supervisor, who (according to Prof. Bosh) currently holds the Fastest Drive Time to Wallace Observatory. When my UROP supervisor took Junior Lab (which I took last semester – a ritual for all MIT physics majors), he was lab partners with Mr. Bosh.

And surprise surprise: Amanda Bosh and Mr. Bosh ended up getting married.

When Prof. Bosh told me all this, we were in the van, driving (very safely) back from Wallace Observatory. It was past midnight, and my brain basically exploded. I still have a hard time getting my head around HOW ADORABLE THAT STORY IS.

And let’s be real: there is something romantic about hands-on astronomy. We drive for about an hour, out of Boston and through the (snowy, this time of year) woods, before pulling into a sideroad that leads to the observatory buildings. Last time, we went inside, got a tour of the facility (THE TELESCOPES ARE SO BEAUTIFUL), then walked out to receive a tour of the sky: all the constellations, with the naked eye and through binoculars. I managed to spot Jupiter’s moons (you can see them with a strong pair of binoculars.) We then sat by ourselves in silence for about an hour, sketching the sky as astronomers have been doing for millennia. After that, we went back inside, made hot chocolate, polished up our sketches, and drove back to MIT.

On the nights we don’t go to Wallace, we go up to the roof and use smaller telescopes. Last week, our reading was about constellation mythology. I talked to Prof. Schechter, and we agreed that if graduate school doesn’t work out, a solid backup plan is to give constellation mythology tours in Grand Central Station, dressed like a Greek muse.

 

12.400 The Solar System

Professor Richard Binzel wears a different astronomy tie to each lecture. He’s also a fantastic lecturer; the subject material isn’t particularly mathematically challenging, but it’s a wonderful survey of planetary science that I wouldn’t have otherwise. He was a guest on the NYTimes a couple of weeks ago, when the meteor hit Siberia.

Last class, he told us about a meteor that was used to determine the age of the solar system: the oldest rock known. He then said “…and here it is!” and seemingly brandished it out of thin air. While the 25 or so of us gaped at him, he unwrapped it carefully, then passed it around the room. It was the same shape as a round loaf of bread when you saw it in half: one flat, smooth edge, and a rough round exterior. The flat face was speckled grey, yellow, and pink: bubbles caused by extremely high temperatures, I think. From the flat rocky side, one would not be able to distinguish it from your average hunk of granite.

I’m busy this semester. My brain and attention is stretched thin, across my classes and dorm politics, across teaching and blogging and research. But it’s of huge help to my sanity that I wake up every morning, excited to attend every single one of my classes.