Nightmares

Didn’t sleep well. Bothered by bad dreams.

In a Holiday Inn in Miami, and they’ve moved a bunch of desk-chairs into one of the rooms, but I’m late for the exam, so I end up with the bed. The exam booklets are handed out–they are spiral bound laminated pages. The proctor is slow to get started, talking on his mobile phone about the filing materials for the Gibraltar IPO. (Not quite a Googlewack, but meaningless, nonetheless.) We were told to get started. I had only a purple pen. We were allowed 136 minutes to complete the exam.

The first problem was fairly simple, though the proctor told me I would have to write any fractions with a horizontal bar rather than a slanted line so that it could be properly OCRed. Between each problem there was a comic book narrative as a bridge to the next one. In the first segment, the superheros fight a group of villains on a far-off planet. One of the superheroes, egomorphic and wearing a blue leotard, leans over and touches the hair of a fallen supervillian, who is beautiful and reminds him of his wife way back on earth. A barrette pricks his finger, which he quickly raises to his mouth. Though he is oblivious, the audience is well aware that he has poisoned himself. The villains all melt away–acid released by their uniforms–and I am presented with the second problem:

Consider a man standing on a point on the Tropic of Cancer during the period from 45 seconds before the exact moment of the vernal equinox to 45 seconds after.

(a) During this period what distance is traveled from the perspective of the center of the earth?

(b) What is the distance between the two points “as the crow flies”?

(c) What is the area between the paths described in (a) and (b)?

(d) What is the the distance travelled from the perspective of the sun?

(e) The distance between the start and end points from that perspective?

(f) The area between the paths from the perspective of the sun?

(g) What is the ratio of the two areas, and what important physical property does it illustrate?

First of all, at least in my dreams, I am amazingly stupid. I forget how to do simple everyday tasks. So even the obvious stuff–remembering the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer or the circumference of the Earth–are elusive. I do the Alice in Wonderland thing and mix up facts: the circumference of the earth is 51,280 miles–no that can’t be right, it sounds too much like feet-in-a-mile, maybe 25,600 miles?–no, then it would be a power of two times 100, and could only be an estimation anyway. Not a big deal, the calculations are actually easier with constants, and I don’t have a calculator to do trig functions on numbers anyway. Forgotten math and geometry abound, and I lie their frustratedly burning through scratch paper.

Eventually I move on, thinking I’ll go back to the problem, but then I realize that I have inadvertently swapped the test booklet for the “Things to do in Miami” booklet.

I awake wholly unrested.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 2/13/2007 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    that is a strange one… i do take exception with the idea that the calculations are easier with constants though.. since the real circumference of the earth is fractaly infinite like the surface area of sand on a beach, but limited in abstraction, the only thing you really have to go on are variables. none of the physics ‘constants’ mentioned above are constant. so all you really need are the definitions for circle and elipse and speed with their requisite formulae.

  2. Posted 2/13/2007 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Your dreams are officially cooler than mine. Although I think this is just a variation of the classic showing-up-for-class-naked nightmare. Except not naked. And in Miami.

  3. alex
    Posted 2/13/2007 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Jeremy: But’s it’s a maths/physics exam, so the earth is a perfect sphere, its orbit is circular, and the Tropic of Cancer is fixed. It’s like that old joke about the physicist who has developed the perfect way to win at the track. “To start, assume the horses are perfect spheres…”

  4. alex
    Posted 2/13/2007 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Ed: You too can have cool nightmares. Just eat more Mexican food.

  5. Posted 2/13/2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, I dreamed of Mexico last night. But it wasn’t a nightmare.

  6. Posted 2/13/2007 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    To continue the thought, I’ve been on a diet. So I’ll almost certainly dream about Mexican food tonight. The nightmare part will start when I wake up and the burrito turns into my cat.

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