Science Complex Observations

Willamette Hall seems to be the only place in the UO science complex where conversing casually doesn’t carry a fine. The silence in all the long halls and labs and the library in the complex are broken only by the rustle of papers or the groan of a fatigued student. So, Willamette Hall, in all of its bizarre grandeur, seems like the place to be. The huge concrete square in the middle of the hall is largely vacant. Occasionally a disheveled professor or graduate student, lost in thought, breezes through the hall, papers in hand.

All the people in the hall are concentrated along the walls, either in little clumps or enjoying their solitude. Sometimes a loud noise comes from one of the halls that lead into the Hall, and it echoes deeply. There is a strange, musty artificial wind moving through the hall. The whole place smells faintly of microwaved Italian food. A singe-file parade of about 20 sixth-graders skip by and out the doors with two graduate students in tow. The students look tired.

When the kids leave, the only people with noises coming out of their mouths are a kind-looking older man (presumably a professor) with white hair in a ring around his head and a younger man (presumably a student) with a 5-o’clock shadow. There are sitting across from each other at a table next to one of the exits. There are many graphs and lists and technical documents scattered around on the tabletop. The professor is doing most of the talking. He is calm and complementary. The student seems pleased.

“You’re making a lot of progress…I think if you change the visibility of…And you’re talking about open air, which makes diffusion easier…What were they thinking?”

After a few minutes, these men pack up and leave. Nearby, there two particularly talkative 20-somethings set up at a coffee table. They are wearing colorful t-shirts, talking and drinking their coffee enthusiastically

“I don’t like iced tea, I like animals much better…Mechanisms of what? That is like, so broad!”

Unfortunately, like everyone else in the hall, these two are wisely talking softly, and much of their conversation is inaudible. Time to move to the physics reading room. Though it is in the main part of Willamette Hall, it is walled off, so conversation is much louder. Inside it feels hot and clean. The lights are bright, and it smells like Lysol. There are 15 students sitting around a long table doing physics homework together. One of the more studious kids has a shirt that says, “It is what it is…or is it?” All of them have their books propped up in nice metal holders. They seem like they’ve been here a while. They are articulate and testy. At first, conversation is focused on the homework. They are all talk sporadically.

“How many digits?”

“Twenty microns.”

“Yeah, but that’s not factorial—those are just approximations.”

“What’s ‘something that becomes magnetized’?”

“Did they derive the third E-equation?” “No.” “NICE!”

“The equations have been brutal lately.” “Such is life.”

“Dude, that means that cobalt is 150% more magnetic than aluminum.”

“Where’s iron, why’s it so f***ing…ooooohhhh.”

“That’s so f***ing cool! I don’t get how these cancel, though.”

Gradually tensions build up between two students, and things come to a head.

“You’re a prick. This is the physics reading room, not the [student’s name] room. He just asked a question and then you said, ‘well I have a question.’”

There are lots of angry stares. After a minute they get back to the books.

“Two pi times 500 equals WHAT?”

“Those are a LOT of asterisks.”

“I keep skipping that one and then getting to the end of the problem and it’s like, f***.”

One of them begins to tell a story: “I had taken that class the year before and failed it, so I came into class pretending like I hadn’t, and I was like, ‘Oh, you just gotta isolate the variable.’ I felt like such a rock star.”

At this point, focus on homework is almost completely dropped. They begin simply riffing off of discussions they had had in class that day.

“She said, ‘No terrorists in the basement.’”

“Do we want terrorists anywhere in the building?”

“No, but it’s only when they get to the roof that they start to f*** s*** up.”

Topic of discussion then turns to money. One of the students wants another to pay him back for something.

“Give it up.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“You have zero moneys?”

“I can tell you exactly how much money I have in my two bank accounts right now.”

“Okay, let’s hear it.”

“98 cents, and, oh wait, that’s a lot—HA!”

The rest of the students grumble about them being distracting, and everybody suddenly becomes moody and studious. The conversation is over. One of them washes his dishes in the sink and then leaves.

–Ben Stone

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