I finish my first data set in two days. It was probably meant to be done in about two weeks, but come on, that’s been the theme of this research-based course thus far. IDL in four weeks? Four days. Fifty galaxies in two weeks? Two days. It’s incredible how far we’ve come in such a short time, how confidently I can relay to my friends or my parents the intricacies of what the group has been working on. “I can look at a single spectrum of a galaxy,” I tell them, “and estimate—even by eye—how fast it’s rotating and how bright it appears to us. From that I can tell you how far away it is, and from that I can tell you exactly how quickly it’s falling under the gravitational influence of its local galaxy supercluster.”
Sounds glam, right? In reality it’s less so. We’re just the worker bees, buzzing away at our computer keyboards and complaining incessantly about Gaussian fits and smoothing techniques. We haven’t gotten to any of the fun stuff yet. But it’s still real science, and it feels like real science, and my advisor eventually grants me the opportunity to talk via telecon about the real science I’ve been doing, to other coordinators of this project from institutions all over the country. I freeze up sometimes. It’s like speaking another language, but I make through it, and when I speak I sound confident. I leave my ums and uhs in my mouth where they belong.
If that feels like speaking another language, I can’t imagine what my projected study abroad internship will feel like—when I’m having that conversation, constantly, in another language. I haven’t spoken French in two years, and almost a month in my weekly classes and labs are still awkward, stilted. I spend more time searching for words than I do actually speaking, my face flushing redder the longer I stay in self-enforced silence. It’s coming back, but slowly. I listen to French radio and music while I crunch through problem sets for math and physics, doing my best to overload all centers of my brain. I’ll never know my limits if I don’t push the envelope.
That has become my philosophy over the past few months, I think. This is how I relayed it to my roommate this morning: “Now is the time to choose to be uncomfortable, before the choice is forced upon us.”
I want to live up to that more often. I ask questions in my complex analysis class and stay as stone-faced as I can when my older, more experienced classmates cast furtive glances at me. I improvise at top speed during that telecon, practically shutting my eyes and speaking into the dark, my voice coming out clearer than my head is. I get a bee in my bonnet about living in the French immersion house on campus next year, to prepare for studying abroad. I’d need a recommendation letter from a French professor, and I’ve only had mine for three weeks, but I start mentally drafting my request anyway. Someone says, “But there’s so many obligations—you have to cook and hold events and you’re basically obligated to talk to people to practice—” and I tell them yes, that’s the plan, isn’t it? Practice, practice, practice. Sometimes the present is just practice for the future. I used to think to myself that I would be the best at what I do if it killed me, but now I know it won’t. Not as long as I’m ready for it. ♦