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LIFE STORIES Two more semesters of university are done. And I have not only learned about incredible physical phenomena, but also understood what I am doing all this hard work for. Finding a good study-life balance is not easy, but luckily we are not alone in this study and always find someone on the same wavelength.
For some reason, the older you get, the faster time goes by. Week after week, filled with so many tasks and goals, went by and so did Christmas and Easter. And now? Now summer 2023 is almost over and I’m getting back to writing an article for my beloved blog after a year of university life. I am now at the end of the fourth semester and have thus completed half of my bachelor’s degree.
I have learned an insane amount and had so many experiences that I can hardly mention them all individually here. But I can try. And I start at the beginning. At the beginning of semester 3. After a year of university, I thought I knew the drill. How to learn most effectively and get the most out of my student life.
And indeed: MaPhy III (Math for Physicists 3) went like I already knew it. Hours of puzzling over assignments, halfway keeping up in lecture. That was normal. ExPhy III (Experimental Physics 3) was more exciting, at least concerning the topics: quantum physics and thermodynamics. Finally away from the school standards about electrodynamics and mechanics. Only the basic practical course part 2 was again out of the ordinary: new lab partner, more extensive experiments, constant pressure. I already knew at the beginning that this winter semester would cost me a lot of nerves.
Techniques to survive – a different one for each module
I often think about how other students structure their everyday life. I myself sat in front of my laptop almost every day for up to 6 hours and tortured myself through all the assignments. Especially MaPhy tasks are quite difficult. I am not a math genius and have to learn all the techniques and tricks myself with a lot of patience. It’s not like in school, where you get at least two sample problems for each calculation in the math book.
Here the theory is told once in complicated mathematical language, which one must translate then first into high German and understand and then one gets tasks set after the slogan: Think for yourselves, how one must do that. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to complain, not at all! After all, we are at university and are supposed to learn how to think logically and work out solutions on our own.
It’s just hard to spend several more hours in the evening in dreary, cold weather working on tasks that you hope to be able to solve within the next five days. Because every week we had to turn in our solutions. I myself had a few people I handed in with, but we were not a real study group, unfortunately. We sent solutions to each other, but I had to work through them on my own. It was cursed with my social contacts. Because just like in school back then, in the midst of all my ambition, I had somehow missed making real friends among my fellow students.
But this circumstance in turn made me pursue my learning goals even more intensely. For MaPhy, for example, I had worked out a good weekly schedule: All scripts were copied before the lecture (that was a total of about 90 pages for one semester). So I had heard of all the topics before and had a rough overview of what to expect. In the lectures themselves, all blackboard notes were diligently taken down so that I could then work through all the content for myself in the best possible way.
When this was also done, I could finally devote myself to the exercises. Some I could see their calculation path from the beginning, others had to be stared at for days and still make little sense in the end. Luckily there were exercises in which all the tasks were talked through individually. I didn’t miss a single one of these events in the entire semester. ExPhy was similar, if not quite as complicated. Although: Didn’t someone once say that everyone who thought they understood quantum mechanics didn’t understand anything? Anyway.
Quantum mechanics is such a world unto itself. There were some topics I had already read a lot about, so I was confident of keeping up well. At some point the Schrödinger equation came along and my confidence dwindled. But I did not give up. Stubbornly I worked my way through the topics in my quiet chamber – as my old physics teacher would have said now. I knew there was nothing wrong with not understanding things the first or second time through. The professors themselves still claim that it took them years to get through all the topics. But I slowly made progress. And my now four different physics books helped me.
I had always been a quiet student. I didn’t like to often come forward and answer questions or even ask questions of my own. However, the exercise instructor we had that semester always managed to pique my interest and I asked more than one inquiry. I felt insanely comfortable in this exercise group and I learned so much from the discussions my fellow students were having.
Another time I wondered if it wasn’t better to seek out such a discussion and study group as well, but I still couldn’t bring myself to reach out to the others. It seemed like everyone had already gotten together in their groups and I didn’t fit in. I really should work on my social skills! In fact, an opportunity soon arose to do so: For our lab internship, we had to work in teams of two. Since I was on my own until now, I was forced to pair up with someone. So I asked in the WhatsApp group of our year who didn’t have an internship partner yet and that’s how I came across Marc.
I didn’t know what to expect from him, after all, I didn’t know him at all. Especially since I expected a lot from my lab partner, since I wanted to do well in the experiments that were assessed this year. But our collaboration worked surprisingly well. I set the tone, but also let Marc inspire me, and so we both benefited from the situation. I looked forward to the lab days and writing the reports, even though it always caused a lot of work to really write up all the physics background, how we did it, and the results of our experiments.
I still don’t think I’m going to be the best experimenter. After all, I was already unsure of how to operate the simplest equipment. So it hit me especially hard when I had to do just that in the module “Modern Measurement Technology”. I had actually wanted to choose another module, but after one lecture I knew exactly that programming in this other course would overwhelm me, so I had no choice but to devote myself to operating the ELVIS experimental board in modern measurement technology instead.
Fortunately, I had another fellow student to support me during the first weeks, who was at least already a little more familiar with the device. I observed and absorbed all this knowledge. It was the right thing to do, because when it came to the point that we had to develop our own measurement technology project, my experiment partner left me and I had to struggle through the ups and downs of technology on my own once again. To my surprise, everything went well.
I decided to build two light barriers and construct a people counter using the graphical programming program “LabView”. The construction itself was quickly built, only the programming itself cost me nerves and time. Every week, I took the key to the experiment room and tinkered with my project on my own. It paid off: I got the program working and so not only I, but also one of my supervisors was visibly proud of me. It would certainly have been nicer to be able to exchange ideas with a partner, but as so often before, I surprised myself once again by the fact that I was able to overcome seemingly huge problems all by myself.
The stress level rises
So the days and weeks flew by and it became Christmas. Christmas preparations mixed with exam preparations and 2023 arrived. This time, I hadn’t come up with any New Year’s resolutions. If you really want to set goals, you can do it any other time of the year. And that I wanted to do the best I could on my exams, that had always been my goal anyway. Luckily, I only had one exam in MaPhy. In ExPhy there would be an oral exam at the end of semester four and otherwise I only had to write my project report about the light barriers. Nevertheless, it was a lot to do and so I immediately got to work.
I had already started preparing for the math exam before Christmas. As always, I wrote my cheat sheet and brought all possible details from the script on the allowed A4 sheet. So I made myself an overview of the topics and was prepared for everything during the exam. Over the last weeks of lectures, I was already writing additionally on my report, which we had to hand in by the beginning of March. It was fun to be allowed to write something in addition to all the arithmetic, especially since I was allowed to present something I had produced myself.
The semester break was not really worthy of its name, because the first two weeks were completely taken up with math. Even though I was at home, I couldn’t think about anything but university. The ironic thing was that I was so engrossed in preparing for the exam that I missed registering for the math exam. Exactly one day after the registration deadline, I realized my mistake and was annoyed to death. This meant that I would have to write the exam on the second date in mid-April. And I would carry this thought around with me the whole vacation. Unconsciously, an inner tension was building up in me.
I decided to complete the exam preparation as planned anyway. Then I finished the project report and handed it in a few weeks before the deadline. Now I just had to memorize all the physics from semester three for the mock exam in mid-March … And my stress level was slowly but steadily rising. For three or four weeks, I made flashcards for ExPhy III and memorized most of it. It was insanely exhausting, but I had resolved to do as well as possible on the oral mock exam that was offered to us.
When the time came, everything somehow went differently than I had expected. I got tangled up in my topic and in the end didn’t even know what the examiner wanted from me. While I could have answered almost all the questions in the mock exams of the others. But it was what it was. I was very disappointed when I was told that I would have gotten a 2.7 for this exam, but I tried to stay positive. Yes, I felt like I had put so much work and nerves into this preparation for nothing. But I had also learned an insane amount and now knew what I could do better next time.
Now that I had most of the university behind me, it was hard to switch off. I was still putting too much pressure on myself. How did my fellow students manage to cope with the stress? With mixed feelings I boarded the plane to Mombasa on March 19. This year I flew to Kenya with my parents and good friends. This had always been my wish. I had read so much about this country and could hardly wait to see Africa with my own eyes. On the flight, my university thoughts were still circling in my head, but when the plane touched down on the runway, all the tension suddenly fell away from me and I felt light.
It was unbelievable how much stress I had taken on again in the last few months! Now it was time to live. Kenya is an indescribably beautiful country. No one will ever be able to take away the images that have burned themselves into my head. When a whole family of elephants seeks refreshment at the waterhole. When a huge herd of buffalo blocks the way at sunrise. When two male lions lie on their backs like baby cats, completely ignoring the safari vehicle.
This world is so different from the one we know. And it’s not just because of the bright red sand, the impressive animals and the unfamiliar climate. It is mainly because of the people. The poverty of the inhabitants could tear your heart apart. As well as our inability to help these people. I made contact with the animators of our beach hotel, played volleyball and bocce with them, danced through the nights and made good friends. They didn’t have it easy, because they hardly earned any money, but they made the best of their situation and radiated so much joy of life that you couldn’t be anything but happy.
We were shown the nearby town, the school, the market, the dirty apartment buildings. It was dangerous to walk around there as a white man, because it was not for nothing that the rich Kenyans first built a fence around their properties and then the house. But I felt protected by our companions and thus got the unique opportunity to get to know sides of Kenya that otherwise only few whites got to see. I did exactly what I longed for and got to know the world a little bit better. In the process, I was able to be myself.
I celebrated my 20th birthday in Kenya and when I was asked what I wanted for the new year of my life, my answer was: I wanted to finally make more contacts and bury myself less in university tasks. Because that’s exactly what I had done again in the third semester. I had realized that achievements were not the most important thing, because they did not make a person. It was much more the contacts with other people that could enrich one’s life. Yes, I could solve problems on my own, and it was important to practice this. But together it was more fun.
New semester: new hurdles …
However, before I could dedicate myself to this project of expanding my contact list, I first had to get back to reality and pass the math exam. In addition, I had problems with my timetable planning. The moment had come that I had to catch up on the postponed ThePhy module. But unfortunately, this bachelor program was structured in such an unfavorable way that the ThePhy course would have completely overlapped with two other modules. So I inevitably had to postpone it again by a year.
I had a little leeway due to the two semesters I wanted to extend anyway, but it was going to be tight for that long. But if it were easy, I wouldn’t be at the university … I survived the MaPhy exam and started the lecture weeks with a good feeling. Two weeks later I received my exam result: 2.0. I was more than satisfied with that. But even though it was summer semester now and the exams were generally easier to cope with, the next hurdle wasn’t long in coming. Now we suddenly had to form groups of four for our basic lab internship, within which we were to work out a new project.
Once again, my social skills failed me. It seemed as if all the groups had already found each other. What was left was my former lab partner Marc, a friend of his and me. The only group of three, cool! Or was it? I had no idea at that moment what was in store for me, but I saw it as a chance to work more individually. I rejoiced too soon, because lab partner number two turned out to be absolutely no help at all. So Marc and I were doing the group work of four people in alone. And it was a lot of work.
For the first four weeks, the internship was my main occupation, because after getting 91 out of 100 points on my light barrier report, I really wanted to do well on the internship reports as well and thus secure a 1.3 in the composite module. I again reached my breaking point far too quickly, but my ambition paid off once again and I completed four of a total of eight lab reports to the complete satisfaction of our supervisor. Now my lab partners could do whatever they wanted. I had my 1.3 for sure and was very proud of myself. Then I concentrated more on MaPhy and ExPhy. The contents became more difficult from semester to semester.
Stochastics, which we now studied in MaPhy, had a completely different notation and I had to learn it with great effort. But atomic physics also became very exhausting. Those who had never heard of the normal and anomalous Zeeman effect and the core Zeeman effect were very often at a loss in the lectures. And then there were fine structure and hyperfine structure effects. Please send help! Admittedly, these topics turned out to be exciting in retrospect, at least if one accepted that beyond a certain point all imagination for physical phenomena fails, but the strange seeming theories (probably) still apply.
PS: Would it be worthwhile to publish articles about exciting physical phenomena?
… and new friends
I spent a lot of time outside on the small campus lawn, often getting interested looks in return, whether I was studying, reading, or stretching. Whereas I actually studied most of the time and repeated my flashcards from the third semester in addition to my actual tasks. Because if I had already mastered the material from the third semester, I only had to memorize everything from the fourth semester for the oral exam … Of course, it’s hard to stay positive all the time with so much workload that never decreases.
Even if I try to emphasize the positive aspects of learning on this blog, of course there were always phases when I wasn’t feeling well psychologically. After all, I am not a machine, but a human being. My university sports courses – modern jazz dance and volleyball – helped me. Here I met an amazing number of nice people. Especially during volleyball training, I was always surprised by myself, how open I could be in dealing with others. Why did I manage that so badly at university itself?
I made a good friend and got to talk to more people than I had probably talked to in my entire university life so far. Looking forward to these weekly events fueled my motivation and made me more focused on learning when I did learn. It was a difficult, slow process, but I got better at allowing myself breaks as the weeks went on and filling them with nice things. The most beautiful distractions for me are institute parties. I remember the math institute party at the beginning of July very well.
It started out strangely, because my girlfriend (who actually didn’t study math anymore) and I couldn’t find a connection to the other people. Except for my math professor, I hardly saw any familiar faces. It wasn’t until we stood in front of the grill for quite some time that I was approached by a guy, nice but completely unknown to me. We struck up a conversation and suddenly we were in the middle of the math crowd. We played flunkyball (with Spezi, not beer) and even helped clean up because we had such nice company doing it.
Three of us pushed a shopping cart, loaded with impossibly large plates, and had an insane amount of fun. What I didn’t know at the time was that my two shopping cart pushers would both become good friends of mine. And that is how four final weeks of lectures full of adventure started. I attended the Klitschnass Festival from the university sports department and went to the Physics Institute Festival, which was held in the courtyard of our pretty physics building (affectionately known as the “Golden Cage”).
For hours I talked with Erik, whom I had met a week ago at the math festival, and suddenly found myself in a small group of six, as we – armed with a volleyball – searched for the next free playing field. It turned out to be a fun evening, followed by more evenings of volleyball. Erik, Alex and I were a good team of three – not only pushing shopping carts, but also playing volleyball together. One evening we were stuck under a canopy for over an hour waiting for the rain to finally let up. Thus an interesting group constellation arose, as only chance could have created it. And I was happy.
What are we learning for? or: When learning pays off
Right at the beginning of the semester break, I flew to Spain for two weeks on vacation with my best friend. With a rental car, we scoured Andalusia and got to know not only Spain, but also each other in a whole new way. I enjoyed my first vacation without parents, but the fear of the weeks to come wouldn’t quite go away. Back home, the chaos continued. I had 3 weeks to prepare for the upcoming MaPhy exam and the oral ExPhy exam. And there was still so much to do!
Every day I studied for at least 5 hours. That was not so easy to keep up, when there were so many other things to do at home. Now my intensive preparation during the last weeks of the semester paid off. After I had finished my cheat sheet for MaPhy, I could calmly calculate all possible exercises. Whereby “calmly” is to be understood relatively again. At the same time, I had to produce and memorize more than 200 physics flashcards! Often I doubted whether I would be able to finish everything in time.
But the workload was not to remain my biggest problem. Exactly one day before the MaPhy exam I became ill. For 6 months I had been preparing for this day with utmost concentration and then this. Fortunately, my doubts scattered in the wind. I was able to write the exam with sufficient concentration (and am more than satisfied with the result). Coughing, I devoted the very next day to the intensive remaining preparation for my first oral exam. Sick as I was, that was not so easy. I could not speak anything aloud to myself, because I am not only a visual learner, but above all an auditory one.
But I gave it my best shot. After all, I had to be able to talk for 45 minutes about all kinds of topics from thermodynamics, quantum, atomic and particle physics. And my grade would count for 18 out of a total of 180 credit points! By comparison, the MaPhy exam only cost me 6 credit points. A day before the all-important exam, my cold was mostly over and I knew more formulas by heart than ever before in my life. I felt I was ready. Then why wouldn’t this stupid excitement go away?
My nervousness increased to seemingly infinity when a fellow student, who had taken his exam just before me, told me about the difficult questions asked by the two examiners. So I was relieved when it was finally my turn. Now I would get it over with! I talked for 5 minutes about the external photoelectric effect and why you can’t get sunburn from visible light before the actual round of questions began. I confidently answered every question posed to me, surprising again and again with my memorized knowledge. Unlike my professor, I knew the rounded numerical value of the Compton wavelength* and did not fall for his trick questions.
*The Compton wavelength is a characteristic quantity for particles with mass. For the electron it is about 2.4*10^(-12) meters.
I hardly needed any help and felt almost comfortable talking to my two examiners. When I got the result, I still couldn’t believe it: 1.0! Awesome! My professor calmly asked me if I was really surprised by this good result. After all, I had prepared so well. And I answered honestly: Yes. As a student, it is difficult to get recognition for your work, which is why I personally put so much emphasis on the exams. I know that’s not the best attitude, because an exam is always just a snapshot of your current level of knowledge.
Still, it’s an incredible feeling when hours of studying finally pay off. After all, that’s what I’ve been living for these past few months, isn’t it? No, I correct myself inwardly. I live to live and have a good time! Acquiring new knowledge is a big part of that, but it’s not everything. I have learned that within the last year. Now, for example, my job is to give myself a few more wonderful university-free weeks. I’ll deal with the challenges of the fifth semester later.