Home » Fall 2015 » Thoughts on the Spherical Cow

Thoughts on the Spherical Cow

Kate Brouns

Disclaimer: Please pardon if the forthcoming post sounds more diary-esque than blog-esque. I thought a thought and wanted to share. Also, I shall be representing my emotional state with a special-edition series of pug photos I took in Shekhawati.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in India is, well, trying to learn. I’ve become accustomed to (AKA dependent on) the teaching style of my high school teachers and my Hamilton professors. Lectures are outlined, made into a PowerPoint, distributed on handouts, and spoon-fed to students in a logical fashion. As a result, I take structured, sequential, and factual notes. But on our India program, we have encountered a wholly new type of teaching style that has left me, the mathematical and compulsive organizer, flailing. Lectures here are based on storytelling; they are tangential and poetic and metaphorical and allegorical. I know how to write “A, therefore B, if and only if C.” Here, my lecture notes have become “sunshine flower swastika Sikh temple cow.” This certainly isn’t what learning should feel like… right?

Somebody help me out here

Somebody help me out here

 

Which brings me to the spherical cow. As a physics student, sample computational problems often look like: “There is a cow sliding down an inclined plane at a 25 degree angle. Assume the surface is frictionless. If the plane’s surface is 1 km long and the cow starts at the top, at what time will the cow hit the ground?” I’m probably missing a bunch of details in this problem (#holla at me now being a physics minor, not a major), but you get the gist. To start finding the solution, the professor typically adds, “Assume this is a spherical cow in a vacuum.” I mean, duh. Because if our cow was a normal shape and not in a vacuum, lord knows we’d have to account for the air resistance and its hooves and its now wicked tricky center of balance, and HELP US ALL if that incline plane suddenly weren’t frictionless!! The problem would be so complicated, we’d all bail after day one. Thus, our spherical cow makes life solvable and the answer to the problem is a very neat number.

Yes

Yes

 

I live my physics career by the spherical cow. I live my math career by the spherical cow. I live my academic career by the spherical cow. For heavens sake, I worship that spherical cow. I love formulas and I love logic and if I ask a question, gosh darn it I want one and only one answer, and I want it to be pretty. I want my planner to be neat, I want my schedule to be fixed, and when I hear lectures in India, I want to be told the hard and cold facts (preferably with a timeline and a vocabulary sheet and a pretty chart). Unfortunately, India has decided to teach me a lesson: spherical cows sadly do not exist.

No

No

 

Each lecture is winding and tangential, because that is reality. India’s diversity of religions and peoples and climates and myths and colors isn’t chartable or logical. There are exceptions to everything. Gosh, you can’t even define Hinduism itself! There are so many facets to every statement that each fact must be qualified. “Many women get married at age … well, actually some do and some don’t.” “If you see a man with an image of a God or Goddess above his shop, he probably worships … well, actually he could worship a number of things.” This is so hard for me to logically take notes on, but that’s because it is true.

Of course, I am still grieving the death of my spherical cow. My sweet, orderly, logical spherical cow with no exceptions, ifs, ands, or buts. Yet I’m hopeful that as I come to accept India’s multilayered and endless intricacies, I’ll find a colorful reality more beautiful than the black-and-white (cows, get it?) one I’ve come to love. And besides, if I’m ever feeling lost, I’ve got more non-spherical cows here than I know what to do with.

This post was originally published here.

 

Kate Brouns

Kate Brouns

Kate Brouns is a junior at Hamilton College pursuing a major in Mathematics and minors in Physics and Comparative Literature. Outside of her studies, she sings in a co-ed a cappella group (the Hamiltones), performs in the College Choir, and works as a tutor in the writing center. She hails from Portland, Oregon and spends her time on the West Coast long-distance backpacking and petting her beloved pet Keeshond, Phoebe.


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