In grad school, I had—we all had—the most boring professor on the planet: Dr. Greene (the extra ‘e’ did not help). He taught the graduate seminar in theoretical mechanics, and through this course was the derision of almost all the physics student body. “If he were slightly less irrelevant,” people would say, “he might be able to teach classical mechanics.” For those not steeped in the ways of the upper echelon of physics education, graduate level classical mechanics is generally considered of little value: a course of little practical interest—as measured in a field where little has much practical interest. In fact, few physics programs require it any more. It is a wanker course, and that made Dr. Greene a third-degree wanker: the teacher of a course that built on a wanker course.
Dr. Greene had a religious reverence for the Lagrangian—which, although sounding like a runny French cheese, is in fact, just a system’s kinetic energy minus its potential energy. This is all very “first term graduate school” of course—even upper division undergraduate. Dr. Greene took the concept to new levels, however—fascinated, as he was, endlessly, with its quirks, especially as applied to General Relativity.
In his mid-50s, Dr. Greene had the same excitement one sees in high school nerds who are (by definition) so excited by their interests—be they role-playing games or rocket building—that they don’t realize how uncool they and their interests are. Greene would approach hyperventilation during his more “exciting” derivations and qualitative lectures. This made us ridicule him all the more.
We were aware, of course, that most people would find our interests boring. We had all been labeled the same way. Part of our ridicule of Dr. Greene came from our own positions as second-tier nerds. We needed to find someone worse than us—as if life were graded on a curve. “Sure I killed my wife, but look at that guy: he killed his kids too!” As a result, I can give us all a little slack: we were young and insecure. But there was a much more important issue at work.
Over the years, it gradually dawned on me that Dr. Greene was not boring. But he had some very boring students. His fascination with obscure topics in mathematical physics was justified; we were just too boring to see it. In the final analysis, Greene was the winner—he was happy tinkering around under the hood of the Lagrangian, whether without company or with (and I’m sure he had the occasional companion). We were the ones who wasted thirty hours during which we could have been enthralled.
I am not like Dr. Greene in that he was a specialist and I am a generalist; my passions are promiscuous: thin and broad. However, we share the same excitement about things we really should know are boring. But I am happy that way, and I’m sure he was too. I know there are boring things in the world: people who can’t share my fascinations. But even they’re pretty interesting in that fact; don’t you think?