Tony’s Wonderful Question
Subtitle: What might happen when you take a little information and think deeply about it
For those who haven’t read about Tony on the website, he’s my son, he’s severely dyslexic, he finished college and got his MA, and he has always asked the most wonderful questions.
When Tony was in fifth grade he often asked about my 8th grade science class. I explained a problem I had asked my class. “A train goes west at 50 miles per hour. A man on the train walk east at 4 miles per hour. An ant walks west at 1 mile per hour. How fast is the ant going?”
The textbook wanted the answer 47 mph. But I told the class and I told Tony that speed is always relative to something. The ant goes 1 mph relative to the hat. It goes 3 mph relative to the train. It goes 47 mph relative to the earth. Tony, unlike most of my students, understood quickly.
Several weeks passed. One day I got home to find Tony at the kitchen table starting at an apple. “Mom,” he asked …
“How fast is an apple?”
“This apple?” I asked. “Doesn’t look to me like it’s going anywhere.” “Think about it, Mom! Really think about it.”
Now I felt stupid. I had no idea what Tony was thinking. Finally, a flash of inspiration. Tony knew the apple was moving at the same speed as the earth and wanted to figure it out how fast it was going. We worked together. Since the circumference of the earth is roughly 24,000 miles and the earth rotates in 24 hours, the math was easy. The apple and the earth below our feet was going about 1,000 mph.
What makes a ten-year-old ask a question like this? But Tony wasn’t finished. From time to time, he added information to our answer.
“Mom, think about it. The closer the apple is to the equator, the faster it moves. Near the poles, the circle of its rotation is pretty small so it’s moving slowly.”
“Mom, the apple goes faster on top of a mountain, slower in the valleys, and a lot slower at the bottom of the ocean.”
He was in middle school when he amazed us again. “Mom, did you know the apple goes different speeds in the daytime and nighttime? I really couldn’t understand this one, and I was the science teacher. As Tony pointed out, during the day the part of the earth facing the sun is rotating in the same direction as our movement around the sun, so you have to add the speeds, At night, we’re going opposite directions and have to subtract.
This is my Tony who still couldn’t read, who spent his elementary school years as the only kid in the bottom reading group would couldn’t read, and who thought he must be pretty dumb.
He was in high school for the last discovery. “Mom, did you know that the apple goes a different speed depending on which day of the year it is?” Again, I didn’t know. “The earth is farthest from the sun during Summer and Winter (the difference determined by the tilt). When the earth is far from the sun it moves slowly (like a ball that you throw up, just before it begins to fall.) The earth moves faster as it heads back toward the sun (gravity) during Spring and Fall.
The rest of the story is even harder to believe
Because Tony was still barely reading at third grade level in high school, we sent him to a boarding school for dyslexic students during his junior year. He would only agree to this if he could take physics. He planned to take AP Physics his senior year. At the interview, they assured him he could take physics.
The first day of classes was spent taking tests. The next morning Tony got his class schedule. Instead of physics, he was assigned to Marine Biology. This, he described was walking on the beach to see what washed up. He told his teacher he was supposed to be in Physics and was informed that to take physics, he needed at least a fourth grade reading level. Tony talked to the department head, the dean of students, and I’m not sure who else. Even the president of the school wouldn’t make an exception. Tony called us and we called the president. We finally said we didn’t care if Tony failed but we wanted him moved to the physics class. This took two weeks.
I feel pretty certain the physics teacher was warned that Tony was going to have a hard time. The day Tony first walked into this physics class and took a seat, he noticed a rock on the teacher’s desk. The teacher pointed at the rock and asked the class how fast the rock was moving. The other students seem to think this was a pretty dumb question. Finally, Tony raised his hand. “To begin with, he said, motion is relative. The rock isn’t moving at all in relation to the desk or the room or the earth but the earth is moving .This means the apple is moving as fast as the earth and …
I’m sure the teacher learned a lot that day. By the end of the first semester, Tony was one of two students chosen to attend a physics class at Harvard University as part of a program for gifted students. The two students shared physics honors at the end of the year.
Tony did return to his usual school the next year and took AP Physics. College isn’t easy when you still can’t read but he got his degree in physics, a master’s in education and he reached his dream of teaching high school physics. When you work hard and never give up, dreams really can come true.
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