The very best physics lesson I had was given to me by my father when I was ten years old. It was a lesson he had no idea he was teaching.
We were camping in Algonquin Park. We weren’t at our usual family campsite at Pog Lake. Instead, we were at a different site that I can’t remember the name of. I can’t remember who was with us, either. All I know is that my father and I were there. And his car.
It was an old, blue station wagon. A Malibu Classic. No air conditioning. Windows that needed to be rolled down by hand. There was a radio, but it didn’t work.
We were on our way back from picking up wood for the fire. We had to buy it instead of cutting down our own tree.
As we pulled into our campground, I had an idea. I had spent most of the morning climbing up and sliding down a massive hundred-foot rock face. I had had to dodge trees on the descent. I had had to cover my face so branches wouldn’t poke out my eyes. I had ripped my pants. And I was ready to take my adventure to the next level.
“Dad,” I said, “can I jump out the back of the car?”
My father didn’t appear surprised by the question. If anything, he looked worried that he knew he was going to let me. But, first, he had a few questions of his own.
“Why do you want to to that?” he asked.
“They do it on TV.” For a ten year old, that’s a pretty good argument.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
“I won’t know until I try.” Again, a good argument.
“What will your mother think?”
Ah, there it was, I thought. He often brought me back to my senses (or tried to) with mentioning my mother. But he had done it enough times that I knew a decent reply.
“We don’t have to tell her,” I said.
He smirked. I smiled. We both knew he was going to let me.
He stopped the car and undid the latch at the back. The window went up and the door went down. I climbed up on top of it and let my feet dangle over the edge.
“You sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“I’ll be fine.” I had no idea if I would or not.
“I’m going to drive slow,” he said.
I didn’t mind.
He got back into the car and started driving. I couldn’t tell if he was going slow or not. I heard the tires crackle as they ran over rocks. I saw some of those rocks spit out onto the road behind.
“You sure about this?” he called to me from the driver’s seat.
I don’t know if I answered. I was too busy looking at the dirt road pass by underneath my feet. The car hit a bump and jerked upward. I moved further toward the edge.
I may have counted to three. I may have just jumped. Either way, once I was out of the car I felt like I was flying. A very brief flight.
I hit the ground.
To my surprise, I kept moving in the direction of the car even though I had thrown myself away from it. I fell onto my back and rolled. Once, twice, three times. Then I came to a stop, splayed out in the dirt.
My father stopped the car and came out to check on me.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. It wasn’t a very loud reply because I was too busy thinking about what had just happened. I jumped one way, but was pulled another. It was different than I had seen on television shows. Then again, they usually jumped out the side of cars, not the back.
“You all right?” he asked again.
“Yeah,” I said, louder.
He brushed off my shirt and helped me sit up.
“I want to try it again,” I said. There was more I needed to figure out about it.
He laughed. “Not today. We’ve got to get back.”
I didn’t bother arguing.
We got into the car and drove back to the campsite. That’s all I remember. I have no idea if I told my mother. I don’t know if I asked him later if we could try once more. All I knew was that something unexpected had happened: because of the movement of the car, I hadn’t gone in the direction I had expected.
That was the best lesson in Physics I had ever had.