Blackboard inscribed with scientific formulae and calculations

Nabla Operator

In 1993 I was accepted into the Applied Physics program at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and in the fall of that year, I began my post-secondary educational journey. It was a co-op program, which sometimes meant job placements during the “normal” school year and studies in the summer. Add to that terrible showings in a few classes (curse you, Electricity & Magnetism 2!) and by the summer of 1996, instead of heading into my fourth year and polishing off my degree as an Astrophysics major with the minimum allowable GPA, I was languishing in the middle of my third-year course load.

Enter Calculus 3.

The year previous, I want to say it was in my Classical Mechanics class, we did a walk-through of Newton’s “invention” of calculus. Newton’s Principia was the culmination of more than 20 years of work and we covered it in three, 3-hour lectures (as our prof pointed out, “He had other things going on, so it took him longer.”) I was a big fan of the class and it pretty much cemented my interest in the field. Little did I know that this would lead me to Calculus 3.

Calc 3 sucked. It melted my brain and was impossibly hard, especially for someone scraping the bottom of the academic barrel. Even those with a lot more mathematical know-how than me found the course a challenge. However, it was a necessary part of the gauntlet an undergrad physics student had to run to get out with a degree.

Dr. Paldus was our prof and he… wasn’t the most engaging professor in the school. Smart? I’m sure of it. Thoroughly knowledgable in all things calculus? No doubt. Teacher of the year? Not quite. He wrote a mile a minute and filled up the chalkboard so quickly you had to scramble to take notes before he erased it. He also mostly kept his back to the class and spoke straight into the chalkboard, mumbling with his thick Czech accent.

No one could understand a damn thing, so we’d scribble down the equations when he eventually stepped out of the way and then review them after.

As a result, a small group of us took a casual approach to the class itself and play euchre in Waterloo Park before class, have some food, enjoy the local flora and fauna (especially the flora), and meander in (on time) relaxed and ready to write down equations with our bellies full and our hands nimble from the card playing.

In one class early on, Dr. Paldus started putting extraordinary emphasis on one particular phrase. He’d be writing at near-light speed, mumbling into the chalkboard, and then every now and then would yell, “Nablaoperator!”

No one would know what in the ever-living hell he was talking about because his body would block whatever symbol it was he just drew. He assumed we would know what the hell this was, but it had even the class smartypants stumped.

Keep in mind, this was before the internet had anything useful on it (it was mostly just slow-to-load porn and not even close to real-time sports scores), so a Google search wasn’t possible. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks were where we found answers and this is where one savvy investigator in the glass figured out that “Nablaoperator” was actually two words “Nabla operator” and that his was another word for the “del operator”, or to put it in lay terms, an upside-down triangle.

So whenever he yelled “Nabla Operator” that’s what he drew, and he clearly thought it was important enough to yell it at the top of his lungs. Because he did this whilst blocking our view, no one knew what he was writing until way later and there was all this other shit on the board.

Now, all of us studying astrophysics had to take Calc 3 with Paldus. Given that most astrophysics was just complicated fancy math this is not a surprise. It was also not a surprise that all the astro students shared more than that one class together. Suffice it to say, that after a few lectures the lore of the “Nabla operator” had grown and was being discussed by many in the physics building.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there used to be this wholesale food store not too far from the school called Knob Hill Farms. It was like Costco before there was Costco but from what I can tell it was only for food.

Their logo was this steer-looking thing with a maple leaf on top:

Why do you care about this? Well, I’ll tell ya.

One day I walk into my Astro 4 class (taught by the excellent Dr. Gretchen Harris, who faced the class to talk and didn’t yell random mathematical operators at us), and one of my classmates had this drawn on the chalkboard:

Postscript:

I received a scholarship out of high school. It wasn’t much, $500 per term, but it was something. The conditions of maintaining the scholarship were simple: achieve an overall average of 75% with no core physics classes under that percentage. At the end of my first term, my overall average was 74.8% – and they took away my scholarship (I guess rounding up 0.2% wasn’t a thing when big bucks were involved.)

In my second year, when it became clear that first-year marks in the mid-seventies were not a strong enough foundation to excel in my field, I went to my undergrad advisor, Dr. Brandon, and asked him for his thoughts. He told me to quit. “Science, and in particular physics, is not for you. Reconsider your choices.”

I said, “I’ll take this under advisement. Thank you.”

Well, I was 20, full of piss and vinegar and not a hint of self-awareness, so I promptly declared astrophysics as my major.

Fast forward to the summer of 1997. It was a year after the dreaded Calc 3 debacle (which I passed, but only barely). I was taking one class at that time and working two part-time jobs. As I registered for my last full-time semester and started picking my classes I wondered what the hell I was going to do with an astrophysics degree.

As mentioned, I wasn’t in the top 5% of my class (more like the top 95%) but I didn’t feel too bad about it because being in the bottom 5% of an astrophysics program still had me in some pretty good company (I’m only as dim as some far-off galaxy when compared to some people with pretty big brains.) Nevertheless, a future in the field wasn’t looking good.

Enter this third-party travel medical insurance company based in Richmond, Virginia, with its Canadian headquarters in town. A fellow struggling physics student friend of mine (who a little more than a decade later would sell his company to RIM for a dump truck full of money) worked in the call centre there and noticed they were hiring junior programmers. He knew I could program a little and suggested I apply. So I did.

It turns out that the hiring manager was a graduate of the University of Waterloo and saw my resume and that I was a soon-to-be grad and he brought me in for an interview. The interview went really well. I was honest with him and said that if I got the job I would not be continuing with my honours astrophysics degree and would instead pull my registration and fill out an intent to graduate form for a general bachelor of science. Since I wouldn’t be doing much astronomy in my day-to-day he was cool with that.

A couple of weeks later he called and told me I got the job. I officially started my first career and I didn’t even have a piece of paper from my school – yet. Life was grand.

I started filling out the intent to graduate form. I double-checked all my compulsory credits. Everything there was good. I double-checked all my elective credits. Everything was good there, too. Then, I get to the confirmation of my overall average portion of the form. It wasn’t very high, but I failed a couple of classes, positively tanked several others, and beyond my first year only had a few really good marks.

I checked my transcript, logged into my account and checked it on the computer, and called the registrar’s office and had them verbally confirm the number for me.

Turns out I was getting a bachelor of science from the University of Waterloo with 0.1% to spare.

Take that, Dr. Brandon.

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