That B*tch : Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics (thermo for short) was a course I took in my sophomore year in college. I made zero inquiries about the course beforehand. So I had just two things in my mental arsenal in my first thermo class: basic SAT physics and whatever I had left from my secondary school.

A few minutes into the class when the camaraderie with friends phase expired, our professor walked in and everyone adjusted to the current reality. Merhabaler (Hello), he said. A few words of introduction and off he went. His name was Prof Abdullah Ulaş. A man whom legends had it that he situated his house between a turbine and an industrial compressor. His love for thermo knew no bounds. A smart man he was. He was on the other side of the class some twenty two years ago and graduated tops. Confidence (or cockiness if you may) was expected. Those unverified legends also opined that the sole purpose of his employment was to keep the class average colloquially termed ‘curve’ at a minimum. His exam questions could be spotted from a distance by their complexity. He had built a reputation around those killer questions. And nothing was going to stop that. Not even two hundred and sixty six second year mechanical engineering students.

So thermodynamics was meant to span the entire session. Thermo 1 in the fall semester and thermo 2 in spring. Thermo began on full throttle as expected. Sadly, the SAT/ high school knowledge expired after second week at best. I was in no-man’s land from week 3. As the weeks eased in, names like polytropic processes and steady-state devices began to surface. With little effort, I was able to get the hang of it. Common, everybody (okay, maybe not everybody) understands that the power generated by a turbine is the product of the difference of enthalpies and the mass flow rate of water or whatever fluid is used to drive it. (Ignoring kinetic and potential energy changes of course).

Sadly, these good days did not last for too long. Things began spiraling out of control when we began Entropy. As its definition suggested, it left my head in complete disarray. There were so many ways in which one’s mind could be messed up. And that was exactly what happened to me. On the bright side though, it was the last chapter of thermo 1 so it didn’t hurt much. I did not get the best of grades but it could have been worse. I hoped for a better spring semester.

Three weeks later, spring semester did come. But Entropy was still pretty fuzzy. Don’t think I took this entropy issue lying down. I actually made a conscious effort at understanding it. Read notes, consulted textbooks, met friends. But it just never clicked. So I basically crammed my way into thermo 1 final exam. It was the only way out. Don’t judge me.

Thermo 2 kicked in hot with a topic: Exergy. A completely new, completely stupid concept. Something having to deal with maximum achievable energy from a given system at some specified conditions. Yeah, that was me trying to make it sound cool. And it sure had connections with Entropy, a concept I mortally dreaded. Not wanting a repeat of the previous semester, I ate my pride and went back to that textbook: Fundamentals of Thermodynamics it was. This book, as I would later find out was a waste of 30 USD. Not sure if anyone can relate but with this book, I had to resort to reading singly (word after word) but it was as though the last word got lost in my head the moment I proceeded to the next. Yeah, it was that bad. Zero student friendliness, it was. I say this with every ounce of anger: NEVER USE THAT BOOK.

Days turned into weeks and midterms were approaching. I knew I had to go back to cram those Entropy/Exergy formula again and the mere thought made my skin crawl. Midterm 1 exam came and I was prepped to the best of my ability (or crammability if you like). In my defence though, I understood every other concept asides Entropy/Exergy. I received my question paper. Three questions from three professors. It was as though they were trying to run a survey on which professor could set the most difficult question and we were nothing but test subjects. Bloody guinea-pigs! Critical reflection made me agree more with the term ‘test-subjects’ and reduce the word ’students’ to nothing but a euphemism as well as a gross understatement.

While I was desperately trying to understand what I was to do with the first question, six to seven students left within the space of ten minutes. And I’m pretty certain this was the case, if not worse, in other exam halls. Call me a douchebag but there is some kind of positive feeling associated with a fellow leaving a 120 minute exam about 15 minutes in. Not that you are any better off but the faint idea that people are having the same exam worse than you is enough encouragement. I took my head off my paper and cast a leftward glance towards my friend Rabban. He probably did not know I caught him smirking almost internally. No need to judge; we are all wired that way.

On a personal side, the exam was bad for me too. But the worst was yet to come. I got to class that Thursday morning to find out that almost a fourth of the class was gone. Damn! I inadvertently exclaimed. They dropped the course. While I was glad the class would be less stuffy, it immediately hit me that the scores of students who dropped the course would not affect the average grade of the class. Tables had turned. And I clearly was on the wrong side.

We then got to the pretty cool stuff. Diesel cycles, Compression ignition engines, jet engines and all the associated topics I really do not want to bore you with. I really enjoyed these parts but I know not how affection for these topics could not translate into good grades. But I kept on going. It was too late to back out.

So there was this Thursday morning I got to class a few minutes late. Class had begun at the time. I saw a lad aged eight (nine at best) on the last seat on the first row. This must be the professor’s son. I muttered silently. My anger was not even because he displaced me from my much-coveted first row seat; I was more concerned with what wrong the lad must have done to warrant a two-hour thermo class as punishment. Cool kid though. He was with an iPad all through the class. Gaming away. For what it is worth: that is no way to inspire thermo in little children or anyone for that matter. Unless of course the kid gets inspired by lost and depressed faces. Having them paint a thermo-meter might be a good start.

Final exam schedule was released and it was terror undiluted. I had three exams in one day. Last time this happened was in primary school and even then, I barely made it through. And please, spare me that time management bullcrap. Classes ended two days before my first exam. So there actually was no way I (we) could pull it off. It became the subject of discussion among students in the department. While we all laughed away on how miserable we all were; we internally succumbed to the fact that it wasn’t going to end well.

Life got super difficult that week and I fell sick. What this meant was that I would not be able to take the general exam. An arrangement would have to be made specially for I and other indisposed students. I thought the sickness was a good idea. I could give thermo one last shot. But the reality was different. The exam was hell! Never take a make-up exam unless you absolutely have to. It is a brain-strangling activity. Who asks a student to derive from scratch the Clapeyron equation in the exam? A topic so unimportant it was skipped in the class.

Grades were announced a couple of days later. I had to face the inevitable. Reluctance made me sleep all through the day. I then woke up afterwards to a waiting episode of Game of Thrones S06E09. Yeah. Karma did right by me that Monday. That killer episode. The combined effect of Daenerys’ dragons, the dexterity displayed by the unsullied guy, Sansa and the death of Ramsey Bolton drove me so high and even bad grades could not stop that. At least momentarily. Then I got bitch-slapped into reality. It could have been worse, I thought. I recently adopted that mantra because it confers a false sense of satisfaction with the status quo. It makes one seem grateful when the antithesis was eating up one’s within. A more dignified version of ‘fake it till you make it’ so to speak.

Yeah, I did do badly in thermo. Trying really hard not to use the word ‘fail’ here. I subsequently spiralled into depression. Almost clinical. I began binge-watching TV series I could lay my hands on. Twenty four really came in handy. I also automatically configured myself to get at least fourteen hours of sleep daily just to escape it all. I couldn’t even bring myself to cry. Those tear glands got disconnected from my academics the moment I began my second year.

After coming clean to my parents, I became overly defensive when it came to grades. I told no one else my grade breakdown. Friends, except Zan, who tried to guess/ tease me about it were met with my immediate anger. They probably already drew their correct conclusions. I personally had not come to grips with the result myself. I needed no one reminding me of something that until then had a permanent residence in my head .

But there was a way out of all this: Summer school. It was going to cost me six weeks and some cash. But I had a dignity to restore and a point to prove. After sulking for the better part of two weeks, I crawled out of depression. It was a long road home. And I have God to thank for that. ‘Past is past’. ‘This would make a compelling story eventually’. With these words, I reached for my flip-flops and bolted to the shower. That was all it took.

Salman was his name. Pakistan was his country. An acquaintance who would later elevate to being a bro. He was the beginning of my success story. And to him, I am eternally grateful. His singular act of introducing a new book to me was what did the magic. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had issues with the recommended text. Only that some people actually did something about it.

I started by paying my arch nemesis, entropy, a visit.  I did understand it this time. And by God, all thermo obstacles assumed the form of a perfectly ordered domino. From exergy through diesel cycles to air conditioning, I coasted on happy waves; solving, absorbing, retaining and unconsciously thanking Salman every step of the way. Summer classes were basically about reconciling what I had read previously. And it worked. Confidence was at its peak. It was a good time.

But karma thought I had it too rosy. I had to be put in check. First midterm grades were announced just after the second midterm exams. I was thrown into instant sadness. I knew I did not deserve such a score not after the amount of work I put in. I receded into a milder form of depression. Karma clearly took it too far this time.  I began binge-watching again. This time, it was Silicon Valley. Pretty awesome series. You should try it. My little ride with depression came to a halt after second midterm grades were announced. My initial rank was 19th but I moved up 12 steps. I was now 7th. Chances of a distinction began to surface. It wasn’t impossible after all. Finals were in a weeks’ time. Prepped enough to get my confidence back. I felt ready.

After 190 minutes of sweat, four extra sheets and thirst. I handed over my paper and walked out with a sigh that translated to ‘Thermo, go rot in hell where you rightly belong’. It was awesome. I eventually ranked 2nd in the course and had a wonderful grade at the end of it all.

It did make a good story after all. And I most definitely got my dignity back. Thermodynamics 2 amongst other things made me subject myself to uncharted terrains. You know: the other path never traveled till now. I don’t think I need more convincing on which field to pursue in my senior year. Because guess what?  Thermo and I just made it official.

Boeing, take note.



*photo credits:

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