Physics students are incredibly similar to wolves in their social tendencies.
That is to say, our interactions resemble the pack mentality. No, we do not howl in unison at a waxing gibbous moon or rip open the carcasses of recently deceased prey with Maxwell’s equations.
Upon interacting with others of their species, humans will default to an establishment of a social hierarchy; this means that upon entering a social setting, humans instinctively gauge and define their contextual role in the interaction. If we know how others will react, we know how to act appropriately. And if we act appropriately, we effectively bypass ridicule and isolation, thereby “surviving” by all social darwinistic means.
The Primitive Nature of Social Interaction
Each and every interaction results in the establishment of a hierarchy; be it as formal as meeting the president of France, or as fleeting as your conversation with the cashier at your local supermarket. Picture yourself in your group of friends. Imagine you are all standing in a circle, conversing, laughing, or echoing witticisms. Who incites the strongest response from others? At whom does each participant point their feet? Whose opinion is taken most as truth?
Whomever belongs to the name that arose in response to those questions is likely the alpha. In any social scenario, there arises an alpha, who dominates the subconscious attentions of almost everyone present.
Adversely, there exists a well-defined underdog, an omega; these individuals take many forms, with varying degrees of immersion in the conversation. The underdogs range anywhere from the isolationist to the alien to the jester, yet what is certain is that they exist at the bottom of the hierarchy. They influence little the collaborative ideologies of the pack. Almost always, these individuals are characterized as passive, or submissive.
I use these words with intention: submission and dominance. For all interactions can be broken down into a series of submissive or dominant exertions. The pecking order is further clarified by how many of each we emit.
Wolves, for example, dominate by strutting about with ears tipped forward and chins up high. Depending on circumstance, they may be aggressive, mounting their subordinates or flagging their tails to maintain their superiority. It should be anticipated that the alpha of each pack adopts many of these dominant behaviors given his status as the only male of the pack allowed to reproduce.
“For all interactions can be broken down into a series of submissive or dominant exertions. The pecking order is further clarified by how many of each we emit.”
Counterintuitively, however, the alpha of a pack is not always dominant in his interactions. Rather, he may display a miscellany of dominant and submissive behaviors.
The most actively dominant are the betas, the individuals just below the alpha in the hierarchy. They fight, perhaps, for rights of inheritance, or perhaps out of youthful ignorance.
Similarly, the alpha of the human pack may not be visibly apparent upon first glance. They may not be the loudest or contribute the most to the conversation. Yet in a system where the conception of ideas is equated with the conception of offspring, the alpha is most influential and invaluable. All other participants will, at some point, orient their feet towards the alpha, for they garner the most attentive fixation.
The omega humans, on the other hand, often find their ideas rejected, thus contributing to their submissive tendencies. If the submissive human had a tail, it would be tucked between their legs, their eyes and perhaps their entire bodies downcast, as wolves do.
In reality, the omegas of the human packs may rather express this submission through language, apologizing and justifying superfluously for their actions. The omega requests things with the word “just” infiltrating every break in their sentences.
“In reality, the omegas of the human packs may rather express this submission through language, apologizing and justifying superfluously for their actions.”
The omega maintains closed body language; hands in pockets, arms crossed or legs firmly closed, and movement minimal. Cowering in the presence of the alpha, the omegas may find themselves virtually silenced or contributing little to the conversation for fear of reprimand.
Despite the discomfort, the omegas are necessary for the welfare of the groups. Wolves may mourn the departure of an omega from the pack. As long as there is a top, the bottom of the hierarchy will always exist, for mere contextual insignificance, if nothing else.
How Physics Students act like wolves
As a demonstration of these phenomena, and the applicability of wolf-pack mentality to more evolved forms of interaction, I offer a description of the isolated system that is my physics class.
You see, physics is a cutthroat academic field. Here, we have an assembly of some of the most perceptive and adept minds in the school, greedily absorbing what is arguably the most intellectually provocative and challenging material known to humankind. To reiterate, we are in a system where innovation is nourishment and ideas are sex.
My physics students and I are a tiny group in a tiny department. We started the year with 12 members, yet suffered two casualties by December. Ten remained at the end of the spring semester.
Upon introduction to kinematics, we began our darwinistic dance. Two hours of lecture on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, coupled with late night and weekend study sessions to fortify material retention. The more we interacted, the more settled our hierarchy became.
“We started the year with 12 members, yet suffered two casualties by December.”
The first notable characters to emerge were the betas: a lanky basketball player with considerable mathematic ability named Tim for the purposes of this article, and myself, a loud-spoken hipster and zealous feminist starving for recognition. Our psychological warfare began shortly after the first exam. And like physicists, we battled.
If you can’t imagine physicists battling, it is probably because despite the irony the battles are not physical. Try summoning to mind, rather, an intellectual battle, where we pettily point out each other’s arithmetic mistakes, or unwarrantedly over-question each other’s ideological contribution
“If you can’t imagine physicists battling, it is probably because despite the irony the battles are not physical.”
I, myself, began to intentionally open up my body language, compensating for my smaller physique by stretching my limbs to the furthest, socially acceptable extent. I began to talk more in class, conversing directly with the professor — who, in reality, is considered the alpha of the group, as any and all attention is directed towards him by mere lecturing nature — and formulating alliances with the other students. To rebound from bad or wrong ideas, and in characteristic fear of emitting my own submissive tendencies, I only proposed more ideas.
A fervent concentration on this trajectory cost me the title of alpha, despite my excellent grades in the course and general cohesiveness with the majority of my physics students.
No, the title of alpha was bestowed upon a woman named Gail (pseudonym). Gail maintained a superior understanding of physics from the beginning. She was somewhat quiet in class, yet not reserved or shy. Rather, she was acutely perceptive of the events around her, and always well prepared. It was clear by the end of the first semester that her words were ideological gold; everyone listened when she spoke.
The other dramatis personae in this physics class, notably the omega, and the lone wolf, distinguished themselves by the end of thermodynamics, crafty as they were to hide their fallibility.
She was acutely perceptive of the events around her, and always well prepared. It was clear by the end of the first semester that her words were ideological gold; everyone listened when she spoke”
The lone wolf was Autumn. Hardly anyone noticed her presence in the classroom. In fact, I never registered the frequency of her voice nor the depth of her comprehension in physics because I never heard her speak. Her absence from the second semester, it came to no surprise, was not consciously registered until late March.
Contrary to the omegas, however, the departure of the lone wolf is seldom grieved.
This identifiable grief came with the departure of the first omega. Eli was his false name. He was a jester among omegas, with bright blue-grey eyes that complimented his dark skin. He was contented simply to talk with his fellow physics students about irrelevant issues.
“He was a jester among omegas, with bright blue-grey eyes that complimented his dark skin.”
This irrelevancy was not supportable in light of the intensity of the course, and so despite Eli’s liveliness and enthusiasm, nobody took his ideas seriously. Incapable of working his way up the physicist’s hierarchy, he left the department in pursuit of success elsewhere.
Thus ends the sociological metaphor. The dynamic between the group of aspiring physicists has evolved and adapted over the course of the year, reaching a de-amplified state similar to that described in Dampened Sine Curve: A Metaphor for Sociological Nature. In essence, any tensions experienced due to assertions of dominance or acceptance of submission have subsided, and we continue peaceably to learn and practice applications of physics.
I anticipate that the dynamic will continue to evolve in the coming years. Perhaps, we may even experience the coronation of a new alpha, beholder of ideas and theories invaluable far beyond more primitive attempts at survival. I will re-summon a citation from an elder of posts
“Humans are capable of so much more than mere survival: yet only by harnessing our truly carnal desires can we veritably become great.”