A group of students, all on the floor propped up by their arms (and for some, their stomachs), form a circle in the middle of a small, cramped room. From time to time they switch their weight from left arm to right arm, all the while watching a leader as he shouts out directions. At one point, they even begin chanting the alphabet. Sitting in the middle of their circle are a colorful jar in the form of a pumpkin-shaped house and a jar of Folger’s instant coffee. At first glance, this scene appears to be a bizarre ritual for an outlandish cult. The reality may not seem much further from its initial impression.
This strange tradition is actually commonly known as the Physics Exercise Worship Circle (PEWC), and its adherents are the diligent and quirky students of the physics department. The custom started quite innocently just one year ago with four founding members: Andy Schneider ’12, Margaret Robinson ’12, Matt Hosek ’12 and Tori Borish ’12. “It began with just a core group of us. We all had class together Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and we just decided it would be a good idea to do five minutes of exercise after class together. Then things just grew from there,” Schneider said.
“I think physics students have the lowest percentage of gym attendance, so we’re kind of notoriously wimpy, but we wanted to start doing something active to combat that,” Robinson added laughingly. “We began with planks first, but we decided to pronounce them “Plancks” after Max Planck of the Planck’s constant – one of the founding fathers of quantum theory.”
Since then, PEWC (pronounced puke) has grown dramatically from its four founding fathers of physics exercise, and now 20 to 30 students congregate in the physics common room to join in on the intense workout regimen. I attended one such worship circle in the famed common room on a windy Thursday night to witness the growing phenomenon that, according to many, is on the verge of becoming a revolution.
I had fortunately been advised to come on such a night, as Thursdays are often the optimal PEWC-ing time. “In general, we do Plancks spontaneously, but there’s usually always a big group on Thursdays because most of us have problem sets due the next day,” Shneider said.
As someone who rarely ventures to Schow, I was quite nervous about locating the entrance to the physics common room. After wandering around the atrium for a few moments and looking through the windows into my destination, I was finally able to locate a propitious door that led me to the promised land of assiduous physics students. Inside, a frenzied energy was palpable, as students throughout the room gathered in small clusters whispering to themselves and each other complex formulas for their imminent problem sets. There is also a large chalkboard that spans the entirety of a wall, covered with barely legible equations and a few geometric shapes. Talk of factorials bounced back and forth across the room. I immediately felt intimidated.
Suddenly a large influx of students streams into the room and most of the otherwise studious students halt their work to gather in a large circle. “Hey! It’s Planck time!” Robinson shouted. The students soon commence the aforementioned ritual. The air was rife with … intensity.
“Sometimes there are so many people in the common room, especially during Plancks, that it starts to smell,” Schneider said. “It’s a pretty small room, and when there are too many people you’ll walk in and get hit by the odor. We’re not the best smelling group on campus I guess … People probably spend more time in the common room than showering.”
While the rest of the group completes their sets of planks, a trio of seniors who are admittedly “too cool” stand off to the side, surveying the exercisers. Apparently, I am told, the clue train has not reached the upper echelons of the physics department.
As the exercise progresses, the mood in the room seems to change from anxious to almost light-hearted. The students in the circle laugh and joke around as they transition from planks to a push-up pyramid. The workout actually seems rather difficult, and I notice the weariness of a few students as the exercise advances.
“I like to talk a lot of trash during the workouts,” Robinson said of her gaieties during PEWC. “It’s ironic because I find it hard to hold the positions, but I still sh-t on everyone.”
Soon, but scarcely soon enough for some of the participants, the workout is over. The troupe of students instantly disperses and the once raucous room returns to its chilling silence.
“It’s just nice to have PEWC as a break from work, especially if it’s the night before a problem set,” Hosek said. “It’s definitely helped foster a community life in the common room. Now we try to do it at least two or three times a week, but I guess it depends on our workload.”