Late August and non-frozen-hellscape weather once again mark the start of a brand new school year. A fresh set of classes to attend to diligently, new dorm rooms to christen with unwashed laundry and a fervor for the spirit of academic exploration that runs through our Big Red veins. Not to mention, a whole new cohort of bright-eyed freshmen embarking on their college journeys — all in the surveillance test-free comfort of their brand-spanking-new dorms and boujee pastry cafes. Back in my day, North Campus was a pile of dirt, rock, machinery and cigarette butts. These whippersnappers just don’t know how good they have it.
Unfortunate renovation timing aside, one of the hallmarks of a new academic year is the freshmen’s mad scramble for group belonging and friendships. Now is the time to approach strangers in the dining hall for some company or attend as many random club meetings as possible to hopefully build a decently sized list of lunch contacts. This period of social add/drop allows new students to put themselves out there before everyone’s drowning in schoolwork and happiness becomes a remnant of a foregone time.
Observing and partaking in all this socializing and waters-testing has had me reflecting on the ways that we form friendships, particularly in new environments like college. I like to think of these early-semester college interactions as transient, induced dipole moments between neighboring atoms’ electron clouds. If the latter half of that sentence made no sense to you, then I applaud you for preserving your STEM virginity.
Like most things in chemistry, the explanation is complicated, so I’ll give the basic gist. Remember to take notes, because none of these lectures will be recorded for some very well thought-out and justifiable reason.
All atoms are made up of a small, positively charged core called a nucleus, which is orbited by negatively charged particles called electrons. These electrons are constantly in motion, so much so that we can never simultaneously know their momentum and position (see the Breaking Bad guy for more on that). The space where all the electrons zoom around the nucleus is called the electron cloud.
In all the infinitely random movement of an atoms’ electrons, there are moments where they just so happen to be distributed slightly asymmetrically throughout the electron cloud at just the right instant, creating regions of partial negative charges (where electrons are more densely located) and partial positive charges (where there are fewer electrons). One atom’s momentarily charged electron cloud can influence another atom’s cloud by attracting or repelling their electrons, which can, in turn, do the same to other atoms, creating a whole system of completely random, transient attractions between temporary positive and negative charges.
Whew. Six years of chemistry courses and I still had to fall back on LibreTexts to fully recall all of that. What my needlessly complicated simile means to point out is that college companionship often arises out of random associations. Sometimes our electrons just so happen to be distributed a certain way for a sliver of a second, creating a partial charge that then induces a partial charge in someone else’s electron cloud, leading to the faintest of attractions. In the same way, friendships in college can arise from the random, momentary coincidences that draw two people closer together.
Whether it be during a seven hour bus ride home for Thanksgiving or in a breakout room during a gen chem summer prep course, serendipitous encounters happen to every single one of us, every single day. In the infinitely random, occasionally sober movements of students on this campus, we’re bound to cross paths with a huge variety of people, every single one of them with unique perspectives and stories to share.
Out there in the day to day, it’s on us to recognize and embrace these chance encounters. As hard as it may be to believe sometimes, no one has it all together as much as they might seem to. Feigning disinterest is an easy way to avoid being vulnerable, but even the most aloof strangers could benefit from meeting someone new. Besides, anyone who thinks they’re too cool for a new friend probably isn’t worth your time, anyway.
I’m only just now, as a junior, learning how to take advantage of these passing encounters. I don’t do it very well by any means, but I try to inch ever so slightly further out of my comfort zone when I see the opportunity arise. Far too often, we wonder if we’re alone in our awkwardness or if everyone else is in on some cruel joke that we don’t get. Neither of those things are true, but even if they were, it wouldn’t matter; sooner or later, you’ll find your electron cloud surrounded by just the right people at just the right time.
I want to end by encouraging the underclassmen to pursue their transient dipole moments. You’ll know exactly when these moments come, and what you need to do to capitalize on them. Any opportunity you take to make a new friend means more good done in the world, regardless of how confident you feel doing it.
To the upperclassmen: let’s ensure that new students feel welcome and loved in the unforgiving tundra that is Cornell. Even if we’re secretly just as confused and unsure of ourselves as the underclassmen, we at least have varying degrees of caffeine dependency and seniority on campus, so let’s use them to make the new students’ experiences more memorable, even if we’ll never get to live in their fancy new dorms.
Noah Do ‘24 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Noah’s Arc runs every other Sunday this semester.