The Student News Site of High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering

The Echo

The Student News Site of High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering

The Echo

The Student News Site of High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering

The Echo

Original Art by Emily Dow
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May 15, 2024
Times Square traffic jam in New York City by joiseyshowaa on flickr
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Jackie and her brother, Daniel.
Smiling for Survivors
April 10, 2024

An Interview with Mr. Swenson


Mr. Swenson teaches Chemistry and Robotics at HSMSE. Many students say that he is their favorite teacher, even though he gives quasi-pop-quizzes once a week. Chemistry might be a difficult subject, but he makes it much easier for students to grasp with his sometimes awkward analogies, dry humor, and excessive sarcasm. Because he remains such an elusive figure to many students (even to those who consider him their favorite teacher), we wanted to interview him to find out more about him and share with fellow students 

— Md Islam, et al.

What is your favorite part about teaching chemistry? 


Why do I teach chemistry? No idea. 



No. I feel it speaks to a larger truth. It explains science in a way that also affects your life and also explains life. 


Have you considered doing something else–

Like juggling? I’m a horrible juggler.

–besides being a teacher?

I was a photographer for a while. I was studying in Italy. And I did photography, and I was in a couple of artists in residencies in Italy where I made a lot of art and photography. I’ve had a few shows of my work in various places around Europe.


I mean, your diagrams [in class], they weren’t very artistic. (laughter) 


Which one do you like more? Chemistry or robotics? 

Chemistry… I mean these questions seem quite binary. There are some really amazing things going on in the robotics class. And we just have to cover some units in chemistry because of a state exam, right? And then robotics is a bit more free flowing. But the idea of chemistry is phenomenal, it’s alive, it breathes.


What do you think about the HSMSE students you’ve taught? 

They’re okay. (laughs at the irony)


You’re supposed to say something deep and meaningful!

Something deep and meaningful about the students at HSMSE? We’re gonna edit all of this right? Okay. Um, overall very talented students! Smart. Yeah. Very, uh, intelligent and um, great work ethics. Really great work ethics…. Honestly, students here are really smart. They’re very dedicated, and many of them are tremendously creative.


What advice do you have for HSMSE students? 

The best advice is to join my advisory, where you actually get advice. I can’t proffer advice outside of my advisory. (laughter) You guys should give me advice actually…


What do you think is the unit that most students find most difficult in chemistry? 

The idea of the mole. The grandeur of it.


Why do you think so?

He sees the test grades. (laughter)

The test grades! (laughing) Um, no. I don’t know. It’s the idea of a counting unit. Normally when you’re counting something you don’t think of a unit. There are seven giraffes, and there are three zebras. Normally, you don’t talk about dozens or anything like that in normal everyday speech. Yet the mole is a counting mechanism, and it’s all over the place in chemistry, and it’s so astronomically large. It’s an incredible number. 


What is your favorite food and drink? 

My favorite food is called the tramezzino uovo asparagi. Some impurists would call it a sandwich. But it is NOT a sandwich. Tramezzini, or the tramezzino means ‘between two halves.’ It’s two halves of bread. Ignorant people would look at it and say, “Hey, that’s a sandwich!” It’s NOT a sandwich. It is not a sandwich. Actually in Italy, when they invented this word, they were uniting together as a nation. They were forming their union, their republic, and they didn’t want foreign words, so they said we’re gonna call these tramezzini to not have the english word ‘sandwich’ and so they did. And so, it’s tramezzino, which is made with this moist bread (they purposely humidify the bread), and inside is asparagus, mayonnaise, and egg. And, you can only find it in the Veneto region, near Venice. 


My favorite drink is called the Spritz. It’s made with prosecco, Campari, and water. You drink it when you’re eating the tramezzino. It’s a beautiful, celestial combination – But, it is alcoholic, however. Slightly.


What is your hobby after school? 

I still do photography.


Do you like cats or dogs more if you had to choose? 

(laughing) I actually like both of them. I’m an enormous fan of both. I have two cats. I had one dog in Italy, and he died last year. He was an English Setter, his name was Arp. 

That’s sad.


Do you like cats? 

I like cats too. Cats are good. I like all animals, really.


Is there a story behind your tattoos? 

Yeah. Yeah, there are. 

Would you be willing to tell us the story? 

Um, one of them, I just told you about the dog. I have six [tattoos] now, one was for my brother who passed away four years ago. He wanted to get a large tattoo on his leg and in my last conversation with him I told him “don’t get that tattoo!” “Don’t do it!” And then a few days after our conversation, he passed away, And so I got the tattoo, instead of him. Just a bit smaller, and on my arm. And the other tattoos have other various meanings. 


Tell us about your Italian heritage. 

My Italian heritage is zero. I’m actually predominantly Swedish. Yeah. Svensson. The son of Sven. I lived in Italy because I met a girl in university and she was Italian. And then, after I graduated, I took off. I started traveling, and then we met up and we hit it off, and I lived in Italy. But going back to the Swedish roots, most names in Scandinavia have a ‘son’ or in Danish it’s ‘sen’. And ‘son’ in Swedish means son. Sven would just be the father’s name. But they stopped that tradition at some point and my family’s name was cemented as Svensson which changed to Swenson in New York. So, everyone with S-O-N has some sort of Scandinavian roots. Like Eriksen, the son of Erik. S-E-N. Danish. 


Are you secretly a superhero? 

(laughs) Strange. I had a student once, who actually drew a comic where I was a superhero. I had these magical bracelets and I could like blow things up using fusion somehow. But no, I don’t think I am. It’s more probable that we’re all superheroes– that’s possible. 


Do you think aliens exist? 

I’m just reading this book now, where – well actually, just finished it – by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s about war, but it also jumps back and forth between extraterrestrial life on another planet. It’s quite interesting. I mean, he was kind of insane. But the idea of aliens? Is that the question? Do aliens exist? I mean we’re pretty much alien in and of itself, right? 


Could you explain that?

We’re so odd. Sometimes I just wake up and I’m awed at our wonder. Humanity is so strange. We stand upright and shuffle around and create ideas in our heads and communicate through jumbles of words. And sometimes that surprises me, or it impresses me.. We’re all very odd creatures. 


What’s your favorite movie? 

My favorite movie changes. I like a lot of Wes Anderson films. I also like Gaspar Noé. But one that’s always been up there that I try to watch every year is Casablanca. I mean it’s a classic Hollywoodian film, to some extent. I like Humphrey Bogart – I like his hats, too. The actual hat that he wears in Casablanca is a Borsalino, which is an Italian hat made in Alessandria. Very stylish. 


You seem to have a lot of hats too. 

I have a lot of hats. Yeah, I collect them. So I can use them…

You collect hats. 

Well, I don’t collect. I suppose after a certain number, you just collect things, right? But I have some hats. I guess they’ve just built up throughout the years. 


What’s your favorite music genre or song? 

Song? I have no idea. It changes based on mood. Genre? Kind of rock, indie. Stuff like that. I was in a band in university and I used to write for a music magazine. They would send me to shows to write reviews. I would go to 4-6 shows per week. The genre was mainly rock, maybe some punk/garage/indie. 


Were you a drummer?

I was a drummer. I was a very, very horrible drummer. I was really, REALLY bad. I can’t stress that enough that I’m NOT a drummer, but people wanted me in their band to drum. So I played with them. And I helped write lyrics. That’s it. 


Of all the famous people alive today, who do you think will still be discussed in 500 years? 

In 500 years… Federico Chiesa. 

Who is he?

I don’t know. 

He is not even talked about now.

He is. 

Where? How? When?

I don’t know. (laughs) He will be talked about.


Is life easier for kids or adults in general? 

That’s a hard question! I think it’s the same but different problems: thinking out how to fix your problems or cope with your problems or deal with their problems now, will be a vital importance when you’re older because you have to do the same thing. Okay, everyone, kids and adults, have problems, right? You just have to resolve them. But overall, things always get better. That’s not to say they get easier or harder, but they do get better.


What invention has had the greatest impact on human culture and civilization? 

The invention of the tramezzino

Is it that sandwich? I forgot. 

Please don’t say that word. 


What’s one place everyone should visit before they die? 

Venezia. Venice. Or Turin, I like Torino. Turin in English. Torino in Italian. Turin is like the ‘Detroit of Italy’ that’s where Fiat is from. I went to school there for a few years.


What crowd were you a part of in high school? 

I was a bridge between various crowds. I was in some sportive ones because I was on the soccer team. Kind of the intellectual crowd as well and then the alternative ones… 


What teacher had the greatest impact on you? 

It’s probably a tussle between two of them. One was my debate teacher. Fascinating, fascinating guy. He was essentially a dandy and was really interesting. He had the most amazing vocabulary and he always had a fresh perspective about any political thought. Yeah, he was great. He taught English. And my chemistry teacher was great too. He always struck me as a philosopher, who happened to like the Grateful Dead.

My chemistry teacher was great too. 

Is that what drove you to want to become a chemistry teacher? 

Yeah. He was an interesting guy.


Do genius and madness go hand in hand? 

Okay, so genius and madness. They’re two completely separate interpretations. Someone like Bezos does his genius act with books to create like a marketplace. It’s also madness because he’s destroying a lot of other things in the process. So, it depends, which side you’re on, right? Which perspective you’re coming from? But for the most case, I mean, you have to have some madness in you in order to be a genius. 


If you had to choose a different first name, what would you go by? 

I have no idea. I never thought about this. I had a Russian teaching assistant in Georgia Tech that used to always call me ‘‘ZaCHARia!’’ Which I liked. 


If you were a tree and could be planted anywhere, where would you choose? And what tree would you be? 

So, I’m getting fascinated by trees now. Trees are amazing. Maybe not that tree. (points at a decrepit tree and laughs) That’s a bad tree… But it would depend where I would be planted…. Perhaps Lago di Santa Croce. 


Where is that? 

It’s in the Alps. It’s really, really, really beautiful there. It’s one of my favorite places. I go there every year. 


What tree would you want to be planted as? 

Okay. That’s different because I like some trees. But the climate there would completely kill that tree so I don’t know. I also like birches, but apparently birches have a short lifespan. So…


So, you’d rather live a long life as a tree? 

Or be a beautiful birch for a short time? I don’t know, good question, but even birches need like a certain altitude and elevation. 


What’s your apocalypse plan? 

Apocalypse. Okay. So I’ve thought about this throughout my life.


Yeah, yeah. All right. This is strange because friends of mine talk about, you know, if the world’s about to end or if there’s like some zombie invasion, you need to be able to do certain things in order to survive. You need to be able to at least run 10 miles, probably right nonstop. You probably need to ride a motorcycle. Drive a car. Ride a bike, all types of transportation, even know stick shift, everything. You have to be able to cook and forage. You have to be able to get raw ingredients. And garden to some extent. I think I’ve covered my bases on the basic things. By gardening, cooking, everything just in case that strange hypothetical would happen, I mean they’re life skills. Yeah. So I think I’m okay. 


What’s your biggest fear? 

My biggest fear… I don’t know. I have fears but they’re all small. 


Can you name any of your fears?

Any of my fears… Mortality is a big fear – probably yeah. After my – well, going back to my brother. Yeah. That changed my perspective on mortality. 


You strike me like you would be a good singer.

I’m not a good – I’m actually a horrible singer. So I was – I think it was around three, four AM. I was in Paris, it was during the summer time, this was probably five or six years ago. Maybe it was three AM? I don’t know. It was during a white night festival when there are arts shows all over Paris and you go to all of these galleries and performances all throughout the night, twenty four hours. And so we’re doing that, and we stopped in a bar, and we sang karaoke. And three Italians and an American, me, sang a song – I forget which song –
And we got booted off the stage…


I know, and it was like four in the morning, so there weren’t a lot of people there. (Laughing) But enough to make us stop. Yes, I know, very embarrassing; I’m not a singer. 


Who is your favorite teacher at MSE, if you had to choose one? 

I’ll answer the best teacher. See the thing is, I teach when they teach, you know, so I can’t really observe their classes. Although Dr. Kruckeberg’s quite good. 


Kruckerberg has been making my physics life so much easier. 

[spectators agree in unison]


That concludes our interview. Thank you!

Yes! That was fun, thank you.

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