My trouble with physics

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Mar 282016
 


[The following are my embellished recollections of things that happened about 20 years ago, and as such may not resemble reality… much.]

“The trouble with physics”, a book about the questionable validity of and investment in string theory, did not trouble me enough. The book’s troubling claim? That the top minds in theoretical physics have been spending their time on theories that not only may never be validated, but might not have made any concrete and useful predictions. Why didn’t I care? Because I had aborted my physics education and training before reaching string theory (or general relativity, for that matter), and so it was really not my problem. But I thought the book might provide a means to catch up with all that I had missed, in a form digestible by a general audience, hence requiring none of the physics knowledge that had long since left me due to disuse.

Despite the book’s engaging narration, the suspense and drama, I was not drawn in by the question of how many dimensions were required and whether they were balled up or not, whether theories were ‘finite’ and the meaning of time. Had I ever been a proper physicists in the first place?

My “trouble” with physics had its roots before I was born. My dad initially enrolled as a political science and philosophy major at the University of Zagreb. But already during his first summer internship he was turned off by the cronyism in government and decided to pursue physics instead. Being born to a physicist does not by any means condemn one to be one. But let’s face it, physicist parents can’t help but give good answers to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions a child might have about the natural world around them. My dad encouraged my interest in science. We worked on a couple of experiments, generated Mandelbrot sets, and practiced back-of-the-envelope calculations. Between the head start of physics exposure at home, and general lack of social life, i.e. ample time to devote to studying, I even received a “best physics student” award in high school.

However, when I was about to set off for Caltech in 1993, my dad cautioned me against becoming a physicist. He mentioned that the world will always need mechanical engineers, with the implication being, I suppose, that the world may not need more physicists.

But if you’re going to fall in love with physics anywhere in the world, it’s got to be Caltech. I had fully intended to not be a physics major. But I took a little quiz-by-mail before going there that placed me in an advanced section of Phys 1, which meant that I spent an extra hour/week contemplating even more physics with other freshmen who were geeking out on physics. My undergrad dorm (Blacker Hovse), was full of physics majors like me. How did I end up in such a physicist-infested house? At the beginning of each year, the Caltech freshmen are sorted into houses. The process is just like the Hogwarts sorting hat, only more accurate.

I had still gone in ambivalent about my chosen major. For a while, following my dad’s advice, I would say I was thinking about being a mechanical engineer. I also thought I might want to do “math”, based on cruising through high school calculus. Unaware of the difference between high school math and well, math, I took the sophomore level abstract algebra class my freshman year, and my first quarter progress report (at the time Caltech did not give freshmen letter grades) said only ‘Lada is getting used to the level of abstraction’. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting used to the abstraction. Writing math proofs was a maddening exercise. To my linear thinking (you start with some assumptions, e.g. spherical cows, and work from there), it was frustrating to have to fit the pieces of the puzzle (different lemmas, theorems, whatever) together in unexpected ways to arrive at a result. When I next encountered group theory, in physics, a couple of years later, I was maybe a bit better prepared, but not that delighted.

As the leaves dropped that fall (oh, wait, it was LA, so maybe as the smog lifted a little), I fell into the cult of physics. I befriended Real Genius (a made-up name to scantily cloak his identity), a particularly intense, geeky senior physics major who took me under his wing. He told me about Caltech legends, faculty past and present: students such as Real Real Genius (RRG) whose physics genius may have driven them to madness, though RG was quite the mad-scientist character himself.

One morning, Kip Thorne (science advisor to the movie Interstellar), gave a guest lecture in Phys 1, and being a Caltech alum himself, and a generally cool guy, he had a huge fan base, and many upperclassmen showed up to this freshman lecture. The lecture did not disappoint. He jumped onto and from the desk at the front of the class, bouncing around a medicine ball which he wanted us to imagine was a wormhole. I understood little but the experience was memorable because the moment that Kip Thorne opened his can of Dr. Pepper, 100 cans of Dr. Pepper fizzed (we had each covertly brought our own).

If I understood RG correctly, the goal of a Caltech physics education appeared to be to take general relativity with Kip Thorne. RG drafted a course plan (which I briefly found among the piles of papers from Caltech which I can’t bring myself to throw away, only to lose track of it again). In tiny handwriting he had listed all the courses, and brief comments about the professors. Over the top of it, I had written in red ink ‘Lada’s dreams ruined by Aschbacher’. Aschbacher was the Math 1 instructor, and whatever he did, he did not ruin my dreams, for in the first 3 years I did follow RG’s plan. I doubled up 1c/2a, and spent a summer solving endless problems for Math 2b, to be able to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year. This would enable me to take mathematical methods for physics junior year, which would be helpful in general relativity. For the first three years I took every possible physics class: optics, thermodynamics, 6 classes (usually 5 of them physics) a quarter, without exception. I delayed taking the required chemistry lab, I selected the easiest of the mandatory humanities and social science classes to not be distracted from taking more physics classes. As a result I missed the economics classes taught by some of the best experimental economists in the country.
I was too busy overdosing on physics and math to notice.

At some point the Caltech administration decided to cut back on the full 2 years of physics required for all undergrads in order to add a single quarter of freshman biology. Though this change would not affect me, my indignation was immediate. I sent the administration email arguing that physics is the more fundamental science, and that therefore one should not waste freshmen’s time with biology. Mercifully, no one in the Caltech administration replied to my idiotic opinions.

In my junior year I did not realize (even though we sat together with graduate students…), that I was taking 3 or 4 graduate level courses concurrently. It was intense.
I started frequenting Millikan library and its physics stacks even more than before. Millikan library is an architectural atrocity in the middle of the Caltech campus, where I hoped to find among the dark stacks of physics books some hint to the start of a solution to the horrendous problem sets. One of the main challenges was dodging “Millikan man”, a tutu-wearing Edward E. Simmons who had been cheated out of his share for a strain gauge patent by Caltech, and decided to haunt its library. Here is a picture of him (though he was more in a pink phase back in the days we both hung out at Millikan).
Dr Edward E Simmons

After all this coursework, when I finally had the opportunity to take general relativity from Kip Thorne, I didn’t. My friends (let’s call one of them I’m-loving-it, IMLI) were claiming that they really enjoyed staying up all night trying to solve problems they were told had no known solutions only after submitting their attempts. Senior year, while IMLI was taking the notoriously difficult solid state physics class, I realized that, having taken a max courseload of physics for 3 years, I already had enough for the degree. So I started to branch out. I took the physics class on electrical circuits, I took the digital electronics weed-out class with the EE majors, I took a class on physical oceanography because I wanted to understand the physics of waves. I had fun with courses on neural nets and machine learning, artificial life, CAD, 3D photography, etc. I got a second major in E&AS (Engineering and Applied Science, a convenient catch-all).

At the same time as my interest in physics was waning, I also had to apply for grad programs. I thought of applying to both computer science and physics programs, hoping that I would get the chance to switch to computer science. However, my dad said that I shouldn’t delay a decision, that I should decide before applying. I listened to him, and chose the more familiar, safer bet: physics. I applied to a lot of different programs. I didn’t think I had much of a chance. My GPA wasn’t stellar: 3.5 or 3.6 or something like that. My undergrad research didn’t shine: the first two summers I spent developing Runge-Kutta simulations to design a parabolic mirror that would focus solar wind onto a collection substrate. A decade later, this project (Genesis), together with its precious solar wind cargo crashed into the Utah desert, having failed to deploy a parachute. Another summer I tried (and mostly failed) to use pulsed laser ablation to deposit germanium on silicon wafers.

Only Berkeley had the sense to reject me (or rather failed to send any sort of response), while MIT, Stanford, Cornell, etc. were willing to take me in. Unlike visits at other schools, which involved dark offices and even darker labs with shiny metal vacuum chambers, my meeting with my future advisor, Bernardo Huberman, was on a sunny balcony on Stanford campus. He gave me copies of several of his papers, including a Scientific American article featuring an agent based model of social dilemmas. I still remember the cover photo of one person eating a lobster while the others were looking sadly at the hotdogs they had ordered. My thought was ‘This is fascinating. But it’s not physics…’.

I picked Stanford, maybe with Bernardo in the back of my mind, but that summer I headed to a condensed-matter physics lab to get started at Stanford early. My task was to babysit a scanning tunneling microscope, in the basement of Ginzton Lab (since justifiably demolished). There was nothing else in the basement of this building, just the one room that had been dug out seemingly just for this microscope. The microscope and I did not get along. Highlights included the 8+-year PhD student who had previously worked with it showing up and rolling liquid nitrogen on his tongue. However, beyond that he seemed to be on only marginally better terms with the microscope than I was. Near the end of the summer he told me that the instrument was a prototype, with no documentation, and had been temperamental from the start. At that point I called Bernardo and asked if I could join his research group at Xerox PARC (he had a consulting appointment at Stanford).

The 4 years of my PhD at Stanford were great. I worked in Bernardo’s small group at Xerox PARC and biked to nearby Stanford campus to take classes and attend seminars. I was excused from most graduate physics courses (having already taken them at Caltech), but did take statistical mechanics, which was enjoyable, and quantum field theory, which was intimidating. It was taught by an ex-boyfriend’s mother (who was also briefly RRGs PhD advisor) who may or may not have recognized me hiding in the back of class. The class involved lengthy calculations with what seemed like hundreds of terms (and that was just electron-electron scattering). At some point I found (or was given) a Mathematica library that actually did all of this for you. Somehow my enjoyment of any particular physics problem had a lot to do with whether Mathematica could help. I loved Mathematica. In the end I looked at the A- with great (undeserved) relief and kissed theoretical physics goodbye.

I also took a required astronomy lab, which meant going many summer nights to the telescope in the Stanford hills, hoping against hope that the summer fog would not roll in before you took your photo of some very distant object. I felt largely indifferent toward Jupiter, nearby stars, and faraway galaxies. I think I had always felt this way. I must have been the only physics major to not take an astronomy class at Caltech. I can’t explain it. I was just much more interested in explaining easily observable things, things closer down to earth. But I think it does bring into question how genuine my love of physics was. The rest of my Stanford coursework was filled with stats, computer science, operations research, photography, sailing, and tennis. There was so much more to learn outside of physics.

My research career blossomed. Thanks to Bernardo’s good sense of things that were about to become big, I was working on complex networks right before a lot of other people were. I wrote a couple of papers just at the right time, only occasionally worrying how this work was going to become an applied physics thesis. I can’t tell whether anyone on my committee read my thesis (and discovered that it was in fact not physics) before signing. My outside chair, a computer scientist, said that mine was the first thesis defense he understood entirely.

As I drifted farther and farther away from physics, I kept telling myself that I was going to keep it fresh. I’d re-read Feynman’s lectures, bound volumes which I had shelled out my pocket money for while attending Caltech. Maybe I would re-read Cohen-Tannoudji, quantum mechanics was one of my favorite subjects. But this never happened, and my physics knowledge atrophied, in favor of new ground in statistics and sociology (though I’m not the most diligent in reading up on these either). At some point I stopped mentioning having been a physicist, and when explicitly asked, I would fess up to having been a very, very applied physicist (my PhD was in Applied Physics). ‘The Trouble with Physics’ was pretty much the first “physics” book I had picked up in well over a decade.

A couple of years back I got into audio books, and driving down to LA to give a talk, decided to listen to Feynman’s ‘Surely you’re joking…’. I got a very eerie sense of déjà vu, or rather déjà entendu. The way that Feynman wrote: how he had been stumped by a problem, or curious about some aspect of culture, and how he decided to see whether he could figure out how to do something, and kept practicing until he was decent at it, it was exactly the manner in which some of my physicist friends had spoken. There were two possible explanations: a) they had read Feynman back then, probably in high school, and had been emulating him or b) they were true physicists like Feynman was, and I was not. Either way, what kind of a young physicist doesn’t read Feynman?

Though I’m not sure I ever really loved physics, I loved physicists. I was so consistent in this that when I stepped out with a computer scientist at a party my junior year, a tipsy housemate asked him: ‘You’re a physicist, right? No? But you must secretly be a physicist!’ What was it about physicists? There is something romantic about hurtling into the unknown, seeking truth… Dating physicists also made for good stories: upon first encountering the upper parts of my female anatomy, one physicist did what any physicist would do – he checked out their vibrational modes! No doubt part of dating physicists was liking the guys I wanted to be like. Probably mostly it was that these were just the guys I was already hanging out with.

Except… the one time I fell for someone I had just met (a Calvin Klein model-type hanging around on the same beach), he also turned out to be a physicist. We happily chatted about our favorite journals and preference for LaTeX for writing papers, but my heart beat fastest when he brought up a physics problem from a class he had taken and I desperately tried to remember how to solve it.

In the end I married a computer scientist, which I highly recommend, especially if they work in systems or networking. Physicists may like solving difficult problems, but they prefer finding simple, elegant solutions. A systems person puts in the time to build something and debugs it until it works. Marriage, I think, is more amenable to the latter approach.

My departure from physics may not seem that surprising, especially now that I’ve told you the full story, but if I had formulated any expectations back then about others’ career paths, what happened next would have been the opposite of such expectations. The very people who flaunted their physics prowess or were just so genius that others noted it for them — they most quickly turned to other disciplines. The quieter, more modest physicists are the ones who stuck with it longer — through their PhDs, and on to faculty or industry positions. My quiet Ph77 lab partner? He’s a tenured professor at MIT with a dazzling list of publications. My grad school friend whose lab-mates plastered her nitrogen tank and vacuum chamber with smiley stickers? She’s a physics professor with papers in Science and Nature Physics. A friend who sometimes asked me for help on problem sets? She’s a rocket scientist. Two other women from my dorm are astronomers.

IMLI landed a super-selective quant job after getting a Physics PhD. I saw him a year or two after he had started on Wall Street and he talked about accounting for something like phases of the moon (just kidding) in black box algorithms. He seemed happy. In fact, I think IMLI’s happiness was always somewhat proportional to the difficulty of the challenge.

An ex who had published physics papers even before enrolling at Caltech also went the quant route, right after college. He also talked about enjoying the challenges of problems such as predicting whiskey prices using weather data or guiding x-rays to zap tumors. He turned in his birkenstocks for dancing shoes and to my bemusement (OK, astonishment) started dating gorgeous women on the ballroom dance circuit.
Among my physicist exes (I had to have a few for sampling purposes, OK?), just one, a quiet, modest one, became a professor of physics.

Google absorbed several other physicists I knew. GG (Geekiest Geek, a new character in this story) was one of those nerds in high school who delighted in anything math and physics. I ran into GG again at Stanford where he was getting a PhD working on string theory and playing Magic. Next I saw him at Google architecting some systems. Another Caltech physicist from my year stayed in academia for 15 years, working on quantum computing, before also becoming a Googler. Another, a modest-physicist friend of IMLI’s, is also there, leading an engineering team to beam internet from the sky.

RG, being 3 years ahead of me, graduated my freshman year and continued studying theory in grad school, but the problems given to him by his advisor to try to solve were leading nowhere (perhaps this was just a symptom of the entire field going nowhere, ala The Trouble with Physics?). He finished his PhD in (somewhat) more applied physics, and works as a physicist/engineer in industry.

For years I would occasionally google RRG to see whether his real, real genius theories had finally been recognized and published. I still have a binder with a grainy printout of his picture on the spine (this has more to do with my inability to throw away my physics notes and problem sets than any sort of continued reverence for RRG). LinkedIn has a couple of people who shared RRG’s name, all employed as non-physicists. In the right-hand column, LinkedIn helpfully informed me that people who searched for RRG had also searched for another person from Blacker Hovse. Who else was looking for RRG? In any case, the trail had gone cold.

Speaking of googling, ironically (in the Alanis Morissette way, not a truly ironic way), the Calvin Klein Physicist went on to model. He became a physical oceanographer, not just of the deep-ocean waves that I had to be content with in my undergrad course, but modeling surface waves and wind, just the stuff I had dreamed of learning about before meeting him. In his spare time he translated Einstein’s Relativity. No, he couldn’t just have taken a course on the subject that I shied away from, he had to write a book. And then among the book-related interviews I found while doing “research” for this post, was his interview in a women’s magazine on “the beauty of physics”. A few brooding portraits of him graced the article, and in it he explained applications of special and general relativity, how advances in physics are made, and what makes a theory beautiful. The sidebar advertised articles on the secrets of youthful looks and how challenges can make a relationship stronger. CKP was modeling… physics.

So that’s where we all are now. As we work at our quant jobs, or software jobs, or OK, actual physics jobs, I don’t know how many of us think back to those heady times, when we were intoxicated with our own bravado and the beauty of physics. Several of my current colleagues at Facebook are former physicists like me, something we sheepishly admit on occasion. I’m sort of glad to have their company, but sort of nervous too that they might mention some actual physics.

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