16 March 2007

Fame and glory

I recently read a New York Times article about teaching and encouraging women to contribute more frequently to opinion pages. According to the article, 65-75 percent of unsolicited manuscripts come from men. The idea that women should be bold and demand recognition struck me as both amusing and inspiring. I have to admit I fall into the stereotypical camp of women who try to shrink into the crowd and aspire to do "good works" rather than seek fame and fortune. But dammit, I'm going to change that! In my future postdoc interview, I will tell faculty that I went into physics for fame and glory!

These thoughts resonate even more strongly when I consider the recent Battlestar Galactica episode "The Son Also Rises." The President of the Twelve Colonies and the admiral of the fleet interview a lawyer as a prospective candidate for defending a notorious war criminal. Here's a rough paraphrase of their (hilarious) conversation:
President: "Well, it's so comforting to know that you're not afraid. You're not afraid to represent the most hated man alive. The question is why?"
Lawyer: "For the fame... the glory." [slight smirk]
Admiral: "You worked in the public litigation office on Caprica. You think you have the qualifications to handle a case of this magnitude?"
Lawyer: "I was born for this [deadpan, long pause] ... that, and the fact that I have a pulse."

There is no reason to hide one's desire for fame and success. Why not declare it openly?

11 March 2007

The hockey of physics

In many ways, physics is very much like a competitive sport. Here are a few analogies I have encountered in my chosen sport of hockey.
  1. You really have to want it.
    In hockey, there is a saying that the person who wants the puck the most always get it. Hard work pays off. Unfortunately, in physics, it takes a really long time for hard work to pay off.
  2. Don't give up.
    Coaches have told me over and over that they often see a player shoot on the goal, fail to score, and then slump his/her shoulders and take himself/herself out of the play. In hockey, you can't afford to have mental lapses like that and the same applies in physics. You have to stay alert during that tough-to-understand talk; you have to not give up on that feisty calculation.
  3. Discipline is required.
    The mistake I'm most often guilty of committing is leaving my area of defensive responsibility. It gets boring when nothing is happening in your defensive zone and it's tempting to jump into someone else's zone so that you can get into the play. The problem with doing that is you also make it hard for your team to break out and the team just ends up getting stuck playing defense even longer. Similarly, there are a lot of boring tedious activities involved in learning physics and conducting research. But they are not things you can shortcut your way through.
  4. It's really really hard, but when everything comes together, you're flying.
    Of all the sports I've played, I've found hockey the most difficult. You have to learn (in sequential order): a) how to skate, b) how to stick handle, c) how to stick handle while skating, d) how to play positional defense, and e) how to get open and create offensive opportunities. The common experience for hockey players is to spend the first two years trying to figure out what is going on. Hockey is not only physically complex; it's also really fast, so it's hard to learn. I've been playing hockey for about three years and it hasn't been until now that I understand where I should be on the ice and how to skate and handle the puck. I feel pretty much the same way in physics. I have no idea what's going on in my field. But I hope that one day, I will have my shining moment (just like in hockey) when I finally put everything together. I won't have to think about the individual steps (how to skate, how to shoot, etc), but I can just run with my instincts (play hockey) and do physics.

What I find frustrating is the very long timescale for physics research. You often feel like you're accomplishing nothing for weeks on end. When I feel this way, I try to tell myself: physics is just like hockey, it just takes a little longer.

Physics and its relevance to society

I hung out with a friend from college at March Meeting. He tried to provoke a debate about why should we study condensed matter theory when there are areas of science that have a much closer connection to human life (say biophysics, genetics, and other areas of life sciences). He tried to argue that taxpayers are subsidizing our hobby projects when that money could be spent on medical advances and such.

My first rebuttal was the following. Condensed matter physics is still very relevant to technology. There have been some exciting breakthroughs in negative index materials, integrated photonics, and nanotransistors. And of course, there is the elusive dream of achieving a room temperature superconductor and finding a theory to explain high T_c superconductors (both developments will probably come together). Our society needs to be ready for the next technological revolution and I guarantee you when it happens, we will need all those condensed matter physicists and their expert knowledge.

His response was that technology isn't as wonderful as it seems. It dramatically improves the quality of life for the upper third of society, but the lower 2/3 of society don't experience any gains at all. Without any real background knowledge, I will say that's probably correct. Society is constructed so that by default, rich people get all the benefits. It is very difficult to find a job that doesn't reinforce this structure unless you devote your life to missionary or charity work.

My rebuttal to his second response is the following. I think that a life of service is a wonderful thing, but that it should not be forced on anyone. It should be a calling (my history teacher didn't think high school students should be required to do community service). As a scientist, I believe truth is the highest law and therefore one should be true to his/her character. The noblest thing to do is to follow your calling faithfully and energetically.

The best way to understand this idea is to read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Levin is a well-educated, weathly land owner. He is constantly torn between becoming a politician and a voice for the common man and his love of the simple farming life. His wife, Kitty, has a similar conflict. She tries to be a nurse, but realizes that she just wants to be a good mother. Tolstoy seems to say that there is nothing wrong with aspiring to a simple life; the important thing is to do what you feel in your heart is true. In stark contrast to Levin and Kitty is the doomed affair between the married Anna Karenina and an army officer named Vronsky. These two characters are dishonest in their relationship and therefore they are "punished" at the end of the novel.

You don't have to beat yourself if you don't want to spend all your time helping the old, sick and poor. There is plenty of good that can be done in your own small sphere of influence.

Thoughts from March Meeting

I returned yesterday from the March Meeting extravaganza in Denver. It was my first experience, so I thought I'd record a few thoughts and reflections.

In most of the talks, I was completely lost, sometimes because I just didn't know the topic, other times because I had no idea what the motivation was (being exhausted didn't really help). It was cool to see how many interesting things were going on. My new resolution is to read as much as I can, so I can enjoy the talks more next year. I was also overwhelmed by how popular my research topic was... (gah) 15 hours of superconducting qubit talks!

I was very fortunate to be placed at the beginning of a packed session. It helps when you have cool results and your supervisors are famous. :) I feel like I really nailed my talk (all the practice paid off). My slides were beautiful; I was fluent and didn't forget anything. I will have to work on coming across as more charismatic and less anxious, but that is just a minor issue. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the success of my delivery, the question and answer session was a complete disaster. I finished right on time (10 minutes), so people had (ugh) plenty of time to ask me questions I couldn't answer. Yet another thing to work on.

My favorite part about March Meeting was hanging out with friends (both people in my own group and friends in other corners of the country). During the day, I was running from talk to talk and panicking about my own presentation, but in the evening, I drank beer with friends. It was so much fun that I tried to call all my different groups of friends and find a continuous stream of drinking buddies into the night.

A special bonus treat was getting to see my advisor give a prize talk and seeing my name appear on the third (?) slide. I wasn't even born when my advisor did his prize-winning work, so I was flattered that he thought of me. I guess you can die happy when you've done fantastic research, that research has been recognized in the community, and you're surrounded by your loving spouse, friends, and students/postdocs. My advisor was so happy to the point of getting choked up; may we all hope for such a dream to be realized.