Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Backstage Tour at the Manitoba Opera

When I found out I was moving to Winnipeg, my piano teacher in Montreal told me the city was known for the arts. Although I’m used to a peripatetic lifestyle and was excited by the move, it was news to me, since all I knew about Winnipeg was that 1) it was cold, 2) it was home to a world-renowned ballet company, and 3) there weren’t any current nearby cosmologists or string theorists (until Andrew and I came here).

I’ve discovered that with proper clothing even on the coldest days, the weather in Winnipeg really is tolerable, and I walk or bus everywhere, so I’m out a lot even on the most frigid days. In fact, anyone who knows me has heard the story far too many times how the coldest period of my life was living in an unheated, LA apartment as a UCLA graduate student where the windows didn’t close as the weather plummeted to freezing; my only consolation as I shivered in my winter coat in bed at night was reading the biography of a freezing Marie Curie in Paris.

However, the reputation that preceded Winnipeg as an arts city, I’m discovering, is not unfounded. Where else have I been able to find high caliber music teachers, tickets to the symphony, opera, ballet, or plays (in venues small enough that even in the worst seats you don’t need your binoculars) that are accessible and affordable? And where else can you spend a Sunday afternoon free at the concert hall for a backstage tour of the opera?

I didn’t know what to expect. Since the tour started every twenty minutes, I thought it would be a twenty minute lecture on the stage. However, the tour was comprehensive, starting in the orchestra pit where we were privy to view not only the concert hall from below but also the celesta (a keyboard instrument) used in the Manitoba Opera’s last production Of Mice and Men, composed by American composer, Carlisle Floyd, and based on the John Steinbeck novel. I believe it was the executive board member, Robert Vineberg, who explained the relationship of the conductor to the music (where the conductor studies each note weeks before rehearsals and how the orchestra is blind to the performance on stage, only the conductor can see the singers).

At this point in the tour, we were conscious of the obvious talent behind the production, the musicians and singers on stage. It was only later in the tour where the full magnitude of how many talents behind the scenes are required for a three-day-run of an opera. For example, we see the orchestra members, but how often do we think of the simplest of matters in a production, such as the procurement of the copies of the orchestral scores?

The second stop was in a rehearsal room with the CEO and Director of the Opera, Larry Desrochers whose photo I pass often at the University Winnipeg where he won a Distinguished Alumni Award.  The first point of note was how humble and passionate all of the speakers at the backstage tour were. How Desrochers expressed his wish to make opera accessible to everyone (and so he encouraged people to phone legislators to provide the necessary funding). He demonstrated how a score is marked, one page of music, the other with blocking that would match the spike marks (tape on the floor designating the performers’ marks, which seems similar to film). His gracious talk to us on the tour emphasized how little the ticket sales cover expense of an opera and how critical opera accessibility is to the vitality of a community.

Third was the make-up artist. Again, I was impressed by his passion for stage make-up and happy with his response to my question about how he maintains sanitary conditions with make-up (alcohol sprays on the make-up, disposable applicators, brush cleanings between applications to different performers). Next was hair, where we were treated to the behind the scenes work of the hair dresser and wig maker. From the wardrobe manager, we learned that, like the rented sets, the costumes are rented, though the performers could use their own shoes. I also found this interesting since I would fathom using unknown shoes could make it difficult to perform optimally. Would it?

We also saw the director of production, Sheldon Johnson, who emphasized that even a relatively small production, such as Of Mice and Men, which features a cast of eight principals and twelve chorus members, requires sixty orchestra members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 107 people backstage not including ushers, the box office, the bartenders, etc. The first thing he said is that productions require 1) lots of people and 2) lots of stuff. He mentioned how the scores must be rented, customs attended to, props, tape (for the marks), piano movers for rehearsals, piano tuners, rehearsal props, sets etc. all must be organized. There are 150 lamps alone above the stage which each must be focused for this production. I must admit, I became lost when he started talking about the machinery (chain motors?) needed to keep the 2600 pounds of bunk beds above the stage (in the fly) or the barn set.

The next stop was with the Stage Manager, Robert Pel, who came to Winnipeg specifically for five weeks to work on this production. One aspect of his job was to plot out (in twelve hours over two days) the 120 looks needed for this production with the lighting designer and director. He arrived one week before the artists, there were two weeks of rehearsals, one week when the set had arrived during which it was unpacked and set up by Monday night, Tuesday the orchestra and singers rehearsed, Wednesday costume, make-up, hair were done with a rehearsal accompanied by the piano (no orchestra), Thursday a final dress rehearsal with orchestra and an audience of students, Friday off, and performance on Saturday. From his location in the wings, the stage manager watches monitors of the performance, which are also available to the performing artists to watch, whom he calls to the wings 5 minutes before their entrance. They prepare two minutes before they go onstage from the wings. It is also the stage manager who takes care of the extensive safety precautions needed when props include firearms (hearing protection for the actors, permits, making sure it is clean and without bullets, overseeing that two people watch the firearm at all times before it goes on stage, etc).

The final treat of the tour that we attended (we opted to skip the last stop, which was the lighting booth in the back of the theatre) was conducted by Lara Ciekiewicz, whom I have enjoyed watching from the audience as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Turandot. As with all the other talent who spoke on the backstage tour, Ciekiewicz was humble and modest, though possessed a confidence which I admire. She even demonstrated for us by singing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. She truly embodied an artist, as all the backstage talent did as well, communicating that the stage is her office, that she envisions the 2200 member audience (who bring their own stories to the theatre) as surrounding a campfire on the stage where the artists connect to each other and the audience in the conveyance of a story. She discussed how important it is for her to warm up her body as well as her voice before performing, that an opera is, in a way, akin to a vocal marathon. And, as she relayed to us, she feels as though the performing artists are the tip of the iceberg of backstage talent that supports the performance. She discussed Mozart’s emotional as well as musical intelligence, which is evidenced by anyone who has ever played one of his sonatas on the piano, sung one of his art songs or arias, or read his letters.

I enjoyed listening to Ciekiewicz’s enjoyment of singing in choirs, loved her statement of “phlegm begone” (as my throat is often phlegmy when I sing), and her discussion of the flawed perception a singer has of her own voice as she sings. I have hence recently learned to rely on the feeling of my body (or my teacher) and to not worry about the sound, and, as Lara so eloquently said, it’s not about you. It’s about the text and the music.

And with that, I thank the Manitoba Opera for all you give to our community and look forward to the season in Winnipeg!

Review and Scientific Discussion of Theatre by the River’s Production of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Do you engage with him in banter or do you discuss the weather? Do you talk or do you listen? Do you invite him to stay the night or ask him to leave? Do you take care of her or betray her? Do you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you or not? Do you take that last chance to connect or do you let him go? Do you brave an illness or do you choose death?

And is there another you in another universe of the multiverse landscape confronted with the same questions but making different choices? Are there an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of copies of you living out different variations of your life? This is the premise of Nick Payne’s stimulating play, Constellations, performing this week at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film by Theatre by the River featuring Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts. Together with Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar and Andrew Frey, I have the great honor to participate in the Talk Back sessions after two of the performances to share my thoughts about the play’s scientific content.

The play consists of a series of scenes each of which represents a different interaction of the protagonists, Marianne and Roland, in various contrasting scenarios that could be playing out in different universes of the multiverse. The notion of a multiverse is based on a theory that there is a landscape which contains an infinite number of universes. The scenes alternate between witty and poignant, frivolous and weighted. Both the scientific allusions as well as the ethical decisions the characters encounter are relevant and provocative. The actors, Mel Marginet and Derek Leenhouts, authentically vary their portrayals to accommodate the ever shifting ambiance from scene to scene, from lighthearted to grave, from awkward to intimate, from warm to aloof, from casual to intense. Although the play follows only two individuals through the possible situations they could share, the pair draws you into their stories which we can relate to with the different relationships in our lives and the different roles we play with the people who populate our life. Using a clever device of parallel universes, the play paints a mosaic of nuanced experiences we all share on our own life adventures.

What is the scientific idea behind the multiverse, and could we ever experimentally detect it? A popular theory within the framework of string theory (the mathematically self-consistent theory that unifies all four forces by postulating the most elementary constituents are one-dimensional strings, as opposed to point particles) is the landscape. The landscape gives a physical framework in which the anthropic principle could be valid. This provides a possible solution for why there is a small non-vanishing cosmological constant (the parameter in the universe responsible for the universe’s observed accelerated expansion, a sort of negative pressure). The anthropic principle considers why the state of the universe is such that life can exist. The landscape argument suggests that there is a landscape of universes within a multiverse, and since we observe life in our universe, we happen to occupy one of the domains which supports life. However, there could be other universes with different flavors of string theory (with different degrees of symmetries) and hence physical laws which don’t support life. You can imagine these universes as expanding bubbles within the multiverse.

Is there a way we could detect whether we live in a multiverse? Stephen Feeney, Matt Johnson, Daniel Mortlock, and Hiranya Peiris asked just that in 2010 (see their initial papers on the arXiv, arXiv:1012.1995 and their longer paper, arXiv:1012.3667). The cosmic microwave background (CMB) (in one scene this is the subject that the character Marianne studies) is the relic radiation from the Big Bang. At the origin of the universe, space was small and radiation was very hot. As space expands, the Big Bang’s relic photons’ wavelengths stretch out, decreasing their energy. Today the CMB has stretched to millimeter wavelength and a temperature of 2.73 above absolute zero. The universe is bathed in this radiation; it is everywhere and can even interfere as noise to electronic signals (remember the static on old TVs? Some of that was due to the CMB). Feeney et al postulated that when the bubbles containing eternally inflating universes collide, they will produce edges or discontinuities in the temperature maps of the CMB. At the Perimeter Institute, I was talking to Matt Johnson and mentioned I had used the Canny algorithm as an edge detection algorithm for my research with identifying cosmic string signals in the CMB. My application of the Canny algorithm was simpler, since I could assume a flat two-dimensional sky, and his team adapted a more sophisticated Canny algorithm for their models as part of their search for the edges produced by colliding universe bubbles in the CMB. Although they have not detected evidence of bubble collisions yet, their approach could provide a promising means of searching for evidence of the multiverse in CMB data.

Another scientific concept in the play is that of the many worlds interpretation in quantum mechanics. This can be illustrated by the Schroedinger cat thought experiment. Traditionally, we think of the wavefunction (the function which describes the state) of the cat as being a superposition of the two states, alive and dead, at the same time. If you peek in the box, the act of observing the cat collapses the wavefunction to a single state, that of the cat either being alive or dead. In the many worlds interpretation, after you observe the cat, there is part of your wavefunction where you observe the cat to be alive and part of your wavefunction where you see her to be dead. So in the many worlds version, the observer’s wavefunction splits as well and becomes entangled with the cat’s. Marianne deftly integrates these quantum ideas into her dialogue, relating her experience through the lens of physics which shapes her thoughts.

The character of Marianne in Constellations is a young engaging woman, who happens to be a theoretical cosmologist. She deconstructs the stereotype of scientists being either older men or dowdy women. We need more fictional portrayals of hip women in STEM to provide role models! Women like Marianne who are young, brilliant, and sophisticated, much like the real-life London-based cosmologist, Hiranya Peiris. Cosmology is sexy, and it’s refreshing to see a fictional woman physicist who not only advances science but also defies the preconceived notions society has defined for women in science. Women in science can have lives outside their work and can be intriguing and vivacious.

The idea of the multiverse builds the structure for the play, Constellations, but its underpinnings are grounded in philosophy and are far from alienating. Instead of feeling removed from these characters and their journey, we are left feeling connected to them and their stories while recognizing the common elements that weave through our own narratives. In a sense, the play provides a microcosm through which we can examine our own encounters with other people and our own evolving selves. As Roland states in the play, honey bees enjoy a fleeting existence. And during their ephemeral lives, they live with intention and purpose, either to mate with the queen bee or to work. Compared to the time scale of the universe, our lives are on the scale of nanoseconds. But we are here. And we do have the purpose to explore. The universe. Art. Philosophy. Ourselves and our connections with others. And love.

Closed String

This poem first appeared on Lake Waban Blue here.

caltech

This picture was taken at the California Institute of Technology where I hung out while I was studying string theory as a graduate student at UCLA.  I recently wrote this poem on a worldsheet.  If you look at the first line of each stanza, it describes a closed string (like a rubber band) sweeping out a worldsheet.  Strings, one-dimensional objects as opposed to point particles, are the smallest components in string theory, a theory which unifies all the forces.  Particles are created by the vibrations of the strings.  You can calculate string interactions using worldsheets, much like Feynman diagrams.  However, they smooth out singularities and remove infinities.

Simple
Life should be
an elegant routine
between the poles of the day

Of one dimension
Paths should be
a directed plan
a vector from the origin to the destination

Encircling a point
We should be
sharing our centers
to all dimensions

With a defined radius
our Family & Friends should be
attached and not abandoned
not to be left as singular

Of points around
our Knowledge should be
traversing from Vermeer to Britten
a mind’s voyage through space-time

Sweeping out a two-dimensional surface
our words should be
painting characters on the canvas
like the elegant solutions to equations

A worldsheet, a dynamic object
our minds should be
as we focus with discipline
and accept the charged currents of change

For a theory of everything
the forces between should be
though we are not
the theory is perfect.

Survival of the Fittest

Originally posted as a Wellesley in STEM article at Wellesley Underground.

RJDCOSMO

Every year the day before the first day of school, my family had a tradition where my father would take my sister and me to a museum (or later to the Doylestown courthouse to watch trials). We frequented Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the science museum, where I fell in love with astronomy and physics. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of a career as an astrophysics professor, or later one in high energy physics.

The physics path, however, was strewn with obstacles from performance anxiety to discouragement from every direction, including the male bullies who drove me out of my high school math competition team as well as my nuclear physics course, where in both cases I was the only girl. By senior year of high school, I conceded. I swapped AP Physics for philosophy, nuclear physics for choir, and agreed to pursue my parents’ desire for me to become an international lawyer.

During my first week at Wellesley, one of the Munger dorm advisors happened to be the renowned astronomer, Professor Dick French. As the advisors introduced themselves, he said, “I’m an astronomer.” Those words changed my life. I soon ventured to Whitin Observatory and procured a position within the department  with the support of Professor Wendy Bauer who also encouraged me to take Dick French’s astronomy course.

I remember those early years. Dick French inspired in me the confidence that I could become an astronomer, so I majored in astrophysics which would give me the option of a math major. I loved the community where all the physicists I knew were women.

Of course what lay in my future outside Wellesley’s womb was the full range of gender discrimination from the minor (professors not respecting my knowledge and deferring to men with less expertise) to the severe (sexual harassment) instigated by both men and women. I was attracted to high energy theoretical physics as well, reputed for being the sexiest field of physics and only for the elite. There have been years of misery due to the systematic devaluation in a field which favors the survival of the fittest. In this harsh academic climate, I have found pockets of solace. My college boyfriend, now husband, my MS supervisor in string theory, my PhD group and supervisors in string-inspired cosmology, and friends at my current university among them. There have been other individuals and groups I apologize for omitting.

The academic path post-college is a minefield, starting with entrance exams, comprehensive exams on every field of physics once you are in graduate school, and ending with the defense. Then the competition to procure a post-doctoral position is fierce; in some cases there are as many as a 1000 applicants for a few low-paying positions and generally, in my experience, no less than around a hundred applicants for a single position. I count myself lucky to have been on two college shortlists at the University of Cambridge, one for Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, as well as other shortlists, and have obtained a Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics National Fellowship, though not in high energy theory.

I see two major problems with science in society: 1) the devaluation of women and minorities and 2) the lack of value society places on those who advance basic science, which leads to a highly competitive job market and research environment.  There are also restrictions on academic freedom to explore novel ideas, in part, due to funding restrictions.  Engineering and industry with direct and obvious profitable ends seem more valued by society.

We, especially women in science, need to band together to create a more supportive, inclusive environment. Many of those I’ve known in high energy theoretical physics, men and women, have left the harsh academic climate in search of an improved quality of life. The academic environment is especially caustic for women who constantly have to defend their scientific arguments, sometimes to no avail, which are taken for granted when coming from men.  Part of the problem might be that women are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome and might not convey their ideas in a confident way, translating into seeming less competent. Confidence and competence are unrelated, yet the first projects the second.

I wonder about a society that places more value on athletes and entertainers than the individuals who explore the fabric of space-time, which in the case of general relativity, incidentally, led to your GPS and cell phone technology. I wonder about a community of physicists, men and women, who can either be dismissive or abusive to their women colleagues with equal education and abilities.

Wellesley, to me, is a model for an environment to foster astronomers and physicists. It was challenging but not degrading. We were encouraged to ask questions without preceding them by the qualification I see in seminars, “This might be a stupid question.” We were treated as humans as opposed to machines. Our gender did not subject us to attack for the most part. We were encouraged to cooperate to solve problems and not to work in lonely isolation, as is often the post-doc experience for many. We were valued by default without having to prove ourselves. We were encouraged to fulfill our dreams.

It was not a perfect environment. For a short time, I had a research advisor who demeaned women and screamed swear words at me (he is no longer at Wellesley). Many of us were extremely stressed, sleep deprived, and lacked balance in our lives. I never made the proverbial lifelong friends among my Wellesley classmates. But these issues were minor because I loved the work which justified any hardships. I loved the companionship of all nighters with my classmates or playing Madonna in the warm room while operating the 24” telescope (once accidentally leaving the microphone in the dome on, blasting the music to the entire hill surrounding the observatory).

A lot of my friends and colleagues, men and women with PhDs from prestigious universities, are leaving academia behind. Academia used to be a safe haven for intellectuals. As academia has begun to fall prey to corporatization, the number of papers produced is valued, rather than quality, and the very stressful ambiance and gender biases run rampant, many are finding new homes in the world. For those who are able and choose to remain employed in academia, it consumes their lives as they are generally overworked. However, kudos for those who flourish in academia, who have found niches of inspiration, curiosity, academic freedom, and support.

As the job market in academia for theoretical physics shrinks, workloads increase and permanent positions become scarce, the competition in academia is only likely to become more fierce as physicists vie like gladiators for positions.  This environment has always been adverse for the survival of women in the field, and it isn’t likely to improve without a conscious effort.  As students and colleagues, we should be mindful of our behavior that might be gender biased.  This ranges from looking at male colleagues in a discussion rather than the woman who might have asked the question to discussing, or not respecting, a woman’s choice not to have children in public (would you do this with a male physicist?).  It includes students and faculty not treating women equally as men, not respecting their explanations but accepting the same ones coming from men.  In the extreme cases, it has resulted in deserving women being omitted from prestigious prizes. According to Nobel website, of the approximately 200 Nobel prizes in physics awarded, only two have gone to women, Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.  Why hasn’t Vera Rubin been awarded one for the discovery of dark matter?  Why didn’t Jocelyn Bell receive the Nobel prize her supervisor won when she discovered radio pulsars?

To solve the problem of gender discrimination, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are treating a woman in the same way we would a man and consciously become gender-blind, as in how orchestral auditions have become.  In my personal experience, I have been fortunate that most of my academic groups led to largely positive interactions.  However, it can take just one destructive individual that can lead to days or even months or years of distress.  A drop of poison will affect an entire well.  We need to be mindful of our words and actions to lead to supportive environments that will encourage ourselves and others to do our best work and to enable the possibility of everyone reaching their full potential to contribute to the field.

My view of academia is narrow, a pinhole including high energy theoretical physics and astrophysics. There is a dearth of women and men in high energy physics from certain ethnic groups, especially of African descent. We can hope that in these fields, or academia at large, now that the discussion has been broached, the conditions, especially for women and minorities, will improve. Academic employment might have become the realm where survival of the fittest applies, but, those who have chosen to leave, as the Gloria Gaynor song expressed at so many Wellesley dorm parties, will survive (and thrive) too.

Confusions: A Life of Comedy

I must confess this blog has evolved from its original intent to document musings on science, math, and music to more reflections of an outsider plunged into Winnipeg.

I actually did attempt to write an essay about a math paper, but in the paper’s co-author’s words, it was fittingly incomplete, as I referenced Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in my philosophical rant about the beauty of mathematics. Let me tell you how it happened.

After writing some about how satisfying string theory is for its intrinsic self-consistencies, and that regardless of whether our universe is governed by these extra dimensional principles, the theory yields a comprehensive self-consistent set of principles with useful advancements in nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, and mathematics, I then rambled about mathematics. In math you start with a theorem which you might be able to prove. The theorem and its proof represent a truth that a new experiment can’t expropriate. Of course, when relating this newly found ideological satisfaction with mathematics compared to most physics I’ve explored with a mathematics professor and friend, she informed me of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. This theorem states that you can write an axiom which is true about the natural numbers but which is unprovable. Perfection, I suppose, is elusive in any field, but, at the end of the day, or rather a proof, in mathematics, you might not have fundamentally changed your view of the universe, but at least you know you have unearthed a truth, something which cannot be expunged.

If perfection in science or mathematics is lacking, it is certainly lacking in humanity in all our glorious flaws. After many tense weeks which manifested in physical pain, Andrew and I decided we needed some comedy and attended a play, Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions performed by the Shoestring Players, in which my friend was acting.

What a comedy of human flaws, errors, dysfunctional relationships, painful lonely isolation, desperation, lack of companionship, and disconnected people. It was an opera of quarreling couples. The spouse confessing infidelity to her husband while the waiter asked if the husband would like potatoes, he in abstract torment about the security of his job, as his wife had bedded his boss. The boss tenderly reading the menu to his suspecting wife who had forgotten her reading glasses. The wife who confronts her husband, the boss, and starts a scene in the restaurant where both couples eat. The mother who won’t answer the phone calls from her husband who is traveling and unsuccessfully attempting to seduce women. There is one scene where the boss’s wife is supposed to deliver an address at a fund raiser, she is disarranged from being misdirected to a plow field by children, she tries to speak into the microphone, a drunken fiance sings camp songs after his beloved’s infidelity was accidentally broadcasted for all to hear by the speakers, tea pours onto the sound system, the boss’s wife is electrocuted, and everything disintegrates into chaos. It was a disaster, a microcosm of human failings.

I didn’t relate to the characters in the first four one act plays, but the fifth one resonated a bit with me. It centered on five people sitting on four park benches. Each of the four people situated on the four benches desired privacy and solitude. The fifth person sat on the first bench and tried to strike up a conversation. When the already seated person became disrupted enough by the unhappy monologue, they would move to the next park bench and confess their story. It was about people desperately trying to share their stories, to connect, to feel heard. It was about ignoring the pain of others, something we all do at times. The last line of the play encapsulated the frustration of the individuals, that “you might as well talk to yourself.” In my case, I like talking to myself, or rather writing to myself.

The acting was clear with objectives, obstacles, and tactics, the British accents believable. Freud would say we succumbed to the pleasure principle, by taking pleasure in the confusing comedic pain of the characters. It was an exaggeration, a hyperbole, of those day-to-day disconnects we might have with people in our lives, perhaps not with our spouses, but with other people in our circles. And even if we can’t relate to the flaws in these characters, we all have our own flaws and imperfections, which, in comparison to the characters, might seem okay. We’re not perfect, life is not perfect, but neither is mathematics nor physics, so maybe it’s all good.