Sunday, February 25, 2007

Guest Post: Anne Green

Why did I become a physicist? My usual answer to this question, especially after a few beers, is either "the career opportunities are far better for second rate physicists than third rate musicians" or "the film Top Gun" (the female lead has a PhD in astrophysics and I've got a bit of a thing about Tom Cruise....). The serious answer is a combination of the usual curiosity about how things, in particular the Universe, work and a somewhat unhealthy obsession with doing difficult things just to prove that I can.

Physics definitely wasn't something I just fell into. I grew up on a farm in rural Somerset in the south west of England. Neither of my parents have a degree (or even studied maths or physics beyond the age of 14), and only a small handful of the people at my not particularly academic school made it to University. By the time I was 15 I was spending most of my spare time playing various musical instruments and singing. Although I loved music, and lots of people assumed that's what I'd do with my life, I never really considered it seriously as a career choice. It took hours of practice for me to be even half-way competent and I didn't actually like listening to classical music.

The other obvious option was maths. For a theoretical physicist I'm not a great mathematician, but at school I could easily do anything the teachers threw at me. I was reasonably good at physics too, but didn't really enjoy it; it was too practical and too boring. Thanks to a number of television documentaries and the one popular physics book in Shepton Mallet town library, I began to develop a fascination with cosmology and astrophysics though, and convinced myself that physics at University would be more exciting. I toyed briefly with the idea of studying maths and astrophysics, or physics with music, but the "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" appeal of straight physics at Oxford eventually won.

I've got mixed feelings about my time at Oxford. I unwittingly ended up at one of the posher colleges and, with my country bumpkin accent, Dr. Martens boots, purple hippy clothes and very short orange hair, really didn't fit in. The main college physics tutor, Ian Aitchison, was great though and I became good friends, and had a healthy academic rivalry, with the other physicists in my year.

Physics did get a lot more interesting, and by my final year I'd decided, thanks largely to a Scientific American article on inflation, that I wanted to do a PhD in early Universe cosmology. I had, however, heard about Part III of the Cambridge maths degree and, given it's reputation for being tough and egged on by my friends, I wanted to do it. At that time students from outside Cambridge could get funding to do part III, at the discretion of the education authorities where their parents lived. Somerset happily provided discretionary funding for people to go to agricultural college and study small animal care, but not, I discovered, to go to Cambridge and do part III. My tutors also tried to gently convince me that highly mathematical theoretical physics
wasn't what I was best at and that me doing part III wasn't a great idea. The decision was sealed though when I got offered a PhD place at Sussex University to work with Andrew Liddle. Sussex was initially fairly low on the list of places I wanted to go, and back then Andrew wasn't yet particularly well known outside of the early Universe community. But having visited Sussex and met Andrew I was certain it was what I wanted to do.

At the end of my PhD I was fortunate enough to get a three year PPARC postdoctoral fellowship, which gave me the opportunity to follow my scientific nose and, slowly losing my pure theory obsession, I wandered from inflation to WIMP detection, via primordial black holes and micro-lensing. I then spent two very happy years as a postdoc in Stockholm before returning (semi-reluctantly) to the UK on a five year advanced fellowship.

Sabine suggested that I also write about the things which trouble me about physics, and I can't resist the opportuntity to stand on a virtual soap box and rant about two of my favourite (physics related) topics.

The first one is the "harder the better" obsession of many theoretical particle physicists. At the risk of sounding like an evangelical born again Christian or a reformed alcoholic-there's more to physics than doing hard-core theory at the most famous institution possible! Which brings me to some pieces of (unsolicited) advice for PhD students and postdocs. Studying and working at "good" places is important if you want a long-term career in research. But the definition of "good" should include "where there are people who you can learn from and collaborate with" and not, necessarily, "a famous place which will impress your non-physics friends". And rather than following the herd, charging around writing papers on whatever is this month's hot topic, try and find your own niche working on problems that interest you and which you can make a significant contribution to solving. Not only is this more fun (and if physics isn't fun, why bother when you can get paid far more working in the city?) it's probably better for your long term career prospects too.

The second is the "diversity" issue. Most physicists are male, white and middle class. A lot of time and energy is spent on the first of these issues, a (very) little on the second and virtually none on the third. While I realize that things were very different in the relatively recent past, I firmly believe that being a woman hasn't hindered my career to date at all (in fact it's the possibility of being the unwitting recipient of positive discrimination which keeps me awake at night). My family and school background, on the other hand, have made the path to becoming a physicist slightly more tortuous than normal. I had to fight a to be allowed to study "Further Maths" as an additional subject at school (a fairly standard thing for would-be theoretical physicists in the UK to do, but pretty much unheard of where I came from). My parents were always very supportive with practical things (for instance taking time off work to take me to
University open days) but physics and academia are a complete mystery to them. I once mentioned studying mechanics. My mum's bemused reaction was "but I can't imagine you with your head under the bonnet of a car"! And the postdoc job search is stressful enough without having to explain to concerned parents that a series of short term positions is the standard career path, and not the beginning of a road to nowhere. Like many other physicists I'm involved in various outreach activities, but I think all too often we end up "preaching to the converted"; giving talks at "nice" schools, where going to University is the default choice. There's a large fraction of the population for whom this isn't the case. We should be doing more to try and make contact with them, and get over the message that studying physics is not only fascinating but also opens the door to a range of careers.

Anne Green is an astro-particle physicist and has a faculty position in the Particle Theory group at the University of Nottingham. At the moment she is particularly interested in the dark matter distribution on sub-galactic scales and its experimental and observational consequences. She currently spends her spare time ironman training, playing the piano, listening to nu-metal and emo and traveling to interesting/unusual places.

See also my previous post about Anne's colloq, her work with Stefan Hofmann about the small scale structure of dark matter, and of course the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

and my related guest post at Asymptotia 'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.



Uncle Al said...

Detecting massive non-thermalized particles whose only first order interaction is gravitational is a right proper pisser. Let's have a really silly idea! Can shot/zero point noise be reduced enough for Dark Matter to matter? Use a DLP chip as a massively parallel nulled interferometer.

How much collision is required to tip (a very deeply cryogenic mirror) enough to matter - or plain plane micro-mirrors without their electronics?

Three (arrays of) orthogonal chips hint at detecting overall flux directionality. Similar for cantilevered ultramicrobalance arrays.

Chanda said...

Hi Anne,

I just wanted to second what you say about class being a major issue. And reading your post makes me realize that I wish I had spent more time in my Cosmic Variance post talking about the socioeconomic component of my discussion about diversity. As a woman of colour from a working class background, I sometimes forget that while the links are obvious to me, they aren't obvious to everyone. In my discussion there, I implicitly assumed that people would recognize that the race issue is also a class issue, but I realize now that I should be more careful about that!

And of course, there is a large working class white community that gets ignored, which doesn't help race relations in the US at all, I think. I imagine the same is true both here in Canada and in the UK of GB.

I enjoyed reading your post and bravo to you for being unafraid to focus on the classism of our community. Also, I am glad to see your comments about Oxford. It's unfortunate that it wasn't tons of fun, but I had a similar experience at Harvard, and it's nice to know I'm not the only one who felt that way.

On the other hand, as I recall from seeing you around PI, you didn't let the Oxbridge attitude change your ideas, and hopefully, you're really proud of that.


nige said...

Liked the bit about your efforts to study the further pure maths A-level to get to Oxford to read physics.... at my school, although I wanted to become a physicist, the only maths course with a spare place was pure + statistical applications (the statistics was Students t test, Chi squared, Gaussian, Poisson, etc., no hint of anything like Fermi-Dirac or Maxwell-Boltzmann). So it wasn't even possible to take pure + mechanics.

After getting physics A-level, I had to sit two papers on separate dates for an A.E.B. open examination in London (with my passport to prove identity) to get pure + applied (mechanics) A-level, which I passed. The great thing exam based qualifications is that even if your school don't offer it, you can take it independently. There is far too much money given in the British state education system to pretty useless teaching in less than useful subjects. I've never understood anything I've been taught by a maths teacher (they were all that bad); the only way was working through the syllabus for the exam using good textbooks.

A Financial Times report,, says:

Physics A-level will not be needed for degree
By Jon Boone, Education -Correspondent

Published: October 11 2006 03:00 | Last updated: October 11 2006 03:00

Students without A-levels in maths and physics are from next year to be offered a new physics-based degree as part of an effort to boost science subjects and the UK's economic competitiveness. ...

The University of East Anglia, London South Bank University, University of Leicester and the University of Surrey will each offer about 30 places for the course next year.

Science, technology, engineering and maths have all been struggling against waning interest from school leavers. The number of physics undergraduates did not increase between 1999 and 2004 in spite of rapid growth in the university population as a whole. Engineering fell 3 per cent over the same period, maths 11 per cent and chemistry 20 per cent.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Buckingham University, warned earlier this year that physics could be in "terminal decline" because of too few trained physicists teaching in state schools and the single-science GCSE. [end]

The "physic in terminal decline" report is:, and a list of stories is at

nige said...

Sorry for the typos: my comment above should obviously say "even if your school doesn't offer it, you can take it independently". I will have to start reading comments slowly and carefully before submitting them.

stefan said...

Dear Anne,

thank you for pointing out the issue of social background! I wasn't quite aware of it. But definitely, it is of growing importance in Germany...

Best regards, stefan

Anonymous said...

How come there are so many Greens physicists?

Rae Ann said...

Thanks Anne for sharing your story! Sometimes people don't realize how difficult it can be to 'rise up' from a rural background. It certainly takes as much determination as talent, and I admire your determination to overcome obstacles. Good luck in your further studies!

Anne said...

Thanks for the comments. I just wanted to expand on a couple of things (mainly in case there are any would-be physicists reading this).

Re. the class issue: I don't think universities, and the physics community, are "classist" in the sense of there being discrimination, or barriers which universities are directly responsible for. (Although some of the older institutions could probably widen their appeal by jettisoning some of their more arcane traditions....). The issue arises at a much earlier stage. Many teenagers don't realise that University in general, and physics in particular, is an option for them. And even if they do the short-term appeal of paid work (and cars, girls/boys and/or drugs...) can outweigh the more nebulous long term benefits of further education.

In the UK at least, universitities are putting significant effort into "widening participation", through initiatives like the
Sutton Trust Summer Schools
(which give potential students from non-traditional backgrounds a taster of university life). The point I was trying to make was that as physicists we should be trying to engage the wider population.

Re. "Further Maths": [This probably isn't going to be comprehensible/interesting to anyone outside of the UK.] Universities realise that not everyone has the opportunity to study further maths and (with the exception of Maths at Cambridge) I'm not aware of any degree courses for which it's a compulsory entry requirement. And to be honest it probably wouldn't have made any difference to my life/career if I hadn't been able to do it. On the other hand the material covered is good preparation for University level maths and physics, and I enjoyed doing it, so in my opinion it would be good if it were more widely available.
The Further Mathematicles network appears to be development in this direction (but I must confess that I know nothing about it other than its existence).

Uncle Al: If WIMPs could only interact gravitationaly then I'd agree that WIMP detection experiments would be a silly idea. But we expect that they do interact with conventional matter, albeit weakly, and actually the fact that experiments haven't yet found a (convincing) signal is already providing constraints on particle physics models.

Anonymous: There are lots of Greens in physics (and there's even another Anne Green!). It's a common name though, so I've no idea whether the excess of Greens is statistically significant or not.