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'.
TAGS: PHYSICS, PHYSICISTS