Sunday, February 11, 2007

Guest Post: Kerstin Paech

God, I love science Fiction!

"Why did you become a physicist?" That was the quite simple question from Bee that I find very hard to answer. But I will try my best to do so. Probably answering this question is so hard for me because I feel an entirely different person started making this decision about 10 years ago.

The first occasion I remember today that may have set me on track (or maybe just foreshadowed it) becoming a physicist was when I was about 10 years old. I started wondering what made the world going and why things happened. For my grandmother - I spent a lot of time with her as a kid - the answer in the end would be "God". Unfortunately, when I was around 10, this answer did start not making sense to me anymore. Even worse, it was the source for even more questions and confusion that I found to be very troubling back then and none of the grownups would really answer. Over the next years I looked for an answer in a lot of places and from a lot of people, but I didn't get an answer that would satisfy me.

Some years later, my curiosity found a great playground: science fiction. Although it didn't answer anything, it asked questions that were not so different from my own. Good science fiction is as much about the science part for me as about the fiction part - where here fiction for me means to explore existential questions about our existence and the very limits of our existence. Not all science fiction does that, but my favourite ones do.

And with science fiction there came an interest science. So I went listen to public talks about Astronomy and Astrophysics, started to read popular science books. It started with Special Relativity went on to the Standard Model.

However, this fascination with fundamental physics didn't translate to my interest in physics I was supposed to learn at school. Sure, it was kind of interesting how a refrigerator works, but what was about the really interesting stuff? In 11th grade then, everything changed - I got a new physics teacher - Alfred Schmitt. He showed us a hint of what physics is like, he showed us the structure of it all and it actually started all making sense. So, although I was an average student in physics at best, I chose it to be one of my two majors for the final to years of my high-school education (In the last minute I changed from majors English and Sports to Math and Physics).

And with the end of high school came the question: What's next? Although I was really thrilled about physics and the entry in our final yearbook read: "Greatest dream: Working at CERN" I was not sure at all if this was what I really wanted. I had the two options laid out for myself: Should I become a Physiotherapist or study Physics? I was absolutely uncertain if I could take up this challenge, but my curiosity won (my husband would probably say that this is not surprising at all, because I am the prototype of a nosy person).

The first years as a student at Frankfurt University was like life on the fast lane. I found that my high school teacher had prepared me extremely well for what I would find at the university - at least physics wise, it didn't keep me from wondering if I could really make it.

I soon started peeking in to research, I went to CERN (can you believe it???) in the summer after the second year to get some hands on experience with the NA49 experiment. I was overwhelmed with all the new impressions I got. I found it real mind-blowing. After that summer I decided to go for theoretical physics, I felt it to be my real calling.

Unfortunately, there is no real fundamental theoretical physics division in Frankfurt. You can either decide for theoretical solid state physics or for something that is called "structure of elementary matter", but effectively is heavy ion physics. Maybe an interesting field of research, but for sure not a very fundamental one. Leaving Frankfurt to go to another University was not an option back then. So I stayed and chose heavy ion physics, because at least there were quarks and gluons involved. And a lot of people there gave me the really strong impression that fundamental physics is not really worthwhile and heavy ion physics is as good as it gets in physics. Over the time I lost my calling, I settled for less than I had started for. And it was only much later I realized it and that is when I became the person I am today. I don't feel the kind of
curiosity in my daily work anymore. I still like my job, but it is not my passion anymore. It's a little like growing up and with growing up the wonders slowly fade away.

But then... I found new wonders, sometimes in unlikely places. I found that Physics was not the only path I would choose - why do I have to choose anyway? If I had met different people, had stumbled upon different impressions, I maybe would have found a fascination for Anthropology, maybe for Philosophy, maybe for Computer Linguistics, maybe for Psychology, or maybe - if my grandmother had had different answers - Theology. After all "We create the meaning in our lives. It does not exist independently"*.

Kerstin Paech graduated 2005 in Frankfurt/Main (Germany). Currently she is a postdoc at MSU, working on Heavy Ion Physics. She is a great fan of Hobbes (the tiger, not the philosopher), in her free time she enjoys to cook and she hates fast food with a passion. Her favourite SciFi TV Shows are "Babylon 5" and "Farscape", her favourite SciFi books currently are "Altered Carbon", "The Swarm", and "The Sparrow".

Footnote: Quotation from a B5-episode, full text e.g. on this website.


See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

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


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12 comments:

Lumo said...

Interesting. Could you please inform Bee to be careful? A Mystery illness is killing tens of thousands of colonies of bees in North America.

Waipot Ngamsaad said...

I'm glad to see your blog. It's not often to see a physicist in blogsphere so I'm lucky today.

Arun said...

If the string theorists are right, then something quite fundamental is lurking in heavy ion collision physics.

Rae Ann said...

Thanks Kerstin and Bee for sharing this story. All of these physicists' stories kind of make me sad for my abandoned further education, but it's too late now to go back. With three young children and so many other things taking my time I couldn't really devote myself to studies the way I'd want/need to. Well, at least I can read science blogs! ;-)

Good luck, Kerstin with your further studies. I think that psychology is a field rich with possibilities for true scientific research, but I'm a bit biased about that probably. I totally relate to the not very interesting physics in basic classes. ;-)

Rae Ann said...

Hi Bee,

Speaking of bees, have you read the book "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd? It's one of my favorite novels from the last several years, though that might not be saying much since I don't read much fiction. ;-)

But it is a well-written book if you have time for a quick novel.

Josie said...

Thanks so much for this story, I wish you all the best for the future and hope you find your way,

Josie

stefan said...

Dear Kerstin,


thank you very much for sharing with us some of the details of the path through life that has lead you where you are right now! And it seems to me your path to physics has been not completely natural and pre-determined, when other near-by ways may have led you to English and sports or physiotherapy... And I am quite impressed that you read books about relativity and the standard model as a teen. Then, physics classes in school are probably really quite boring!

But maybe, in the end, as a curious and inquiring mind, you would have found your way to some science? After all, there are many options for an inquiring mind besides physics. And there are also lots of questions where physics doesn't offer an answer either ;-)

However, that somehow physics is not your passion anymore gives me a feeling of melancholy. Is it really growing up? Or is it, maybe, just that heavy-ion physics doesn't give answers anymore that satisfy your curiosity?

Btw, science fiction is still more or less completely alien to me. Maybe I am really missing something...

Good luck, and with all the best wishes :-)


stefan

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Kerstin, Sciences and especially some mathematically minded physicists believe in the theory of everything
but
isn't the theory or answer to everything - an attribute of an all knowing divinity or god

What was the QGP or Cosmic Soup made of - was it fast food out of a pack - or a broth prepared over a slow fire by a Master Chef

Does Nature make mistakes
Is there any inconsistency
or is Cosmic Karma 'perfect'

No answer required, but I am interested in human answers to cosmic questions - and often fascinated by what I hear

Kerstin said...

Hi Quasar,

thank you for your comment.

No, I don't think physics can give you all the answers either.

I tried to illustrate what path brought me to being a physicist. Not what physics is able to explain or not.

It can answer quite a bit of questions, but certain other, very elementry questions remain unanswered.

Kerstin

Kerstin said...

Hi Stefan,

you ask a very difficult question. Is it really growing up? Or is heavy ion physics not the right thing for me?

Maybe it's both.

Sometimes I ask myself how many of the physicists out there still see the wonders that physics can add to your life.

It is hard to keep wondering when the people around you seem to be "so grown up" about everything. How long can you go on wondering in a world of grown-ups until you grow up as well?

Is it really that different in other fields of physics?

Or maybe it's just naive to expect you can avoid growing up - afterall, we all do.

Kerstin

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Kisten,
I was being light hearted, not critical.
I appreciate the post is what path brought you to physics.
I was merely trying to reconcile the question of whether & why Nature can make mistakes (human deformities) - and the notion or philosophy of Cosmic Karma - everything is as is - because...

Life is the Mystery, and the universe has much to reveal, but funny that whilst healthy skepticism requires to not believe anything that our eyes cannot see or our instruments measure ...
we build colliders hoping to measure some of the very things which we cannot see - or prove (and show) those things we believe may 'possibly' be true.

Are things true when they become 'true' or physical fact, or were they true even before they came to be. And what shall a neutrino bee?
or as Bee would ask do the things which we imagine have existance in our imagination - even if not in the real visible or physical(?) world -

All the best!

Bee said...

Its been pointed out to me that the magazine 'Focus' mentioned in the comment that I just deleted does indeed exist. In case you are interested in running the above post, please contact me by email (sabine[@]perimeterinstitute.ca). For obvious reasons, I will not give copyright to an anonymous commenter. Thanks,

B.