A couple of months ago I agreed to give a lecture for the ISSYP, held at Perimeter this summer. Then pleasantly forgot about it. It was only Wednesday, one day before my scheduled talk that I found out what the abbreviation means - the 'International Summer School for Young Physicists'.
Luckily I realized nobody had asked me for a title of the talk, so picked the first thing that came into my mind. An extended version of 'The World's largest Microscope' followed by an introduction about 'Large Extra Dimensions' because I was reasonably sure nobody else from the PI researcher would talk about something too similar. On the schedule however the titles read like a riddle of the sort "Which item does not belong there? Monday: Quantum Mechanics, Tuesday: Dark Matter, Wednesday: Quantum Gravity, Thursday: Sabine Hossenfelder, Friday: General Relativity."
Upon further inquiry how young is young I was told 11th graders. That's when I got really scared. 11st grade, I thought. Gee. They will ask all kinds of questions I can't answer. Derivation of synchrotron radiation? What's a Fermi in seconds, and how does one explain an UV cutoff to somebody who doesn't know neither what a virtual particle is, nor what UV means?
But, brave me, I faced the challenge and turned up at 9 in the morning (I am particularly proud to report I hit the snooze button only 5 times). Just to find a completely empty room, because the bus was late due to heavy rain. So I grabbed a coffee and when I came back there were 50 kids staring at me, some of which looked about as tired as me. Upon my appearance, a couple of them took out digital cameras which they used whenever something sparked interest (me dropping the pointer?). I hope none of them belongs to generation blog.
Anyway, approaching a birthday in the thirty-somethings I am a bit nostalgic these days. Staring at the kids I saw myself staring back, and I recalled a similar lecture I visited at the Frankfurt University while I was in school. There they were, all the serious scientists with multiple academic titles, IQs several standard deviations off the average, authors of books and technical papers, used to speaking in front of hundreds of people. All these researchers that knew quantum mechanics, differential geometry, and how to properly pronounce Nambu-Jona-Lasinio*. What I didn't know then, most of them were postdocs - their supervisors probably being busy with more serious things than talking to kids.
And I? I was intimidated. Seriously. And some of the kids sitting in my lecture were too, that's what I saw in these faces (I shouldn't have worn black, should I?). They only cracked up when I made a joke about Lee's office (if you've seen his office you'll know what I mean). The most difficult question they asked was why the background of my slides was a map of Middle Earth (but that's another story).
So I was wondering how intimidating is holding a PhD? Part of the distance I felt when sitting in this lecture (a looooong time ago) is probably due to German culture. In case you don't know, German language has a hierarchy problem: there are two ways to address people. Either with the colloquial 'Du' or with the formal 'Sie' . The former is reserved for people you know well, friends and family, and for non-adults (that technically being 18, but obviously there is a certain grey scale here). Being a professor at a university definitely qualifies for 'Sie'. Unless dropping the formalities was explicitly offered, it's appropriate to address him (or her) with 'Professor Soandso'. After moving to the USA, It took me quite some while to get used to addressing basically complete strangers (older than me!) by first name.
But besides this, even in the English speaking countries there remains the barrier between those looking down from their ivory tower, and those wishing to climb up the stairs. So I am left wondering who was more intimidated by whom?
Needless to say, over the years my intimidation gradually vanished. If you've seen a professor crawling on all fours under a desk trying to bark like a dog, it slightly alters your view of 'being several orders off the average' - just believe me.
Footnote 1: The proper pronunciation is An-Jay-Al.
Footnote 2: See e.g. this brief article about 'Friends and Acquaintances' which is imho pretty much to the point.