Sunday, March 20, 2016

Can we get some sympathy for the nerdy loners please?


“What is she doing?” – “She is sitting there.” – “Ye-es. But what is she do-ing?”

“She isn’t doing anything. She is just. Sitting there.”

“How long do we wait?” – “We wait until the clock is 29 and 10.”

I’m sitting there because I have a problem. The problem isn’t that I have children – children who, despite my best efforts, still can’t read the clock. I am sitting there because I have a problem with a differential equation. Actually, several of them.

You’d think two non-stop nagging kids would have cured me from getting eaten up by equations. But they’ve just made me better at zoning out. Hooked on a suitably interesting problem – it’s inevitably something-with-physics – I am basically incommunicable, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Not like that’s news. 20 years ago I was your stereotypical nerd. The student in an oversized hoodie, with glasses and an always overdue haircut. No matter where I went, I dragged around a huge backpack full of books – just in case I had to look up something about that problem I was on. Nobody was surprised I ended up with a PhD in theoretical physics.

I’ve since swapped the hoodies for mommy-wear that doesn’t make it quite as easy for toddlers to hide food in it. I’ve found a way to tie up the mess that is my hair. And I’ve learned to make conversation. Though my attempts at small-talk inevitably seem to start with “I recently read...”

But despite my efforts to hide it, I’m afraid I’m still your stereotypical nerd.

I get often asked if it’s difficult to be one of the few women in a field dominated by men. Yes, sometimes. But leaving aside the inevitable awkwardness that comes with hearing your own voice stand out an octave above everyone else’s, theoretical physics has always been my intellectual home, the go-to place when in need of likeminded people. The stories about the lone genius waiting to be hit by an apple, they didn’t turn me off, they were my aspiration. I just wanted to be left alone solving problems. And for the biggest part I have been left alone.

There’s a price to pay, of course, for wanting to be left alone. Which is that you might be left alone.

Ágnes Móscy is the exact opposite of your stereotypical nerd. She’s as intelligent as artsy, and she dabbles with ease between communities. She seems infinitely energetic and is a wonderful woman, warm and welcoming, cool and clever. In recent years, Ágnes has become very engaged in the good cause of supporting minorities in physics. She has gone about it as you expect of a scientist, with numbers and facts, with data and references, giving lectures and educating her colleagues. I admire her initiative.

I had to say some nice things about Ágnes first because next comes some criticism.

The other day she wrote a piece for Huffpo hitting on the supposed myth of the lonely genius.

I will agree that genius is as word as useless as overused. Nobody really knows what it means, and it has an unfortunate ring of “genetics” to it. That’s unfortunate because a recent study has found evidence that women shy away from fields that are believed to require inborn talent rather than hard work. Then there’s another study which demonstrated that students are more likely to associate “genius” with male professors than with female and black professors. And Ágnes is right of course when she says that most of us in physics aren’t geniuses, whatever exactly you think it means, so why use a label that is neither descriptive nor helpful?

I’d sign a petition to trashcan “genius,” together with “next Einstein.”

Then Ágnes makes a case that the loner in physics is as much a myth as the genius. You won’t be surprised to hear I disagree.

True, scientists always build on other’s work, and once they’ve built, they must tell their colleagues about it. Communication isn’t only a necessary part of research, it’s also the best way to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. That talking to other people about your problems can be useful is a lesson I first had to learn, but even I eventually learned it.

Still, there is a stage of research that remains lonely. That phase in which you don’t really know just what you know, when you have an idea but you can’t put into words, a problem so diffuse you’re not sure what the problem is.

Fields Medalist Michael Atiyah (who I now don’t dare to call a genius because you might think I want to discourage girls from studying math) put it this way in a recent interview with Siobhan Roberts for Quanta Magazine:
“Dreams happen during the daytime, they happen at night. You can call them a vision or intuition. But basically they’re a state of mind—without words, pictures, formulas or statements. It’s “pre” all that. It’s pre-Plato. It’s a very primordial feeling. And again, if you try to grasp it, it always dies. So when you wake up in the morning, some vague residue lingers, the ghost of an idea. You try to remember what it was and you only get half of it right, and maybe that’s the best you can do.”
Tell me how that’s not lonely work.

As I am raising two girls, I am all too aware of occupational stereotypes. Like many academics, my husband and I are fighting the pink/blue divide, the gender segregation that starts already in kindergarten. I don’t want my daughters to think following their interests isn’t socially appropriate because some professions aren’t for women.

I am therefore all in favor of initiatives targeting girls with science toys and educational games, because of course I hope that’s where my kids’ interests are. Also, I get to play with the stuff myself. (I recently bought a microscope that attaches to the phone because I thought the girls might want have a close look at some leaves. Instead my husband used it to inspect our gauze curtains and proceeded to use them as a refraction lattice. I’m still waiting to get my microscope and laser pointer back.)

But while I hope my children will go on to become scientists, I first and foremost want them to find out which profession they will be most happy with, whether that means physicist or midwife. And I don’t want young women to get talked into something they aren’t genuinely into, just because the statistics say there should be more women in physics. I don’t want them to be mislead by marketing physics as something it is not.

So let’s tell it like it is.

Physics isn’t all teamwork and communication skills, it’s not all collaboration and conferences, it’s not all chalk and talk. That’s some of it, but physics is also a lot of reading and a lot of thinking – and sometimes it’s lonely.

There are stages in your research in which you will hit on a problem that no one can help you with. Because that’s what research is all about – finding and solving problems that no one has solved before. And sometimes you will get stuck, annoyed about yourself, frustrated about your own inability to make sense of these equations. You will feel stupid and you will feel lonely and you will feel like nobody can understand you – because nobody can understand you.

That’s physics too.

Science only stands to benefit from more diversity. Different cultural and social backgrounds, different experiences and different personality traits serve to broaden our perspectives and may lead to new approaches to old problems. But attracting new customers shouldn’t scare away the regulars. We have use for the nerdy loners too.

Having reached almost 40 years of age, I’ve survived long enough to no longer care if people think I’m not normal. Not normal for leaving the party early, not normal for scribbling notes on my arm, not normal for spontaneously bursting into lectures about Lorentz-invariance violating operators.

Luckily, I am married to a man who doesn’t only have much understanding for my problems, but also seems to have textbooks on each and every obscure subfield of physics. There’s a reason he’s in the acknowledgements of almost all of my papers.

I hope that you, too, find a niche in life where you fit in. And if you want to be left alone, don’t let anyone tell you there is no place for loners in this world any more.

“29 and 10. That’s 39.”

She can’t yet read the clock. But she’s good at math.


  1. I agree. Just curious, when is your birthday? Mine is tomorrowland... By the way...I have similar issues, so I can not but feel like you in this day.
    Best wishes Bee! P.S.: I am also finding my own path...

  2. Have a good one! My birthday is in the fall, some months to go.

  3. OH, I almost forgot it...Even when I have told you about it before...

    The so-called "new Einstein" will emerge when people don't call him/her (or it? what if "next Einstein" were a scientific A.I. They are closer than people think...), the "new Einstein". But, the great X...

    I agree with you...Black people and females, and also other minorities (in terms of racial parameters) in physics or science, are usually given up and not payed attention enough. And we need them/you too... Diversity is inevitable if we want to search for a holistic vision of Physmatics, maybe Chemistry and the Big Data era in which we are embedded right now...

  4. Sabine, interesting story the first part of the post. The kind of person you are is common among us physicists. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with friends pretending to be a "normal" person, even if I would have preferred to study alone. Now, ok, I'm a physicist but I regret the time I lost pretending to be somebody else. I really like the fact that you always acted as you are, even if people finds you "weird".
    BTW, my twins (that have the age of yours) read the clock, but just the short hand and sometimes look at the longer saying "es is fast drei.." or so.
    Cheers, K.

  5. Your self-analysis is always fascinating to read. Obviously you have changed much since your nerdy school days. You are married, mostly happily it seems and you have children who must draw you out of yourself. At least sometimes. Somewhere between 12 and 39 you changed, grew, and expanded into the social and family sphere. That's how things are supposed to go!

  6. You have my full sympathy!
    I agree that genius is a much overused word. Part of what it might mean is that you find unexpect d new knowledge (in the sense of the German word Erkenntnis). And I believe that part of what Pauli meant with "Erkenntnis ist Gnade" is that it comes to you on its own, finding you in the right condition. Because both, Erkenntnis as well as mercy, are best received when you are just there, lonely, not preoccupied with other human beings.

  7. I am a loners and I have been for almost all my researcher life at the point that no institution supports me now that I have 80 papers published in refereed journals. And yes, genius exists exactly in the way not all soccer players can be like Messi, no matter how hard they will work. But my family helps me on this and I will not exchange them for anything.

  8. I just add that the idiotic and hypocrite north american system (which is spreading out to Europe very fast) seems to prefer social skills ("be nice") than a good thinker or researcher. I know many people who lost a tenure for being "weird" but excellent at their research. Nice people go forward and end the career in administrative roles (because at the end they do not really like research or teaching..). And yes, alas I am in such a system..K.

  9. I really enjoy your personal essays. They are recommended reading for anyone, especially anyone interested in science.

  10. Post "a differential equation set even Luboš can't solve." He's astounding in technique, albeit lackluster in creativity. ("Hi, Luboš!") Does the Wolfram language or Wolfram Alpha offer anything useful; Matlab, SymboLab??

    "it’s difficult to be one of the few women in a field dominated by men" Pummel the patriarchy with powers and abilities far beyond those of moral men. Emilie du Châtelet, Amalie Noether, Maria Agnesi, and Hypatia (except for the oyster shells) did OK. "the loner in physics is as much a myth as the genius" Obsessive-compulsive, socially disconnected autists are miracles. Idiot-savants are bigger miracles, though messy. Boredom is the wellspring of discovery.

    Bee wonderful. The only safe place is behind a trigger.

  11. Some of my happiest memories of studying for my physics degree was solitarily working some sets of problems throughout the night. Often interrupted by a 3am walk to get some fresh air and maybe a new perspective on the material that occupied me.

    Biggest down side to studying physics, pretty much an all boys environment. This was part of the reason why I later got myself a business degree to experience a bit more diversity.

    Ever since, the question why there are so few girls in this field, always preoccupied me.

    It seems that the priming for gender stereotypes already starts very early and is insidiously internalized. Elementary school seems to play a bit part.

    Elementary school of course doesn't set out to have this effect, and the research on this topic suggests that it is mostly transported sub-consciously via role modeling.

    So how to inoculate kids against this influence? My strategy has been to use the free online resource Khan academy to have my girls learn all the math of their school level, before it is covered in the class room. That way they immediately have the experience that this is easy and nothing to be concerned about.

    It helps a lot that they can use this self paced, and I am not opposed to use bribery. Whenever my oldest daughter (she's eight) is really keen to get something, and is too impatient to wait for her birthday or Christmas, she can make a deal with me, and earn it by reaching an agreed upon achievement on Khan academy.

    Obviously I also hope that she will grow up to share my love in physics, but no matter what her life's choices, fear of math shall not hold her back.

  12. The breakthrough publications of the past, whether from Newton or Maxwell or Einstein, were mostly single-author. Not all; the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper was the most cited in physics until fairly recently. Joint authorship has risen over time, and whether people write single-author papers is also a function of the fields they work in. The last but one Vic-chancellor of Cambridge got himself into trouble by remarking that he thought there were few true individual researchers any more (he'd been one of the inventors of ion-beam lithography). But yet ... I wonder if some careful bibliometric analysis could extract some signal from the noise. Is there still some inverse correlation between impact and the number of authors?

  13. I wonder if male physicists possibly feel isolated when their spouses are not very physics-aware.

  14. "Science only stands to benefit from more diversity. Different cultural and social backgrounds, different experiences and different personality traits serve to broaden our perspectives and may lead to new approaches to old problems. ". this is a good column but i don't understand how having people with different cultural or social backgrounds is going to help us develop a better theory of quantum gravity, cosmology or any other theory. is there any case in modern times, where a theory's success can be attributed to the background of its author (other than that, as we all know, jews make better theoreticians - hey, don't censor this. its a joke being made by a jewish theoretical physicist).,.

  15. naivetheorist,

    You are right of course that demographic diversity isn't the same as diversity of research approaches, but it seems likely that the two are correlated to some extent. There are a lot of studies about the benefits of diversity, and the most relevant diversity seems to be one in experience. People with the same experience, basically, are prone to make the same mistakes. Consequently I think diversifying experience would be beneficial for research.



  16. A different cultural background in mathematics:
    Manjul Bhargava.

  17. Couldn't agree more. I have four daughters, by the way and co-founded a software company. My favorite hours are spent in my office solving programming problems - alone. I knew I married the right guy when one day I said - I could really use that book Numerical Recipes in C and he said - look on the bottom shelf. Sorry, I don't want group activities where we all bond as women. Mostly I want grant money, investor funding and to be able to work.

  18. I totally agree with this post. I would add that it troubles me that funding agencies (and I can only really speak about the NSF) seem not to understand this.

    I think @Arun misconstrues the article about Bhargava; he is clearly multitalented, but I seriously doubt that he doesn't need solitude when doing mathematics. As a mathematician I can testify that in this respect mathematicians and theoretical physicists are very similar.

    Don't take my word for it, look at the interview with Ken Ribet on youtube:
    where you can see him talk about the dynamics of solitary thinking versus interacting with colleagues at conferences etc.

  19. To follow up on the above exchange regarding diversity, Steve has a summary here from a meta-survey that concludes that - in contrast to what I said above - the benefit from job-related diversity is not correlated with demographic diversity. So, sorry about that, I didn't know of this study before.

  20. I agree Science should get benefit from diversity. But, in my opinion, I'm speaking as outsider, that diversity should not be limited to the scientific academic realm, which by my experience seems to be very closed particularly in maths and physics.
    For example, the way of thinking of people who have studied Private Law (which is almost all common sense) is very different than people who has been influenced by different ways of thinking. Why do not take profit of them? or why do not be inspired by artists, or by philologists or by philosophers or by agricultures? by people who are able to think creatively and intuitively and simply and are able to deduce and to induce and to follow a thread until the end? By people who always inexhaustibly keep asking Why?

    I think the cause is that since the Scientific Revolution there is a deep distrust in the human rationality. Because the Aristotelian common sense got totally discredited by Galileo and Kepler. We know that Nature is written in mathematical terms in the sense that Nature is all about symmetry, and form, and proportion, and their connections and transformations.

    But I think there is also another deeper breaking. The break between geometry and arithmetic that appeared with Irrationality. I think mathematics have been developed - in an instrumental and operative way - through the last centuries in a very abstract way and have made Nature and science very opaque for many people. It is not only that algebra is a formal language that needs to be known it is that behind purely abstract algebra there is no a visualisable form that can be told in a natural language without using simplistic metaphors.

    I think the break between geometry and arithmetic that appeared in Greece has not been yet fixed and nobody seems to be very interested about reviewing the fundaments of maths at that level. How about if Pi were a mathematical fact arithmetically correct but a wrong conceptual idea derived of the incomprehension about what irrationality is? That simple possibility would affect many people personally and very intimately; those whose are used to thinking arithmetically and based their trust self estime professional careers and believes in their assumed mathematical ideas would be really discomforted in that situation. And then the theoretical discussion would turn out to be a question of personal surviving. It actually has happened historically in the same way, but we always feel safe about those kind of essential l mistakes.

    There are a lot of things to be discussed about this issue, I think.

    On the other hand, any creative people and people who are in the frontiers, particularly those who are true innovative, are always alone. If you did not feel alone with your researches you would be happily installed inside of the mainstream assumed ideas. But you would be another person then, a not true researcher.

    Galois, Abel, or Lie, by example, but many other known and not known people did not get any kind of consolation in that respect during their lives. They suffered a lot of this deep and hard feeling of being alone. But as you said, that's a price to accomplish your mission in life, to be loyal to yourself and you call.


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