“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.