Sunday, February 18, 2007

Guest Post: Peter Steinberg

Why I Am A Physicist

As a child, many people noticed that I had aptitude in mathematical things, and even I noticed a persistent fascination with all things mathematical and technical. This was despite being surrounded by a family much more into art, design, and all that (my grandmother collected art, my father was an art history major turned city planner, my mom is a licensed architect, and my sister a trained painter, etc.). Ultimately it was a combination of two people, my grandfather and my father, who nudged me towards what would be my career. My grandfather was a businessman, but one with a tinkerer's disposition (keeping a functioning woodshop and darkroom in a Lake Shore Drive apartment) and longtime fascination with most things physics, e.g. Einstein's relativity, and math/logic, e.g. chess, for which he unsuccessfully tried to get me to sit still long enough to play against him. My father had some early success with math and science in school, but followed a different career path. And yet, he was always dropping interesting things in my path, be it my first computer at age 9 (after I consumed all of the computer magazines he left around the house), or trips to Fermilab as a teenager to see the accelerator. Somehow the mystique of being a physicist ended up as part of my DNA (both physical and mental).

That said, the path from age 11 to age 18 was one of budding math/ physics/computer geek, to puberty, and thus a channelling of said geekiness into musical pursuits (piano, then guitar, then bass, then recording with friends, playing in bands etc.) to the utter neglect of my technical abilities. In the pursuit of, well, the attentions of the opposite sex, I somehow decided that music, art, and other creative endeavors were my way out of a somewhat annoying adolescence.

So I end up at college at Yale, all set to tackle the big questions of western civilization. But, I had no idea what the western canon really was (my school was excellent but a bit disorganized, or maybe it was just me that was a bit disorganized...) and somewhat overblown views of my abilities to express it. So, like all intellectually precocious, but completely pretentious, young men, I gravitated towards philosophy and literature as my way to encounter those big questions. And I was terrible at it, at least relative to my better-prepared, and generally more urbane, peers.

And then the pivotal event: a week after starting classes freshman year, my grandfather passed away after several years in and out of hospitals. Not only was he the grandfather who taught me so many things (from the concept of relative motion to how to twiddle with a color print) and whom I could spend all day with -- and did throughout my youth -- but he was the first person in my family to die. That is to say, up to that point death had been something very abstract for me, despite friends having lost parents and grandparents along the way. It was always something that happened to other people, so I had no sense of what it meant to feel loss. That wasn't a problem anymore after that, since I found myself heartbroken for the next several months (and it didn't help to think that I was performing at a mediocre level, at best, in most of my classes!)

But what was a problem (but an amusing one in retrospect) was that I had stumbled into taking an introduction to Greek philosophy, more or less by accident as the result of a passing remark by my faculty advisor, who was more or less randomly assigned to me upon entering college. R.I.G. Hughes turned out to be a well-known philosopher of Quantum Mechanics, but I had no idea at the time, when he seemed more like a well-meaning but somewhat oblivious old English guy with a beard (and who taught the second semester philosophy overview, and terribly, if i remember right). Anyway, don't give a 19-year old in mourning the Phaedo to chew on, with all of Socrates' ruminations on body and soul, life and death. While I was hooked on the the subject matter and the intricate arguments, I was getting genuinely obsessed with mortality and its discontents, both pertaining to my grandfather, whose disappearance I had a hard time accepting, and to myself, for obvious reasons.

Unfortunately, freshman philosophy classes are great on questions, and are not so great on answers. I had a sense that I was never going to get what I needed. Thus, I remember a conversation my grandmother in her kitchen a couple of months after my grandfather died. She taught me a clever way to clean my glasses (I had just gotten my first pair after realizing that I couldn't see the blackboard from the back of the room) and probably chatted with me about her firm belief that our souls were some kind of "energy" that moved on to "dimensions beyond our ken" (I always loved that phrase). This was a conversation we'd had many times as I was growing up, as she wasn't at all bashful about her more mystical beliefs. But this time, something hit me. I had to know where my grandfather went, and thus where I would go when my time came. And I instinctively felt that this was a *scientific* problem. OK, I had some fairly desperate ideas: to become some sort of scientist that would actually observe what happens to our "energy" after we die (not exactly an original idea, e.g. Innaritu's "21 Grams" ). But I at least decided that I had to try and understand what was known, so I could get a better grasp on what wasn't known, or perhaps what could never be. So that was my Moment, the precise space-time event where I decided to become a physicist.

From there it wasn't a straight path, to be sure. But that's another, much longer and more complicated story.

Anyway this sounds like a somewhat childish, and even non-scientific, reason to become a scientist. But I know I'm not alone in finding that Death is a powerful thing to wrap one's mind around, and something which can drive one in unexpected directions in life. Just consider Ronald Mallett, whose memoir Time Traveler was also done as a fantastically-gripping radio piece on This American Life. Here's a kid who loses his father (a TV repairman) at age 10, and spends the rest of his life trying to build a time machine a la H.G. Wells -- and does, in a fashion, after becoming a professional physicist along the way. I was riveted while listening to that radio piece, when I connected with the same yearning, and the same sense that there was a way to deal with the issue that was not based on religious faith, but on actually looking around and engaging with the physical world. Maybe it's not surprising that I do particle physics, often described (inaccurately) as a "time machine" to the early universe. I certainly know that if my work didn't at least *feel* fundamental to understanding the nature of space, time, and how matter experiences it, I would probably be doing something else. Probably at a bank.

But in writing this, I'm torn between deciding that my Moment was the end product of a series of chance events (even R.I.G. Hughes suggesting I take that philosophy class), or something more like a directed random walk (i.e. I somehow knew all along that I'd end up the way I did). Maybe chance favors the prepared mind, indeed, so I can't help feeling glad for all the nudging from my dad and grandfather (and my mom too, who kept reminding me of my childhood aptitudes). I like to think they would be glad about it too, if they were around to chat about it.

Peter Steinberg is a Physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. When not working on current and future experiments involving colliding nuclei at BNL and CERN, he blogs at Entropy Bound, documenting his continuing efforts to understand sprawl of urban life, and to find the perfect dumpling, and maybe some bookshelves.

See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

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



  1. In a traditional story, the answer to "What is the most amazing thing in the world?" is "Everyday men die and yet men live like they will never die."

    So how you turned to physics marks you outside the common herd.

  2. Dear Peter,

    thanks for telling your story. it is very insightful to read how your profession is so detached from what i now but yet so close to what humans strive to find. its amazing you have not forgotten where you came from. what has your research told you about what happens after death. does it tell you something? is there a conflict between science and religous believes. is there a place for God at rhic?

    - J.

  3. Wow, that is a very eloquent and poignant story. Thanks for sharing it.

    "torn between deciding that my Moment was the end product of a series of chance events (even R.I.G. Hughes suggesting I take that philosophy class), or something more like a directed random walk (i.e. I somehow knew all along that I'd end up the way I did)"

    The older I get the more I lean towards the "directed random walk" because it's pretty clear that even with "free will" we have natural constraints on what we can do. Seems like the randomness falls within set boundaries.

  4. Like John Ellis's blog, from "quantum diaries" I had been watching your site as well Peter. I believe that this is a success story even though it did not continue, at least the people themselves have like yourself and Tommaso.

    I wonder what ever happen to the production of the TV series called the Blackhole?

    As well too, is my fascination with Ronald Mallet and the whole issue of time travel. Thought experiments are always intriguing given a set of circumstances? How can you improve?

  5. Hi Peter,

    thank you for this quite personal story! For me, it seems to show once more that single, and often quite random events, can change drastically one's path through life, and that predictions of the future are difficult ;-)..

    Since you mention your philosophy class in the first year at Yale - I have no clear idea about how this is organised at american universities. So in the first year, you have classes and seminars not only in math and science, but also the general curriculum in literatury, history, philosophy? Is there a fixed scheme which subjects should be taken? And is it the same scheme for all, no matter into which subject you want to go into later? So, it is possible without much trouble or loosing a year to change subject, even from the sciences to the humanities or vice versa?

    That's quite different from the European system, where after leaving school with the Abitur/Matura/Baccalaureat you start with one, maybe two, subjects at the university, and usually have a study plan that does not provide much looking over the fence... This seems to me to be a drawback compared to the freshman year general curriculum...

    Best, stefan


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