Sunday, March 04, 2007

Guest Post: Christine Dantas

Try to conceive nothingness.

It is not the modern physical concept of the vacuum, full of energy, and giving rise to ephemeral virtual particle/anti-particle pairs. Nor it is like a blank panorama, something like a flat space-time devoid of matter, since there is no energy, no time, no space, and no mind -- for whatever definition it is worth --, since even self-conception is not allowed for nothingness.

Nothingness stands more elusive than the concept of God. It reigns separate from any possible concept or entity, it is devoid of any realization -- even of itself; it does not belong to anywhere nor anytime to "this world" (or to any other possible world) -- yet, to our intellect it is "there" somehow.

Why exists everything, instead of nothingness? Nothingness should have been the rule. Or perhaps it is, but we do not realize it. We *do* wonder that, before being occasionally constituted into living forms, we *were* nothing, and when we die, we will be *nothing* again. But is it the same thing?

Perhaps, in fact, nothingness reigns. Perhaps, as paradoxical as it may seem, everything is in fact, nothingness revealed to us. And hence, there is no creation, but some odd, inconceivable delusion.

Those rather metaphysical questions bothered me for a long time since a very young age. Such questions do not belong to physics, but it seemed clear to me that, somehow, I could only understand them through science (and to a certain extent, through philosophy), but not through religion.

I mention religion because I was ten years old when I realized that, after staring, every week, during several years, half an hour or more at the image of Jesus Christ in a church of my school (I studied at a Catholic School), repeatedly and full-heartedly in my mind asking for Him to appear before me -- if he really existed --, and not receiving even a glimpse of response back, I could only conclude He did not exist. My intentions were the purest possible, and He never came. Why He would not come before me? I started to become more and more defiant in my requests, until I decided I would no longer pray before sleeping.

It was a hard time for a little girl, very shy, and scared to talk about these events to anyone else. I was very lonely in this mind endeavor, but it was not so terrible that it happened that way. At least, as I see it now.

I was (and am) exceedingly impressed by the fact that I exist, that the Universe exists, and this fact imparted on me, and perhaps substituted the common idea of God deep inside me for something else that even today I don't know what it is. Perhaps, it is nothing after all, but I do not know for now.

Back, during that time, I discovered science-fiction books, and consequently, popular science books. I would say I had two great teachers during this period: Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. From reading their books as a teenager, I decided to be a scientist.

It was and is hard to be a scientist for several reasons, but I will spare the reader from this. I will only mention two things that bothered me most for some time. First it was to find out that not every scientist was turned into a scientist for similar motivations that I had (I mean, the search for a deep understanding about nature). Second, that it is hard, very hard, to get a job as a scientist. Specially if you are too romantic and do not see why a large number of papers is "almost" all that makes a career (being very socially driven also helps a lot). My romantic view of science (that what matters is the value of your work and thoughts) is perhaps the most "misleading" and lasting impression that I carry from my childhood's conceptions and endeavors. We do get old and learn something about the "world out there" and adjust as time goes by. But the most important thing to me is to learn not to get corrupted and remain faithful to your own deep motivations.

So every question in fundamental physics concerns me, intrigues me, and it's unavoidably part of my own questionings. Many physicists would not agree on this and would have a much more impersonal posture and highly different motivations and aims. It is not that I think they are wrong (apart from those that look for stardom), but if I am to be entirely faithful to what I am and think, science goes beyond models, numbers, theories and even brilliant ideas. It is about a deep endeavor -- as Carl Sagan wrote once: it's about atoms thinking about atoms. And although we need models, numbers, theories and ideas to "think" over them, what matters at the end is the fact that nature is understandable at all -- as Einstein would add. To understand nature, even in our tiny human steps, requires exquisite intellectual conditions and a life effort of many minds.

Apart from the difficulties, I cannot think of any other activity as intellectually pleasant as the scientific research, except perhaps for music, to which I had devoted myself for some time (as a soprano). I did not chose a scientific career because I was good at maths and physics (I was average, and did much better in composition and arts: in fact, I wrote many science-fiction short stories and poems when I was younger and a SF book, unpublished, entitled "Laplace's Demon"). I chose it because I know of no other convincing and objective way that I could attempt to *understand* something about the Universe and about myself.

Having "acted mostly" as an astrophysicist until now, I really never contributed to the fundamental questions that so much bother me, since I only had the opportunity to look at some tiny details that nature uses to show us on the sky. All I hope is that I still have the time to put my whole energy into fundamental physics. That is my ongoing lifetime aim, even though I am largely unsure on what I really can achieve.

I did not go very far in terms of what many scientists consider as a successful career. If I had followed some prescribed path or formulae, perhaps I would have gone somewhat "far", but would have reached nowhere in terms of what I was initially motivated. And such a "nowhere" certainly would *not* be any closer to the "nothingness" that impelled me first of all! So, what can I say? I have been more or less faithful to myself and I am happy.

So here it is, a little about why I chose science as a career. This text, I would say, reflects the most abstract and nebulous part of my motivations, and just for this reason, I thought it was more interesting to focus on. Thanks, Sabine, for the challenging invitation.

Christine Dantas is a Brazilian astrophysicist working at the Instituto de Aeronáutica e Espaço. She is interested in foundational questions in physics and cosmology. Recently, she found out that she cannot really escape from the blogosphere, so gave in and set up a new blog, Theorema Egregium. She is married, mother of a lovely boy, and in her spare time, she listens to Bach and walks the dog.

See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

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



  1. God is small, pale green and slightly wrinkled - just like an electron, but different in a similar way. God loves beetles, dust, and agony. God does things in His professional capacity that in His personal capacity He loathes. The cumulated difference between God and no God is a collection plate.

  2. Hi Christine,

    I like your attitude, and I am sure you'll do fine. There are just two things that are needed to make a progress in science, and it seems that you have both of them. One is the burning desire to understand things. The other is honesty. Like Feynman said: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."

    Having "acted mostly" as an astrophysicist until now, I really never contributed to the fundamental questions that so much bother me, since I only had the opportunity to look at some tiny details that nature uses to show us on the sky. All I hope is that I still have the time to put my whole energy into fundamental physics. That is my ongoing lifetime aim, even though I am largely unsure on what I really can achieve.

    Please don't be sad that you are working in astronomy and not in a HEP theory group. Look at this from the "glass half-full" perspective. You still have 2/3 of your time (OK, let's make it 1/3 to allow 8 hours of sleep) that you can spend thinking about fundamental physics. You don't have any pressure to publish. You don't have any peer pressure to sound smart. I often find that people with these know-it-all ambitions don't have deep understanding, but just parroting fashionable catch phrases.

    In this connection I recall a joke about an 90-year old man who came to doctor complaining about his diminished sexual strength. Doctor told him:
    - You are 90 years old. What do you want?
    - But my fiends (also old chaps) always tell stories about their success with women.
    - Why don't you do the same?
    - ??
    - Tell stories...

    So, my point is that in fundamental theoretical physics
    it is you (alone) confronting Nature. That's the beauty of it. It doesn't matter so much where you work during the day. All you need is desire and honesty. Plus a good library nearby and a good Internet connection.

  3. Thanks Christine and Bee for sharing this.

    "My romantic view of science (that what matters is the value of your work and thoughts) is perhaps the most "misleading" and lasting impression that I carry from my childhood's conceptions and endeavors."

    It seems that many of us, even non-scientists, face this realization that in the daily work life the "value of our work and thoughts" don't matter as much as just being there and doing our little parts to keep the "machine" moving. It might sound depressing, and it was for me when I left school and entered the 'work force' to find that no one really cared how smart I was or how well I did in school. All they cared about was that I showed up for work and did what they told me to. It didn't matter if I did things better than someone else- we all got paid the same whether we did mediocre work or great work.

    Anyway, not to be a downer, over the years I've learned that I have to find my validation from within. Though I do wish I could sometimes receive a report card or something with staight As so I would know that someone else has noticed the good work or extra efforts. ;-)

    "I did not go very far in terms of what many scientists consider as a successful career."

    Don't be too hard on yourself. You've accomplished quite a lot and you've had a positive influence on more people than you probably realize. And I think that's a sign of great success!

  4. Uncle Al said... God is small, pale green and slightly wrinkled - just like an electron, but different in a similar way. God loves beetles, dust, and agony.

    "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Genesis, 1:27

  5. eugene, in a roundabout way, you make an excellent point! Many times, for a man to tell a lady a good story means far more to her than for him to perform the actual act. In other words, on a number of occasions, mental stamina takes precedence over physical prowess, particularly at age 90. Needless to say, even Viagra has its limits--especially at an advanced age!;)

  6. Christine - that was a very nice post, thank you. You mentioned Asimov and Sagan as inspirations. Asimov inspired me mainly with his science fiction writings, but Sagan made a huge impression on me as a 10 or 11 year old watching Cosmos in the 80's, and trying to understand what it's all about (i.e., Nature, why are we here, etc.) and that's why I got into science. Even though my primary job is in aerospace, I sometimes find time to do some (planetary) science and have even published in the journal Sagan himself founded (namely, "Icarus"). It makes me feel happy to contribute even a tiny drop to the vast ocean of human understanding.


  7. Hello all:

    I'm reading all your comments with great interest, thanks!

    After a moment's thought, I think I should take the opportunity to clarify some points. I may have sound a little hard on myself than I really intended! (Yes, I was hard on myself, but I didn't mean to sound *too* hard :) )...

    1) I'm quite enthusiastic about astrophysics, more than it may seem from what I wrote. There is a huge number of very interesting results coming from astrophysics and cosmology in the past few years, and it's a very exciting field to be working on. Astrophysical observations serve as important inputs to fundamental physics. What I meant is that I have been working at the "inputs" side. Now I want to be part of the "fundamental physics" side as well. This is something that I always wanted to. But don't be mistaken. I'm happy with each of my research papers. They were carefully thought and scrutinized by referees, and I am happy with them!

    2) The idea of God played an important part of my life as a child. It is not an issue now, but thinking about God and the "nothingness" :) really drove my initial motivations to physics, subsequently being amplified by reading Asimov and Sagan. I completely omitted my academic route and focused on the more "metaphysical" side of the story.


  8. Wow Christine
    Appear before me or I shall pray no more
    You The Queen of Sheeba? lol!

    Some people still waiting to see a graviton or microstate blackhole, and others are waiting for strings to 'reveal' themselves ... after 13 billion years - aah faith - lol!

    But there is so much to see, some have more patience.
    Glad 2C you are blogging again!

    Bee, was it in His image or in His likeness - He created them

    A four-dimensional (god-like?) viewer would see all points in our 3-dimensional space simultaneously, including the inner structure of solid objects and things obscured from our three-dimensional viewpoint?

  9. Christine's post for me captures the spirit of the following, coupled with the wish "I want to know!"

    "Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?
    Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
    Even the Gods came after its emergence.
    Then who can tell from whence it came to be?

    That out of which creation has arisen,
    whether it held it firm or it did not,
    He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
    He surely knows - or maybe He does not!"

    Nasadiya Sukta, RigVeda, hymn 129, Mandala 10

  10. In that spirit:

    I've studied now Philosophy
    And Jurisprudence, Medicine,
    And even, alas! Theology
    All through and through with ardour keen!
    Here now I stand, poor fool, and see
    I'm just as wise as formerly.
    Am called a Master, even Doctor too,
    And now I've nearly ten years through
    Pulled my students by their noses to and fro
    And up and down, across, about,
    And see there's nothing we can know!
    That all but burns my heart right out.
    True, I am more clever than all the vain creatures,
    The Doctors and Masters, Writers and Preachers;
    No doubts plague me, nor scruples as well.
    I'm not afraid of devil or hell.
    To offset that, all joy is rent from me.
    I do not imagine I know aught that's right;
    I do not imagine I could teach what might
    Convert and improve humanity.
    Nor have I gold or things of worth,
    Or honours, splendours of the earth.
    No dog could live thus any more!
    So I have turned to magic lore,
    To see if through the spirit's power and speech
    Perchance full many a secret I may reach,
    So that no more with bitter sweat
    I need to talk of what I don't know yet,
    So that I may perceive whatever holds
    The world together in its inmost folds [...]"

    Goethe, Faust (translation by George Madison Priest)

  11. Quasar said... A four-dimensional (god-like?) viewer would see all points in our 3-dimensional space simultaneously,

    Does He 'see' like we do? Does He need photon's to receive information? What do you mean with 'simultaneously' - and what would Einstein have to say about that? Does He live outside of time? And if, how could he ever create something? Does He have a problem with time's arrow?



  12. Hi Bee and Stefan, this is off-topic, but I just felt moved to say how cute I think it is that you have a blog together. :-)

  13. Dear Christine,

    thank you for sharing your story! I must say I am quite impressed by the determination and energy with which you follow your path, and keep on thinking about and studying fundamental physics, in parallel to you job and your family. I wish you a rewarding and successful time spent like this!

    Astrophysics, it may be not so fundamental, but it is for sure quite fascinating (at least for me, although I have never been working on it..) Perhaps that is because the objects of investigation are so much detached from our everyday life?

    Best regards, stefan

  14. Hi RaeAnn,

    thanks :-) Believe me, I'd prefer having a house together, not a blog. But what's nice about having a blog is that I don't have to repeat all that stories over and over in emails to various people like I used to. I just think if they want to know whats new, well, they can read my blog.



  15. Christine,
    Thanks for the post. It is from-the-heart and will be an inspiration to others.
    I am pleased to see you are blogging again. This time, you will be more prepared to handle unpleasant things. As they say in the commercial world: It's your product so produce it.

    Brazil is lucky and proud to have you in its intellectual community. All the very best in your pursuit of your dreams. I know there will be something in physics named after you before you are done!

  16. Hi Bee, slow down!
    3D+T Three dimensions plus Time
    4D+T Four dimensions plus Time.

    Our eye sees in two dimensions, and our brain gives it three.
    The eye of A (god-like) four dimensional being or a being in the fourth dimension would see in three dimensions and his brain in?

    Maybe we could ask gravity if it is moving with Time, or ask father Time if he is moving around gravity



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