Physics + me: a love story

Once upon a time, a young Maddie fell in love with acting and the theatre. I wanted to stay with theatre for the rest of my life. But I also craved financial security and a slightly more stable future, things that theatre could not provide, and so I turned to the heavens. (Not astrologically–I know that the alignment of stars and planets have no effect on our insignificant human lives.) I had always admired astronomy from the sidelines, been in awe of outer space and its infinite mysteries, but I never dove deeper.

My physicist father was first to introduce me to astronomy and physics; he made sure my siblings and I watched our fill of NOVA astronomy specials on the weekends. One of my favorites was called “The Fabric of the Cosmos”. It was hosted by the author of the book by the same name, Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene. The four-episode series explored special relativity, time, and the theory of the multiverse. It was utterly captivating. The universe had my attention.

Around my junior year of high school, I began to realize that I could do science! Astronomy fascinated me and had so much potential for future exploration and discoveries. So I took AP Physics as a senior; I didn’t ace the class, but I liked it alot, and it convinced me that science offered a strong potential career path. I started looking for schools with undergraduate astronomy programs.

Fun fact: There are very few schools with undergraduate astronomy programs. It’s not your typical field of study, like history or English or business or biology. My own criteria for a medium-sized school in a city on a coast ruled out the small, rural colleges in the Midwest. And, I admit, I was sucked in by the allure of being able to gloat about admittance to a prestigious university. I ended up applying to most of the Ivies–schools certainly beyond my reach–as well as my father’s alma maters, Stanford and UC Berkeley.

We all know how this ends: I went to Boston University. In retrospect, an Ivy or school as big as Berkeley probably would’ve been horribly detrimental to my experience in physics. I probably would’ve been swallowed up in the huge mass of physics majors that are abundant at these institutions. My academic abilities, which I feel are insufficient at BU, definitely would not have been enough to keep me confident and in the field at a higher-tier school. Plus, without BU’s Geneva program, I don’t know what would have kept me motivated. Because–surprise, surprise–physics is hard!

 

The adventure begins: years one & two

My first semester of physics was freshman-level mechanics. Even though I didn’t have calculus credit going in, I had aced calculus in high school and proved to the professor that I knew enough to take the course designed for physics majors instead of the course for engineers. I didn’t find the material too difficult and I did fine in the course, completing most of the homework assignments by myself and earning a decent grade. I was even able to balance my schoolwork with a play on campus, still embracing my original love for theatre. At the end of the semester, a couple classmates and I inaugurated a physics-majors group chat, modestly dubbed the “physics dream team,” or PDT. The PDT would later prove to be a hugely influential part of my physics experience at BU.

My second semester course, electricity and magnetism, was a different matter. Before I was aware of the class’s heavy workload, I joined the Shakespeare Society on campus and was awarded the part of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. The responsibilities of playing such a large role certainly affected my studies; E&M was hard enough without hours of rehearsal and having to memorize iambic pentameter in Shakespearean English. After my rehearsals every week, I would meet up with the PDT to work on problem sets together in the common room of my floor, which, through some cosmic serendipity, had four physics majors living on it. We hijacked the space the night before our homework was due, packing a dozen freshmen into a stark, windowless room and drawing with Expo markers on a glass wall, working late into the night to decode Gauss’s Law or solve for the induced current on a solenoid.

After the first midterm in E&M, our professor held one-on-one meetings with students who scored below a certain threshold. In the course of one week, the physics class of 2018 dropped by about 30%. Those of us who remained heard horror stories of bizarre animal metaphors (“You’re like a zebra in a land of lions, and we don’t have time for zebra physicists”) and meetings ending in dramatic sheddings of tears. I missed the cut-off for that meeting by mere points. I was glad to have been spared but I knew I was far from being in the clear.

I upped my studying game after that. I watched the pre-lecture videos multiple times, took thorough notes in class, read the textbook line-by-line. But the play was time-consuming and my score on the second midterm was no better. After that, I arranged a meeting with my professor. To my surprise, he spoke nothing of zebras, but sat down and worked through my exam with me. When I told him what I had done to prepare, he told me I was on the right track. The encounter went so much better than I expected. I wasn’t done with physics just yet!

In the end, my E&M grade was not great (it’s still the worst grade of my life), but I passed. The camaraderie and support of the PDT, academic and otherwise, was one of the main reasons I stayed in the major.

Additionally, I had the bottomless encouragement from my physics mentor, Ryan. A year or two before coming to BU, the physics department had started the “PeeRs for Incoming Students Mentorship Program”, known as PRISM. The program assigns upperclass physics majors to first-years as mentors to welcome them to the school, becoming role models, and encouraging students to stay in the major.

In my first semester, I had been mentored by a fifth-year physics major. When she dropped the program second semester, I was reassigned to Ryan. Ryan has a personality that makes people feel immediately comfortable in his presence. For a nervous, unconfident freshman like myself, it was a relief to have someone so easy to talk to, someone who seemed completely eager to listen and ready to help in any way he could, someone to provide me with free coffee once a month. He was always prepared with a piece of sage, fatherly wisdom and a dad-joke to match. At each of our meetings, I would trudge into the coffee shop, ready to declare my resignation and announce that I was finally quitting physics. (I was technically double-majoring in astronomy and physics; I could easily drop the physics half and continue with astronomy.) But by the end of each meeting, I departed, bouncing with a combination of caffeine and renewed determination to finish out my four years as a physics major. (When asked why I wanted to become a PRISM mentor myself at the interview last spring, I truthfully responded that Ryan had been the reason I stayed in the physics major. I wanted to do that for another freshman.)

My academic adviser also had a huge impact on my decision to stay. Professor Muirhead taught  my first astronomy course at BU and he is still my favorite professor thus far. He, too, is incredibly approachable and easy to talk to. All the challenges that seemed insurmountable before seemed completely achievable after talking with him for just twenty minutes. Once Ryan graduated (he was a senior when we met), Muirhead took on his role; I left advising meetings feeling as reinvigorated as I had felt after meetings with Ryan. I’m not sure that Muirhead even realized how reassuring those discussions were, but they truly boosted my self-confidence. He even hired me to work in his research group, providing me with real experience in the world of academia and astronomical research.

Throughout my sophomore year and my first semester of junior year, Ryan and Muirhead kept me in physics. I also started dating my current boyfriend and fellow astrophysics major, Dan, at the beginning of our sophomore year. It definitely helped to have a built-in homework aide and cheerleader in him. He and I, along with our fellow majors, took the same courses, including our third semester modern physics course–easy mathematically but difficult conceptually. It went well and I took a genuine interest in the intriguing concepts we discussed. By contrast, the following semester’s physics course dealt almost purely with math. Despite my admittedly limited mathematical ability, we had a great professor and I actually enjoyed learning these advanced math concepts in the context of physics. Physics remained on my radar.

 

Junior year: part one

But I had been dreading junior year from the beginning. Our track requires majors to take intermediate mechanics and electromagnetism courses during the first semester. Reflecting on my freshman year experience, I figured I could handle mechanics well enough, but the idea of another E&M course terrified me. After just one lecture, I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I remember leaning over to whisper to Dan, “Yeah, I’m definitely dropping this course” soon after our E&M professor announced that he’d be randomly calling on us to demonstrate homework problems on the board throughout the class.

But there was still Geneva. I’d spent the last two years motivated by the idea of studying abroad in Switzerland. But I was starting to question the worth of forcing myself through another semester of courses I didn’t think I would enjoy just to make it into a study abroad program I’d been working towards for the past two years, especially since succeeding would mean taking more courses in a subject I wasn’t really passionate about. But over the years, I have also developed a slightly-severe case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). With most of my closest friends–including Dan–also planning on studying in Geneva (yeah, you don’t get around too much when your four-year curriculum is as inflexible as ours), I decided that I was willing to sacrifice my academic happiness for the sake of my social life and future career opportunities.

As outlined in my first blog post, going to Geneva  was the primary goal of my freshman and sophomore years at BU. But my self-confidence, plentiful in almost every other arena in my life, waned as I continually compared myself to my classmates. The stress of building an application that could compensate for my lackluster grades had started to take its toll as the semester began and the study abroad deadline drew ever closer. If I dropped physics, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have to worry about finishing the application at all….

Muirhead changed my mind in one of his signature twenty minute pep-talks. If anyone was going to reject my Geneva application, let them do it, not me.

 

Present state of mind

And now, dear readers, here we are. I am a mere week away from attaining the goal I have been striving towards for two-and-a-half years.

Yet, even now, I find myself questioning my choice.

I must admit, it feels ingenuine and dishonest for me to go on this incredibly competitive study abroad program when my heart isn’t really in it. I’m thrilled about the traveling and cultural aspects of the trip; I’m worried about the physics.

I still feel terrified, anxious, and totally unprepared for the physics curriculum. And that’s what this program is all about! The BU Study Abroad Geneva Physics Program is designed specifically for physics majors: it provides an internship at the leading particle physics research laboratory in the world! This opportunity is tantamount to a computer scientist interning at Google, a journalist writing for The New York Times, or a music student performing at Carnegie Hall. The doors that this could open are invaluable to a physics student looking to pursue an advanced degree after undergraduate school. But 2.5 years have shown me that academia and grad school are just not for me.

I’ve thought a lot about my attitude towards physics, and I’ve noticed a growing aversion throughout my undergraduate career. To be fair, plenty of capable, intelligent students have loathed physics at one point or another. I have known many students who decided to switch to a different major, but I couldn’t help wanting to resist that. I might end up happier, but I didn’t want to say I had failed. Of course, switching majors is not “failing,” but I may have realized that too late.

Being one of the few females in this male-dominated department also had its own pressures. As a woman in physics, I felt almost an obligation to stay with the field. To be honest, I like being one of the minority gender. I feel a strange pride from going to physics lectures, looking around the room at the 4:1 guy-to-girl ratio and thinking to myself, “You made it. You’re here, doing what so many women are too intimidated to do. You are here representing them.” I feel compelled to being a female presence in the world of physics.

Once, when talking to three of my fellow female classmates, the topic of women in science arose. Two of these friends are learning assistants (LAs) in lower-level physics courses and the topic had been brought up in their last education seminar. They observed that the female students they taught tended to ask female LAs for help. Whether consciously or not, girls in physics courses seemed to feel more comfortable approaching another female for clarification on problems in class. (I’m sure there’s been multitudes of research on this phenomenon. I don’t have any on hand at the moment, but this is a topic I’d love to explore further in a future post.)

This prompted me to reflect on my own behavior in physics classes and whether or not I may have been intimidated by the unavoidable male presence. Historically, I’m pretty atrocious at asking questions or participating in lecture at all. But, at least consciously, I don’t think that had anything to do with the men. Upon introspection, I came to the conclusion that I was more apprehensive about asking dumb questions in front of everyone. It wasn’t the number of males in the room that made me nervous, it was the sheer number of students, regardless of gender! In fact, there are plenty of girls whose intelligence intimidates me. I was even uncomfortable asking questions among some of my close friends in the PDT.

I believe my lack of confidence in physics is a confluence of many aspects of my life and personality: an inherent lack of skill, a shortage of passion, a dash of imposter syndrome. That last item might also become the focus of its own post, but I’d like to elaborate on the first.

I firmly believe that, with enough grit, determination, and hard work, anyone can learn physics and even excel in the field. But there is no doubt that some inborn talent can’t hurt. Isaac Newton, who revolutionized 17th-century science with giant leaps in optics, the laws of motion, and the invention of calculus; George Green, an underappreciated British mathematician who, with only one year of formal schooling, developed functions that laid the groundwork for incredible breakthroughs in physics and mathematics; and Albert Einstein (he speaks for himself) possessed unquestionable talent that simply can’t be taught. Many of us plebeians, however, finding ourselves severely lacking in the natural-born-genius category, must resort to that second category: passion. My own father got C’s in his first two years in physics before he bit the bullet and pushed himself in his latter three years of undergrad (yes, that’s five years of undergraduate school), culminating in his admittance to Stanford where he eventually earned his PhD in physics. He had a passion, a love of physics that I see in so many of my classmates–one that I simply do not share.

Am I too hard on myself? Perhaps. But if I’m not, who will be?

 

If you’ve made it this far (first of all, thank you), you may be wondering why I called this post “a love story.” So far, I’ve recounted my slowly-eroding passion for physics, from detached wonderment to tangible awe to slight dispassion to minor hatred, and there hasn’t been much evidence of love. In all honesty, I’d say my current attitude towards physics hovers somewhere between the latter two levels, so not all hope is lost! I’ve been reading a pretty mediocre book about CERN with an intriguing section about muons, so I’m excited to explore that facet of particle physics even further in the months to come.

Physics and I haven’t totally broken it off yet. There’s still time for this love story to have a happy ending.

 

With eternal optimism,

Maddie

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4 thoughts on “Physics + me: a love story

  1. Pingback: Week 2: In which I discover peanut butter cheetos and visit a chocolate factory – mad world.

  2. Pingback: Week 2: In which I discover peanut butter cheetos and visit a chocolate factory – mad world

  3. Pingback: a Double Stuf update: Weeks 6 + 7 – mad world

  4. Pingback: A Reflection + brief update (Weeks 9-10) – mad world

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