So, Why Physics?

by Anne Benjamin

In the past year or two, as I’ve begun my physics PhD, I’ve had a bunch of people ask me “so, why physics?”, which is a good question, because there are about 1,500 physics PhD’s given out per year in the US, and around 6,000 bachelor’s degrees (see figures below).  Not a lot of people are physicists, and if someone makes an unusual choice, it’s always worth wondering why. Part of the reason why I, personally, am working to become a physicist is because I think it is exciting and satisfying, and because I am stubborn.

SOURCE: American Institute of Physics (AIP)

Some of my love of science is innate. I don’t think anyone can teach you to feel awe when you see the stars at night, or make you love that moment of understanding something new. I think this desire for learning is something we all have, in the same way that we all have a sense of beauty. It’s why babies push things off high chairs and why we’ve been to both poles, the Mariana Trench, and the Moon. Of course, this draw manifests differently in everyone. Some people are suited to playing music, and some people are suited to holding up earthworms to the sun during gym class to see the intestines, or boiling baking soda and vinegar to see if it makes an even BIGGER mess than the same reaction at room temperature.

Some of my love of science is taught. I have many fond memories of my father explaining things to me in car rides. We began with him teaching me things like evolution, or negative numbers, but as I got older, he would start asking me about things he didn’t know, or discussing things he was trying to figure out. I could see how my father loved these ideas, and loved figuring things out, and that taught me to enjoy it, too.

And some of my love of science is learned. I have two sisters, and when I was younger, my parents made a point of telling us that girls could do anything the boys could – and we could probably beat them in a physical contest, at least while we were young. I actually have a very clear memory of sitting at the dinner table and having my parents explain that some people thought girls weren’t as good as boys, and that they were wrong. I felt solemn, and a little proud, and a bit righteously indignant. It didn’t make any sense to me that someone would think that.

When I was a little older, my mother gave me a book she found in a book sale. It was called “Girls Are Equal, Too!” by Dale Carlson, and published in 1973. It gave a clear and simple explanation of feminism – what it meant, why it was important, and changes that needed to be made. Although it was somewhat outdated when it made it to me, in some ways that made it perfect. It laid out how bad things had been, but, by comparison with today, showed how many things had gotten better. It made a point of saying that women could be scientists, too. I reread that book a lot. It made me proud to be a woman, and to want to fight for my rights.

Later we were given a book called “The Science Book for Girls and Other Intelligent Beings” by Valerie Wyatt, which was a non-patronizing book of ideas and experiments for kids, geared towards girls. For example, there was an experiment to measure humidity using a hair. That’s an experiment anyone can do, but girls are more likely to have the key resource on hand. In middle school, I found a book at a used-book sale called “The Descent of Woman: The Classic Study of Evolution” by Elaine Morgan. It presented the largely unaccepted “aquatic ape” theory, in which the ape-like ancestors of human beings spent a significant period of time in water. Far more interesting to me was the second thesis: that evolutionary pressures on women and babies were equally important to the human species – or more important than – evolutionary pressures on men. For example, the interaction of bipedalism, large brains, and childbirth have put constraints on each that shape our bodies, development at birth, and intelligence. So you can see that for all of my childhood I was given – and sought out – the message that women could do anything men could do, and, in particular, that women could do science, and that women were important for science.

The practical upshot of all this is that I was a good student. I did well in every subject, and I enjoyed almost all of them, so I could have chosen almost anything to major in. But I loved science, and I took the relative lack of women as a challenge. I knew that this was a way I could make a difference in the world by doing something I loved, and something that I truly believe makes the world a better place for everyone.

So, why physics? For me, physics is the ultimate science, and coincidentally has the lowest proportion of women. Biology and chemistry are valuable and fascinating subjects that provide a lot of valuable research, and are the best tools for the subjects they study. But the more you ask “why”, or the deeper you look into these subjects, the closer you get to answers that only physics can give you. Animals move the way they do because gravity, water, and air behave in particular ways. Our eyes are calibrated for the particular way that the light from our particular sun interacts with the atmosphere. Chemical bonds happen because of physical laws about energy. And if you understand physics, you can see it all around you, all the time. So that’s why physics: because I want to take the universe apart and understand all the little pieces, and no one’s going to tell me or anyone else that we’re the wrong person to do it.

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DSC_1058About Anne Benjamin

I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, and attended Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where I majored in physics and minored in math. I am now pursuing my doctorate in condensed matter physics at The Ohio State University, doing research with Professor Jay Gupta’s group on defects in semiconductors, primarily using scanning tunneling microscopy. After I graduate, I plan to go into industry.

My First Conference Talk Experience

by Shirley Li

One day early this fall, a poster outside my office caught my eye. It was for the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting hosted by American Physical Society (APS) this year at Newport Beach, CA. At that time, I had been working on studying the backgrounds in the Super-Kamiokande detector for several months. Super-Kamiokande is a neutrino detector in Japan. It catches neutrinos, which is a type of very light elementary particle, from the Sun and atmosphere, so that we can study their properties. However, the detector also catches some other particles from the atmosphere and they are called backgrounds. My work is to study how to distinguish between neutrinos and other particles in the detector. Since my project was related to nuclear physics, I thought it would be really exciting to attend the meeting. I would get to attend lots of talks on current nuclear physics research and possibly give a talk on my own work! After talking to my advisor and getting encouragement from him, I decided to submit a brief summary of my work (an abstract) to the meeting committee.

Unfortunately, it was only a couple of days away from the abstract deadline, so I had to work it out over a weekend. Since I did not yet have a clear approach to my problem, all I could write was a description of my problem. The abstract was only supposed to be a few sentences, thus, how to make everything clear and logically connected from general interest to one specific project was the key challenge. After several revisions from my advisor, both about physics concepts and about wording, my abstract was ready. Almost a month after I sent out my abstract, I got reply from the committee saying that my abstract was accepted!

I spent the next two months working on rapidly advancing my project. I realized that signing up for the conference was definitely the right thing to do because I felt this constant pressure to get some results before the conference. Fortunately by the time I wanted to start making my slides, I just had enough material to talk about.

The first thing that I learned about writing a talk was the structure of a talk, starting from an introduction of the topic, including the relevant physics concepts, history of the field, and current status. Next I had to explain the importance of my specific project, details of the work that I did, and finally the most important part: the results. I started out by writing one topic sentence for each slide. Then, my advisor gave me suggestions on better ways to organize the topics. After fixing the theme of each slide, I added bullet points, key words and again got advice from my advisor on how to make thing even more clear. I started making the slides two weeks before the meeting, but it was not until the night before I left for the meeting that I finished.

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An introductory slide from my talk showing why I focus on one specific type of background in Super-Kamiokande. 

Even though I was worried about my talk, I was still so excited when I got to the meeting. The environment was very impressive. At any given time, there were about six or seven 10-minute-talks going on and you can go to whichever one looks interesting. Outside the conference rooms, people were talking about their work and all the physicists talk with great passion. Everyone was very friendly. It was relaxing at the same time. Since I have not been working in the field for a long time, there was not much that I can completely understand, but I tried to go to talks non-stop because everything just seemed so interesting. I wished that I could learn those physics concepts and understand others’ work right away to join all the fun conversations!

I managed to find some time to practice my talk during the conference. I realized that as long as I thought about the audience, I would get incredibly nervous and distracted from the material. So, I tried to focus on memorizing what I wanted to say and not think about anything else. After almost being able to recite my talk from memory, I started again to pretend to talk to an audience. Even though I still got nervous, I was able to continue the presentation because it came out more naturally. I ended up practicing it more than twenty times during two days. Eventually I was comfortable enough that I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say.

My talk was on the third day of the conference, and it was the last one in my session. There were about forty people in the room throughout my session, mostly professors and some post-docs and graduate students. Finally it was my turn! I believed I was fully prepared. Nevertheless, I still felt really nervous at the beginning, but as it continued, I focused on my voice, my gestures and poise and this calmed me down. During the talk, some of the audience members were smiling and nodding along. That gave me so much confidence. In the end I even got several questions! This  means the audience understood the bulk of the presentation and were interested in knowing more.

Attending the conference was such a valuable experience for me. It forced me to read through lots of scientific research articles, and to think about the meaning of my project and how it connects to others’ work. It helped me understand better how to convey my ideas and thoughts, and how to make things clear and interesting at the same time.  It also made me want to learn so much more so I can participate in more exciting discussions next time. I’m looking forward to my next conference talk. I’m sure I will do an even better job!

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About Shirley Lshirley.lii

I’m from Xinjiang, China. I went to Peking University majoring math as an undergraduate student. After three years, I transferred to the Ohio State University switching to a physics major. My undergrad research was in nuclear theory. I stayed here for graduate school and I am currently working in astrophysics.