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.
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.