Thursday, December 29, 2016

What Does Any of This Have To Do with Physics?

Einstein and Feynman ushered me into grad school, reality ushered me out.

Have you ever been happy?”

My girlfriend asked me that question, after work over drinks at some shiny Manhattan bar, after another stressful day on the trading floor.

How to answer that? I knew she was talking about work, but how unhappy did she think I was? I took a sip of single malt scotch and scrolled back through time in my mind until I had it.

It was the spring of ’93, 16 years earlier, at the University of Rochester, where I went to graduate school for physics. An afternoon that I can play back like a home movie. It’s a bright sunny day in the wake of one of Rochester, New York’s typically brutal winters. The sky is blue, the clouds are cotton balls, and sunlight shimmers off the deep green leaves of the grass, bushes, and oak trees of campus, all freshly nourished by the recently melted snow. Undergraduates are out in shorts on the quad, some gathered on steps, others tossing Frisbees, all surrounded by ivy-covered halls of red brick and gray stone, including Bausch and Lomb Hall, home of the physics department. I’m in the dining room of the university’s Faculty Club, where the daylight is smothered by heavy velvet drapes. Maroon, I think, bordered by sunlight. Chandeliers sparkle above. There are seven or eight people sitting around the table, which is set with a white cloth and place settings decked out with multiple forks. A bottle of wine is making the rounds. The meal feels like what it is: a celebration.

It was the end of my second year of graduate school and I had what I’m sure was a very goofy grin on my face as I listened to the little pecan-colored man with the remarkably round head to my right. He wore wire-framed glasses and was smiling too. Actually Sarada Rajeev was always smiling, although his smile had several variations. There was the default smile he had on now, a smile of surprise that lifted his glasses in synchrony with his eyebrows, and a smile of discomfort where his eyes gave his true feelings away. But my favorite of all was the subversive smile he’d get after one of his own mischievous jokes, the one where his eyes would light up and meet yours until you were smiling too. Rajeev was an assistant professor of physics in his early 30s, just five years older than me. He had a soft voice, a quick wit, and a way of sauntering the department’s hallways—chin up and smiling—that prompted one of my classmates to admiringly comment on how “prosperous” he looked. Rajeev had arranged the lunch, having gathered all of his students and postdocs to welcome me into his group.

I’d met him for the first time a year earlier, after finding a slip of paper in my Bausch and Lomb mail cubby and on it a handwritten note:
“Mr. Henderson. If you’d like to discuss research in high-energy theory, please come by my office. – S.G. Rajeev.”
I was thrilled, even though I knew little about Rajeev. There were 15 of us in my class at Rochester and I was the only one who still hadn’t found a research advisor to take me on as an apprentice once classes were over. That was because I was the only one holding out for high-energy theory, aka theoretical particle physics—Rajeev’s specialty. High-energy theory is also sometimes called “fundamental physics” because it concerns the fundamental laws of nature that govern the way elementary particles, like electrons and quarks, act and interact, and therefore how everything made of those particles (which meant, as far as I knew, everything) behaves, too. I’d quit a good job as an electrical engineer in Southern California and come to Rochester with a dream of studying fundamental physics and pursuing its Holy Grail: a theory of quantum gravity that would reconcile quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity and therefore, as I understood things at the time, amount to a Theory of Everything.

Like Don Quixote, I was propelled on my quest by books, New Agey ones like The Tao of Physics and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and biographies of physics greats like Einstein and Feynman, books that gave me the very welcome news that there were still frontiers to explore, even in the late 20th century, even for a bookish sort like me. Basically I was a na├»ve and dreamy kid who hadn’t yet hit any intellectual limits. My dad was an NYPD detective whose one pearl of career advice was, “You can do whatever you want.” And, at the time I switched to physics, I saw no reason to doubt him.

I staggered back into the hallway punch-drunk from all the new concepts that had just been pounded into my head.

Rajeev must have heard about me from one of the more senior theorists in the department who I’d already approached but who wasn’t taking students. So Rajeev wasn’t my first choice, but by the time I found his note he seemed like my only hope.

The next thing I knew I was crouched in a chair in Rajeev’s little office, with a notebook on my knee and focused with everything I had on an impromptu lecture he was giving me on an esoteric aspect of some mathematical subject I’d never heard of before. Zeta functions, or elliptic functions, or something like that. I’d barely introduced myself when he’d started banging out equations on his board. Trying to follow was like learning a new game, with strangely shaped pieces and arbitrary rules. It was a challenge, but I was excited to be talking to a real physicist about his real research, even though there was one big question nagging me that I didn’t dare to ask: What does any of this have to do with physics?

After a couple of hours, Rajeev turned to me with a look that I later realized must have been heightened scrutiny.

“Maybe, you could work it out?” he said, about a problem he’d just described but hadn’t solved.

Sure, I said, stuffing my notebook into my backpack, I could give it a try.

I staggered back into the hallway punch-drunk from all the new concepts that had just been pounded into my head. So it was only as I stepped out of Bausch and Lomb altogether and back into the bright of the quad that I added two and two together and got four. Rajeev had said little about his research or his group, and the only question he’d asked me was that one problem at the end.

Clearly it was a test.

by Bob Henderson, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Jackie Ferrantino