I’m a Physics Groupie


As I groggily left my “Symmetries and Particle Physics” course, I noticed someone new in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences main eating/meeting room. Much to my surprise (though not to anyone else’s), there was Dr. Stephen Hawking! I wasn’t about to make myself look like a cheeky American, so I went along on my way to the library like any good Cambridge student who’s used to seeing one of the great theoretical physicicsts of our time, and resisted the urge to enter paparazzi-mode. To be sure I definitely had that urge, though I definitely got that same feeling at times at Stanford and when I visited grad schools. (Strangely enough I don’t get that feeling with Fields medalists at Trinity… mainly because I don’t know mathematics well enough to know who they are or what they’ve done. I’ll work on that.)

Let’s face it. I’m a physics groupie.

I never really saw famous actors in LA, though my parents claim to have bumped into then-Laker Byron Scott at Toys ‘R’ Us when I was a baby. And once I gave LeVar Burton (host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow) a get-well-soon gift when he was in the hospital. But other than that, I’ve not really been terribly impressed by the glamour of Hollywood. I’m an avid NBA fan, but have never thought much of the athletes as role models. Physicists, on the other hand, have always captured my attention.

Einstein and Feynman were perhaps the most publicly embraced physicists. These days, however, few scientists recieve that kind of attention. Instead, there’s an undercurrent of anti-science\anti-rationalism where hot button topics (intelligent design and stem cells, for example) chip subtly away at science’s credibility. However, at least for those who have now spent years studying physics, it’s very easy to get a little star struck once in a while. Instead of being excited by the though of meeting someone who scored 81 points in a regulation NBA game or someone who starred in a big-name Hollywood film; we jump at the opportunity to hear a lecture from someone who wrote a textbook that ‘spoke to you’ or to brush elbows with someone who developed clever new ways of thinking about problems in your field.

While Nobel laureates are apparently the equivalent of rock stars in Japan, scientists don’t seem to garner quite the same respect among the general public in the US. Rest assured, however, there are still physics groupies (mostly undergraduates and first year graduate students) who think the world of their mentors and professors (well, at least a subset of their professors). Perhaps it is because physics students have a better grasp of the  depth of the accomplishments of some of our most respected physicists that the Nobel prizes don’t garner the same media attention as the Academy Awards.

At any rate, the status of science in contemporary American culture is something of particular importance to me, but it is a bit of an aside. It shouldn’t be surprising in the least that physics groupies exist, especially among students. The professors at the forefront of research in our disciplines are the natural role models of young academics. (This, incidentally, is why representation of people of different backgrounds in science is important.)

What is a little bit surprising are some of the manifestations of being ‘star struck’ by academics at one’s university. For one, the mundane activities/comments of professors become endless sources of discussion and amusement. At Stanford, my friends and I have probably spent several hours over the past few years discussing the faculty attendance at various departmental events with wine/spirits. Or we would drop personal plans to attend colloquia and seminars by renowned visiting scholars. Also added to the list of celebrity students were the children of prominent scientists, whom we would discreetly point out in the same way that freshman females would fawn over Ben Savage. This tends to work in the other direction as well. I was convinced that my faculty advisor at Stanford enjoyed talking to me purely for entertainment of hearing the irrelevant things that competed with physics for consuming an undergraduate’s life.

There are a few things that make academic-rock-stars a little different from their pop-culture counterparts. To the best of my knowledge, physicists aren’t beseiged by the paparazzi or for autographs. I don’t quite understand why the latter isn’t true, as I’ve definitely attended a few talks with a copy of the speaker’s book in my backpack… just in case the opportunity arose. (At least I didn’t ask someone to sign a pre-print!)

However, while the National Enquirer may not be involved, there are other sources of gossip-mongering. The most notable of which is  the Theoretical Particle Physics Job Rumor Mill. So when rumors that a certain Harvard professor might move to UCSB or Stanford, it’s like telling someone from LA that Kobe Bryant is going to be traded to the Pistons. I, myself, have a lunch bet riding on the speculation of faculty movement.
More recently, the physicists have recently taken to the Blogosphere. Professors have fashioned blogs about their research and lives as ways to promote science to the general public by providing some transparency in what scientists do and think about. This window into their lives is the equivalent of MTV Cribs (or for older people, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) for media stars. I don’t know how many times I’ve greeted my physics friends with “did you see what [physics blogger] posted today?” Often this would lead to discussions ranging from recent pre-prints to how to best protect one’s garden from squirrels. This is a bit awkward when one is handing in a copy of one’s undergraduate thesis to a professor, but would rather ask how said professor’s tomatoes are doing.

I suppose it is a little unique that we get to see many high-profile physicists on a daily basis at our departments. Universities are structured that way (even Cambridge, where one does get to know the faculty within one’s college). What can often be understated is that to an undergraduate, some professors are more intimidating than others… and others are far more so. This leads to some silly paranoia about whether one’s advisor likes/dislikes you, or whether he/she can shoot laser beams out of his/her eyes to vaporize unruly students. I’ve had several conversations with fellow students that started with “[Professor referred to by last name only] smiled at me today. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing? I’m so scared of him/her.” Other instances include “We were supposed to meet [same professor] in the library… but he’s fallen asleep on the couch… will he get mad at us if we wake him up?” … “Will he get mad at us if we don’t wake him up?”

My friends and I have joked about making ‘physicist trading cards’ featuring the ‘stats’ of prominent professors in our field, such as Ph.D. institution, ‘rookie team’ (post-doc positions), and top-cited papers. They’d make fun, albeit exceedingly geeky, Christmas presents.

We may be a bit overenthusiastic in our attention. In the end, of course, these scientists are our role models and mentors. They’re not rockstars who are in the business of public adoration, they’re scientists trying to chip away at the mysteries of Nature. But really, you can understand our enthusiasm, since isn’t that far more interesting than what Brangelina or Shakobe are up to?

2 Responses to “I’m a Physics Groupie”

  1. 1 Sid

    Trading cards – great idea. Re the current state of science in common US culture, is it any different in the UK?

  2. I don’t think I’ve been around long enough to make a general statement on the UK science culture, though they did seem to be *very* amused that Intelligent Design was so recently a topic of debate in the US. I’ve heard that there is a strong sentiment against genetically engineered food, though this is somehwat hearsay. Recent newspaper articles suggest that there has been a dip in the number of students pursuing science at the university level and as careers. The same articles also point to initiatives by the government to try to fix this, so I would naively guess that there’s slightly more science-friendliness in the general public. I also refer anybody interested to an article from Seed magazine: THE PRO-TEST MOVEMENT: A grassroots campaign gets UK science to stand up for itself.

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