In a parallel universe I might work as a science communicator.
Having completed my PhD in applied physics I wrote a bunch of job applications, one of them being a bit eccentric: I applied at the Austrian national public service broadcaster. (Adding a factoid: According to Wikipedia Austria was the last country in continental Europe after Albania to allow nationwide private television broadcasting).
Fortunately I deleted all those applications that would me make me blush today. In my application letters I referred to the physicist’s infamous skills in analytical thinking, mathematical modeling and optimization of technical processes. Skills that could be applied to basically anything – from inventing novel tractor beam generators for space ships to automatically analyzing emoticons in Facebook messages.
If I would have been required to add a social-media-style tagline in these dark ages of letters on paper and snail mail I probably would have tagged myself as combining anything, in particular experimental and theoretical physics and, above all, communicating science to different audiences. If memory serves I used the latter argument in my pitch to the broadcaster.
I do remember the last sentence of that pivotal application letter:
I could also imagine working in front of a camera.
Yes, I really did write that – based on a ‘media exposure’ of having appeared on local TV for some seconds.
This story was open-ended: I did not receive a reply until three months later, and at that time I was already employed as a materials scientist in R&D.
In case job-seeking graduate students are reading this: It was imperative that I added some more substantial arguments to my letters, that is: hands-on experience – maintaining UV excimer lasers, knowing how to handle liquid helium, decoding the output of X-ray diffractometers, explaining accounting errors to auditors of research grant managing agencies. Don’t rely on the analytical skills pitch for heaven’s sake.
I pushed that anecdote deep down into the netherworlds of my subconsciousness. Together with some colleagues I ritually burnt items reminiscent of university research and of that gruelling job hunt, such as my laboratory journals and print-outs of job applications. This spiritual event was eventually featured on a German proto-blog website and made the German equivalent of ritual burning the top search term for quite a while.
However, today I believe that the cheeky pitch to the broadcaster had anticipated my working as a covert science communicator:
Fast-forward about 20 years and I am designing and implementing Public Key Infrastructures at corporations. (Probably in vain, according to the recent reports about NSA activities). In such projects I covered anything from giving the first concise summary to the CIO (Could you explain what PKI is – in just two Powerpoint slides?) to spending nights in the data center – migrating to the new system together with other security nerds, fueled by pizza and caffeine.
The part I enjoyed most in these projects was the lecture-style introduction (the deep dive in IT training lingo) to the fundamentals of cryptography. Actually these workshops were the nucleus of a lecture I gave at a university later. I aimed at combining anything: Mathematical algorithms and anecdotes (notes from the field) about IT departments who locked themselves out of the high-security systems, stunning history of cryptography and boring EU legislation, vendor-agnostic standards and the very details of specific products.
Usually the feedback was quite good though once the comment in the student survey read:
Her lectures are like a formula one race without pitstops.
This was a lecture given in English, so it is most likely worse when I talk in German. I guess, Austrian Broadcasting would have forced me to take a training in professional speaking.
As a Subversive Element I indulged in throwing in some slides about quantum cryptography – often this was considered the most interesting part of the presentation, second to my quantum physics stand-up edutainment in coffee breaks. The downside of that said edutainment were questions like:
And … you turned down *that* for designing PKIs?
I digress – find the end of that story here.
I guess I am obsessed with combining consulting and education. Note that I am referring to consulting in terms of working hands-on with a client, accountable for 1000 users being able to logon (or not) to their computers – not your typical management consultant’s churning out sleek Powerpoint slides and leaving silently before you need to get your hands dirty (Paraphrasing clients’ judgements of ‘predecessors’ in projects I had to fix).
It is easy to spot educational aspects in consulting related to IT security or renewable energy. There are people who want to know how stuff really works, in particular if that helps to make yourself less dependent on utilities or on Russian gas pipelines, or to avoid being stalked by the NSA.
But now I have just started a new series of posts on Quantum Field Theory. Why on earth do I believe that this is useful or entertaining? Considering in particular that I don’t plan to cover leading edge research: I will not comment on hot new articles in Nature about stringy Theories of Everything.
I stubbornly focus on that part of science I have really grasped myself in depth – as an applied physicist slowly (re-)learning theory now. I will never reach the frontier of knowledge in contemporary physics in my lifetime. But, yes, I am guilty of sharing sensationalist physics nuggets on social media at times – and I jumped on the Negative Temperature Train last year.
My heart is in reading old text books, and in researching old patents describing inventions of the pre-digital era. If you asked me what I would save if my house is on fire I’d probably say I’d snatch the six volumes of text books in theoretical physics my former physics professor, Wilhelm Macke, has written in the 1960s. He had been the last graduate student supervised by Werner Heisenberg. Although I picked experimental physics eventually I still consider his lectures the most exceptional learning experience I ever had in life.
I have enjoyed wading through mathematical derivations ever since. Mathy physics has helped me to save money on life coaches or other therapists when I was a renowned, but nearly burnt-out ‘travelling knowledge worker’ AKA project nomad. However, I understand that advanced calculus is not everybody’s taste – you need to invest quite some time and efforts until you feel these therapeutic effects.
Yet, I aim at conveying that spirit, although I had been told repeatedly by curriculum strategists in higher education that if anything scares people off pursuing a tech or science degree – in particular, as a post-graduate degree – it is too much math, including reference to mathy terms in plain English.
However, I am motivated by a charming book:
The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse
by science writer Jennifer Ouellette. According to her website, she is a recovering English major who stumbled into science writing as a struggling freelance writer… and who has been avidly exploring her inner geek ever since. How could you not love her books? Jennifer is the living proof that you can overcome math anxiety or reluctance, or even turn that into inspiration.
Richard Feynman has given a series of lectures in 1964 targeted to a lay audience, titled The Character of Physical Law.
Starting from an example in the first lecture, the gravitational field, Feynman tries expound how physics relates to mathematics in the second lecture – by the way also introducing the principle of least action as an alternative to tackle planetary motions, as discussed in the previous post.
It is also a test of your dedication as a Feynman fan as the quality of this video is low. Microsoft Research has originally brought these lectures to the internet – presenting them blended with additional background material (*) and a transcript.
You may or may not agree with Feynman’s conclusion about mathematics as the language spoken by nature:
It seems to me that it’s like: all the intellectual arguments that you can make would not in any way – or very, very little – communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is.
[People like] me, who’s trying to describe it to you (but is not getting it across, because it’s impossible), we’re talking to deaf ears.
This is ironic on two levels, as first of all, if anybody could get it across – it was probably Feynman. Second, I agree to him. But I will still stick to my plan and continue writing about physics, trying to indulge in the mathy aspects, but not showing off the equations in posts. Did I mention this series is an experiment?
(*) Technical note: You had to use Internet Explorer and install Microsoft Silverlight when this was launched in 2009 – now it seems to work with Firefox as well. Don’t hold be liable if it crashes your computer though!