What Inspired You?

It’s always interesting to hear from others about what set them on the path they’re on, no matter what career path that is. I just read Chanda’s guest post on the matter over at Backreaction. Chanda is a theoretical physicist in training, and so from my point of view it is interesting to hear about her choices since I chose the same career myself.

Since I’m also keen that talented women and people of colour can learn that they can choose to do science careers, and hope that it continues to become increasingly likely that they make their way in such careers with the same opportunities as everyone else, it was also interesting -and encouraging- to read her thoughts (since she is in both categories). Have a look at her post yourself, and also her post on Cosmic Variance about some of those issues.

Whether or not you read it, don’t hesitate to share with us your own recollections. What made you choose to do that which you do? What inspired you? What keeps you on track? What inspires you now? Please realize that it does not have to be anything to do with science! This may be more than idle chatter, since those it will also be interesting and useful for those who have not yet chosen to hear some of your stories.

Don’t be shy!

-cvj

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26 Responses to What Inspired You?

  1. Completeness. Incompleteness. The elegance and simplicity and sheer aesthetic appeal of proof.

    And language. “What do you mean by that?” Playing with words, words, worcds.

    Philosopho-science?

    What about you, Cliff?

    –IP

  2. Warren says:

    As a physicist, I always understood why people get into physics.
    What I’d really like to know is why people don’t.
    For those of you who are into physics now, what, if anything, delayed you?
    Somehow things like, “My mother never told me about it,” or “I couldn’t afford shoes to walk to the library,” or “They told me not to,” or “They told me I couldn’t,” or “I thought I could make more money as a lawyer,” never seemed convincing.

  3. Clifford says:

    Hi Warren: -I know you were being humourous, in part, but I know for a fact that “They told me I couldn’t” is in fact a powerful means of stopping young people from choosing a career, when “They” turns out to be the entire culture that surrounds you, and the means of telling is through the things you read, the movies you see, the tv you watch, and other images and stereotypes that keep being projected and reinforced… all reminding you that you are only cut out to be a “homemaker”, or a sportsperson or entertainer, etc.

    So I find that “They told me I coudn’t” is unfortunately a very convincing reason. I hope that we can all work to stop being part of the “They told me I coudn’t” where we can, and to help put other images out there to counteract that discouragement…. painting a different picture instead.

    As to the more general thought about why people would do anything else but physics? I love physics. Really love it…. but I can easily see that there are a host of other things (both in and out of science) to be equally passionate about. And thank goodness! What an uninteresting (to say the least) world it would be if people only chose physics!

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  4. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Thanks for the link 🙂 I’m vaguely planning on making that a series, I have some more candidates. Would you be interested in writing a guest post for my blog about why you chose physics? Best,

    B.

  5. Plato says:

    Unfortunately, I cannot turn back time. But this doesn’t mean it’s “never to late.”

    I spent a whole life in research along with working in life. Yet, only that last few years studying scientists and their perspectives.

    I think to place a “road block in front of someone” can be a strong motivator as well. By insinuation alone, and “wording” we can sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves, cut to the heart of why people will reject what you said and go for it regardless. This is the “human thing” in us to challenge and persevere.

    Hard work can pay off.

  6. Clifford says:

    Bee:–

    Gosh… me? It would be a short post that I’d have thought I’d do here at Asymptotia some time, to be honest. I don’t think I’d really have a hugely long and thoughtful single post on the matter for your blog. My thoughts/recollections on my own career choices would be relatively short – and related thoughts about underrepresented minorities like myself making (or not) similar choices are subjects I commonly blog about here, so I don’t think I’d have anything really new to say beyond what I say here or have said here (and at CV). Other anecdotal aspects of my path in physics come out from time to time in an unstructured way in various posts (some done, some to come).

    Thanks for asking. If you do press me I’ll of course try to put something together, but if you want my opinion about who to have guest post on your blog about these things, I think that it’s better to get the thoughts and experiences of those who aren’t already blogging. Iimagine that people are probably a bit tired of my voice and my opinions, for example, which is why I prefer to sit back and let fresh voices talk from time to time… For example, this is my motive for trying to invite people to contribute their own thoughts and anecdotes to discussion threads like this one.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  7. Warren says:

    Clifford,

    I find that “They told me I coudn’t” is unfortunately a very convincing reason.

    “Gee, Mt. Everst would be a lot more fun to climb if only it weren’t so tall!” People who don’t work in physics might not realize how competitive physics really is. I doubt that anyone can be truly successful in physics if they are easily intimidated. So I seriously doubt anyone in physics now got there just because somebody said, “Yeah, go ahead.” Ultimately successful physicists need to find their own courage. And the first thing you have to learn to become a good physicist is how to recognize a lie. If you can’t recognize a stereotype when you hear one, how are you going to do real physics?

    What an uninteresting (to say the least) world it would be if people only chose physics!

    So, just how interesting is the world, exactly? There are a lot of things people are really passionate about, like becoming a suicide bomber, that I find totally boring. In fact, passion is really irrelevant. Physics isn’t like anything else. If someone can give an argument for why they got into physics, and I can more or less replace “physics” with “gardening” and still get a sensible answer, then I could see how such a person might have gotten into physics because someone told them they should. But I don’t think such “accidental physicists” really represent what physics is all about.

  8. Clifford says:

    I’m not talking about accidental physicists Warren. I’m talking about people who have talents and interests that they don’t even realize they can turn into certain career choice. Or if they do get an inkling of it, they find themselves thwarted in making progress due to the preconceptions of others about what they are supposed to be able to do. And often those preconceptions have their own effects on that person too. Further, it seems obvious to you as an adult, or in retrospect, that certain attitudes in others, stereotypes and messages from the media, etc, are nonsense. It is not so obvious when you are young, however, which is when those effects have the most influence: Sadly, you don’t always begin to make the choices and get the exposure that helps puts you in line for a career as a scientist (or any competitive field) at the age where you are mature enough to identify what is nonsense and what is not. To declare that those thousands of talented people who did not make it because of lack of information about the career choices available to them, or by being steered elsewhere (intentionally or otherwise), etc, don’t have the “right stuff” seems like a colossal error of judgment to me.

    You also said:

    I seriously doubt anyone in physics now got there just because somebody said, “Yeah, go ahead.”

    How do you get to this (with all due respect) ridiculously trivial observation from my talking about people *not* trying careers in physics because they are steered away from it – or not even told about it as a choice for them when they were young – and so never finding out whether they are any good at it, and never finding out whether they’d survive against the competition that you rightly mention. I did not say anywhere that if you just show up you’ll do well in the subject. I’m talking about giving more people a chance to even get to the point where they show up… to have an equal chance at fighting to make a career in the field.

    And by the way, there’s room for accidental physicists too. People who ended up in this career for whatever reason and then find that they are really good at it and can and do contribute something.

    Also, as to your “just how interesting is the world, exactly?”, “passion is really irrelevant”, and “Physics isn’t like anything else”. I just don’t agree with what I think you’re saying here. It is a wonderful *part* of the landscape of things that are worthwhile to do. I cannot in all honesty devalue what everyone else does with their lives to make me feel better about what I do. I hope that’s not what you’re doing either, but it sure sounds like it after several readings. Forgive me if I’m wrong. It is enough for me that I am passionately interested in it, enjoy it, am good at it, and that it is worthwhile.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  9. Bee says:

    Hey Clifford,

    of course I won’t press you 😉 I just like your writings, can’t imagine one could get tired of it. If you ever feel, ah you know, kind of inspired, just let me know. Best,

    B.

  10. Clifford says:

    Hey Bee,

    Thanks. That’s nice to hear: I think your blog posts are just great, by the way! Oh, pressing’s not a problem either 😉 Sure, I will let you know. Hey, you know what? If you feel “kind of inspired” to write about your early choices that brought you to your career, let me know. You can do a guest post here, and that will inspire me to do one on your blog in return. Ha Ha! Why did I not think of that sooner?!

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  11. R J-C says:

    Hi,

    Being a kid, I don’t actually have a career yet, but I’ll describe how I first became interested in physics/astronomy:

    The summer before 8th grade, my dad and I were the only ones home one day and were just sitting around the house. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but he started describing to me how time slows down and appears to stop when you approach the event horizon of a black hole. It was so bizarre and amazing that I could hardly believe it was really true! As I remember it, we talked for a very long time about special relativity and Einstein’s other counter-intuitive discoveries. All the while, I was so excited that I was literally bouncing around the room, acting out what would happen in various scenarios. My dad showed me all the different physics books we had, and I started reading more about physics and astronomy, and am now engaged in real astronomical research. After that day, there was no turning back!

    ~R J-C

  12. Q: Do you know how to improve the fuel efficiency of a musicians car?
    A: Take the pizza delivery sign off of the roof.

    This may keep people from doing physics too.

    I went for a Mechanical Engineering degree instead. I did an interesting undergrad project, but, upon graduation did something else. That’s because I got hooked on crack, i mean computers.

    Here’s a reason to NOT consider engineering. In my first week, the freshmen were called into the auditorium, where the Dean of Academic Advising gave the pep talk. He said: “Look to your left, and to your right. Only one of the three of you will graduate.” But it was more like one in four.

    And yet. When i looked around, that first year, everyone was extraordinarily smart. Everyone. It’s not enough. You also have to do the work, and bother to actually understand what you’re doing. So, there’s some sort of drive or self motivation involved that makes it really happen.

    On graduation, i expected to be elated. I’d have achieved this big thing. I’d be one of the select few. I’d be competent to do anything. But instead, I was depressed. That era was over. In under a year, i had written my third operating system (in assembler for three different machines), and felt much better.

    18 of 20 of my closest friends graduated. One transferred out, changed majors, got a degree. Four got master’s degrees. Two got PhD’s.

    I liked Partial Differential Equations with Boundary Value Problems, so i’d really have liked to have been a rocket scientist for a living.

  13. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Hey, you know what? If you feel “kind of inspired” to write about your early choices that brought you to your career, let me know. You can do a guest post here, and that will inspire me to do one on your blog in return. Ha Ha! Why did I not think of that sooner?!

    Ahum… well… where is my inspiration?

    Okay – deal. If only because I love to be a guest somewhere.

    (I wish I knew what brought me here. It’s probably going to have therapeutic value.)

    Hey Stephen,

    In my first week, the freshmen were called into the auditorium, where the Dean of Academic Advising gave the pep talk. He said: “Look to your left, and to your right. Only one of the three of you will graduate.” But it was more like one in four.

    That’s tough! But I think it’s necessary to keep the level high, otherwise the degrees will stop being meaningful. I wouldn’t see that as a reason not to consider mechanical engineering – it’s maybe a reason to pick a place with a Dean who’s a bit more encouraging. But then it shouldn’t surprise me. Were did you graduate? It seems to me COMPETITION is always capitalized in the USA.

    Best,

    B.

  14. damtp_dweller says:

    What made me want to be a mathematician/physicist? Quite simple, really. When I was in primary school I discovered that I was better, far better, at mathematics and science than my peers. Given that I was a competitive child, and given that while I was reasonably athletic but never athletic enough to be successful, the fact that I was noticeably better at mathematics made me want to keep being better at mathematics. Interestingly, while I was better at these subjects than the others whom I knew, it wasn’t until I read physics at university that I actually came to love these subjects. I would hazard the guess that many others will have the same sort of experiences.

    As to what keeps me a mathematician/physicist? Easy. I love what I do, I don’t know how to do anything else, and I really don’t wish to have to go and get a job in the City.

  15. Jude says:

    I had a lot of problems deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up. I think that arose partly from low self-esteem and partly from diverse and varying interests. I finally chose a college and a major because it was an interdisciplinary one, involving three subjects I like–history, anthropology, and Spanish. I more-or-less thought I might be an anthropologist, but I discovered that I hate archaeology–I like studying cultures, but not going on digs. I thought I might be a historian, and sometimes I call myself one. I love languages, so I took 7 different ones in college, but more Spanish than anything else. I love math and science, but although I did well in those subjects, I feared more advanced classes.

    I became a librarian, which seems more to be *who* I am than a vocation. It involves my love of helping people and exceptional research skills. But in library school, they said I had to specialize if I wanted a job. They were wrong. As a generalist, I make a great librarian. I also was a great park service seasonal. I love giving tours. So for fun, I volunteer a lot, I give tours in niche areas, such as cemetery tours to third graders and nature walks to cub scouts, I answer reference questions as a librarian online, I teach ESL and teach computer classes in Spanish, I substitute teach, and I write. I’m still a generalist. I am inspired by variety.

  16. Warren says:

    Clifford,

    I cannot in all honesty devalue what everyone else does with their lives to make me feel better about what I do. I hope that’s not what you’re doing either, but it sure sounds like it after several readings.

    What you seem to be saying is that you can’t devalue what anyone does. But everything is relative: If you don’t devalue anything, you don’t value anything. So, what you’re saying in essence is, “Everything is wonderful, I just picked physics because that’s how I am.” In other words, for you physics has no objective value, it’s only subjective. It sounds like you don’t really feel so well about what you do. You even refuse to say how you yourself got into physics. Of course, if you give reasons why you like physics, it would mean why you like physics better than other things. Maybe you are just afraid of being politically incorrect. Tell me, e.g., how great a career choice boxing is, & then explain why it’s only minorities that get into it.

    I’m talking about people who have talents and interests that they don’t even realize they can turn into certain career choice.

    Sorry, but I don’t buy it. You can’t do physics without curiosity. If you’re curious, you find things out for yourself. And you can’t do physics without thinking. If you think, you weed thorugh all the random data in the media, & evaluate it. If you’ve seen science fiction (even the crappy kind), you’ve been exposed to science, & your curiosity takes over. Then you investigate what a scientist really is, & how you go about becoming one. Are you seriously trying to tell me that anybody surfing the web (which is just about everybody nowadays) is too sheltered to find out about science as a career?

    Further, it seems obvious to you as an adult, or in retrospect, that certain attitudes in others, stereotypes and messages from the media, etc, are nonsense. It is not so obvious when you are young, however, which is when those effects have the most influence.

    By “you” I can only assume you are not referring to me. I also cannot believe you have never heard of the rebelliousness of teenagers. And you would have to be living in a black hole to be unaware of racism by that age.

  17. Clifford says:

    I did not refuse to say how I got into physics. Where on earth did you get that idea? I’m simply trying to be quiet and give others a chance to speak. And how do you go from me refusing to do as you do and declare that physics is the only thing worth doing to me saying that physics is worthless? Remarkable.

    -cvj

  18. candace says:

    Hey Clifford,

    I appreciate your asking about this because I very much enjoy reading the responses. Life’s at a bit of a low ebb (with stress at high ebb) for me right now, so I need all the help I can to push through. Like Chanda says in her post, ‘Why physics? Why did it choose me? Why can’t I unchoose it?’ I feel that so much right now — physics has always seemed like an abusive relationship for me. Normally when I see abused women on talk shows a la Rikki Lake (not that I have a tv), I want to shout at the screen, ‘Leave him! It’s not worth it!’

    If I were in my right mind at this point, I would leave physics. But no, instead I started the process of quitting my job yesterday to try and make my relationship with physics somewhat less dysfunctional. I’ll never escape the feeling that maybe it brings out the best in me, but it definitely brings out the worst. And maybe I have the feeling like it will either make me happy (at last) or it will all end in tears and I really don’t know which at this point.

    When I think back and try and figure out what gave me physics insanity, it all seems faded and jaded right now. Maybe it was the subscription to Odyssey magazine my mom got for me (it was solely about astronomy and space back then) — but something must have prompted her to do that. I remember getting my big brother’s hand-me-down telescopes and taking them out into the yard when the tripod was taller than I was. I remember reading all sorts of books about the universe, including the ubiquitous A Brief History of Time which really got me fired up. I just wanted to know more about the universe, it was always that way. I was so excited when I first heard about Newton’s 3 laws — amazing. I remember asking not only ‘why?’ but ‘what is this?’ a lot. I wanted to know what things were right down to the smallest eensiest bit.

    But I also remember wishing I was better at math. And saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a theoretical physicist…but I’m bad at math.” So I sort of gave up.

    Unfortunately, I still ask ‘why?’ and wonder ‘what is this?’ a hell of a lot, so I eventually thought I should do something about it. So now I’m back to trying physics. Again. And though I am feeling less than inspired right now, like my launch window closed already, I still go back because I have to know what everything is and understand it to the best of my abilities. Sadly, right now I don’t think I have time to be inspired, but I’m working on changing that.

    I wish I felt inspired to go to lab tonight. Sheesh. Wow — cheery, eh?

  19. Warren says:

    OK, Clifford, now I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe if you would quote me, the way I do you, I could see what you’re misinterpreting & explain it better.

    I did not refuse to say how I got into physics. Where on earth did you get that idea? I’m simply trying to be quiet and give others a chance to speak.

    The great thing about a blog is that you can actually type @ the same time as other people. If you actually said how you got into physics, as somebody else asked, it might encourage people to relate other experiences. By the way, that is your second refusal.

    And how do you go from me refusing to do as you do and declare that physics is the only thing worth doing to me saying that physics is worthless? Remarkable.

    So, exactly where did I say (1) physics is the only thing worth doing, & (2) that you said physics is worthless? It so happens I think a lot of things are worth doing, like breathing, eating, blogging, I just happen to like physics best. It isn’t a binary thing. You have failed to distinguish physics from the rest.

  20. Clifford says:

    Warren – This is both juvenile and pointless. I’m not convinced this is really you since you usually make a lot more sense than this. So please, I’m asking you politely and respectfully:- Why can’t you just hold your tongue for a while and let others talk a bit about their career choices?

    • If you want to declare that I’ve refused to talk about mine – fine, have it your way. You’re wrong, but please go on believing that you’re right. I’m simply not interested in talking about myself all the time. I like to hear from others. Is that concept so totally alien to you?
    • If you want to say that a physics career is greater than everything else – fine. You’re wrong, but please go on believing it.
    • If you want to go on claiming that lots of people did not make it into physics simply due to their own failure to use their skills to sniff it out against all the odds when they were children, and that therefore they should not have done physics anyway – fine. You’re view is, in my opinion, shockingly naive, but hey, go ahead if it makes you happy.
    • If you want to continue with this nonsense of a game about counting my “refusals”, turning my reluctance to behave like a naive teenager and declare what I do to be the most important thing into a sign that I’m being politically correct, etc., and otherwise totally ruin what might have been an interesting discussion thread – Not fine. Please do it somewhere else.

    Thanks.

    -cvj

  21. spyder says:

    I have always been inspired by damned cussedness; being told that what i know, or what i am doing, won’t succeed or is wrong. It began in the early sixties when i was a junior in high school. In US History class, i shared a winter count drawing, of the Battle of Little Big Horn my great uncle had given me (he was a young Lakota Brule warrior during that siege, and 96 when he gave me the drawing). Uncle Three Otter (aka Irons in Mouth, he was one of the first of his tribe to get braces and dentures as an adult in the late 1880’s) had described the Battle in ways that were not in step with the consensually-derived western historical view. Thus in my presentation i was ridiculed by the teacher and class for distorting “history” and telling a falsehood. One of my later academic inquiries was to delve deep into the episode and has subsequent research as shown, my great uncle was completely correct.

    Indeed the path to the university was along those lines. Informed by a guidance counselor that i wouldn’t succeed at the university, i set out to get accepted into grad school, on my own merits and not on scores or grades (accomplished most successfully). Told i couldn’t do fieldwork in my discipline (history of american indian religions) while simulataneously working for the US Senate, i succeeded at both, quite nicely, for six years. All through my academic and professional career i have been motivated by the resistance. Preparing an essay for my MA thesis collection, my mentor professor wrote: “Baldly put, this doesn’t work at all” on a cover note. Furious with such a cursory rejection, i presented that essay to a peer, who used it as chapter in his dissertation and book, both of which received rave reviews and set him on a most positive academic career. There are dozens of incidents such as these from which i have been motivated to excel well past my own nominal desires to move ahead.

    And the same holds true today. Retirement has just given me so much more time to work on ‘big” problems of sustainability, environmental degradation of the Earth, social and economic justice, etc.; all things that are said to be too depressing and hopeless upon which to focus one’s greatest energies. Being told i will burnout, has kept me focussed for 35 years on the critical issues, and now i have the luxury of huge chunks of time. hahahahhaa.

  22. yagwara says:

    I won’t bore you with my whole story (short version: astronomy->physics->mathematics). But something stood out in the comments that I wanted to ask about.

    I noticed that several people talked about competitiveness: being better at something than other kids, rising to a challenge, being told no and proving them wrong.

    Personally, I’ve never been competitive. I’ve never seen the point of winning. I’m driven by curiosity and wonder, and I like to share that with other people. Moreover, I get turned off by competitive people and atmospheres. I think if I had had the sense that science was that kind of culture, I might have gone in another direction as a kid. And as an adult, it was a factor in my move from physics to math.

    (I know, some of you physicists will say good riddance! Can’t take the heat, etc! 🙂 )

    So what I’m wondering is, how much of a factor is this in turning kids/people off math and science? What do you folks think?

  23. Fred Ross says:

    I’m with yagwara on the competitiveness. I won’t compete. Period. I wouldn’t play competitions in violin (but spent more time that I probably should have in undergrad playing chamber music). I wouldn’t go to tournaments in karate (but got my black belt…and now moved on to an internal kung fu style where the idea of competition is completely and utterly missing). And I don’t think it’s necessary in science.

    I was always tinkering with things, building things, taking things apart as a kid. For my sixth birthday, I got a kid’s book on physics. It had a description of the standard model and of Fermilab’s main ring. I was hooked. Then over the next few years I dropped out of middle school, became a composer, learned four foreign languages, picked up the equivalent of a bachelor’s in compsci while working at the local ISP, did degrees in physics and math at the state university…and then kind of randomly ended up doing a PhD on drug tolerance in tuberculosis. I keep adding fields.

    And why? Because I’m still taking things apart and seeing what’s inside, and trying to show the bits to everyone who’ll stand still.

  24. Chanda says:

    hey Cliff,
    Just wanted to say thanks for the kind words. 🙂

    I guess I won’t be seeing you at NSBP this year? Well hopefully we’ll be talking in the near future, regardless!

    cheers,
    Chanda

  25. Clifford says:

    Hi Chanda! Welcome to Asymptotia. Thanks for writing that excellent post.

    Sorry to say, but I’ve had another commitment for some time now, so no NSBP for me. Good luck with it!

    Cheers,

    -cvj

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