There was a sweet, sweet moment during the afternoon Cosmology, Gravity, and Relativity session on Friday. (See here.) I don’t think I’ll be able to convey its full intensity to you, but I cannot let it go unmarked. The background comes from a personal place. In addition to my being, for many years, somewhat of a relative anomaly in being a black theoretical (high energy) physicist, there’s another component to that rare situation. My parentage is West Indian (or “Caribbean”, I might say, since in my experience the other term often does not register with many people from the USA), and until recently, I’ve not really known (m)any other such people in theoretical physics*. What struck me on Friday was a single syllable.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (left), a graduate student at Waterloo/Perimeter, who has commented on this blog from time to time, and who I met for the first time on Thursday, was giving an excellent overview of her project to begin research on Doubly Special Relativity. Some of the motivating remarks involved simultaneously taking Newton’s constant, [tex]G[/tex] and Planck’s constant [tex]\hbar[/tex] to zero (the idea is that quantum gravity’s Planck length might remain finite in this limit, and thus remain in the physics as a new scale that breaks Lorentz invariance at small enough distances).
Anyway, she was going along with her talk (see her on right with theory graduate student Tehani Finch (Howard U) in the audience) and when she said “take [tex]\hbar[/tex] to zero”, I felt a warm feeling all through me for a moment, and a broad smile appeared on my face. Why? Because (although the uncareful ear might hear only an American accent) she said it in the manner that was straight from the Barbados where some of her family is from. She said it haitch barrr, with that hint of music that might be familiar as characteristic of some West Indian accents, a flavouring that (for good historical reasons) is shared somewhat with some aspects of the Irish accent.
Think of it as silly, if you like, but to me it was something rather wonderful – the sound of a colleague pronouncing something in the seminar room in a way that I’ve never heard in such a setting, with a dose of the sunshine that I remember from my childhood.
(*P.S. Well, I’ve noticed some significant changes to the situation for West Indians (or people descended from there) in physics. There’s a whole new generation to talk about, and Chanda’s one of several of it. More on that later.)