The Scary Stairs

l-2048-1536-655079d2-52f2-4383-962d-ae6e85ebb910.jpegThese stairs have a lot of significance for me. They are at Dartmouth House, just North of Piccadilly, in London’s Mayfair district. There you will find the home of the English-Speaking Union. The ESU is a charity that has an interesting history, all based on promoting friendship, communion and understanding amongst the English-Speaking nations and people of the world. This might seem an odd thing to build an organization on, but it might make more sense if you read the history. In any case, there are so many organizations of all sorts doing things, and in the scheme of things this is as good a reason as any to bring people together. The ESU administers a number of grants, fellowships, and scholarships, among other things, and one of them is the Lindemann fellowship. It is a one year postdoctoral stipend that you can get fresh out of your PhD, and it is designed to give young people a taste of America. It is highly competitive (only a couple are given out each year), and the final decision is made on the basis of an interview. You come up these stairs, all nervous and under stress since it is probably the first major interview upon which your career might depend, and the surrounding fancy parts of London may have helped make it all weigh a bit on your mind. You wait at the top of the stairs near the piano and listen for your name to be called and then you are ushered into the room and put in front of the interview panel.

I know this since I was here in 1992, being interviewed. I had set my sights on spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the Lindemann was one of the ways I was going to try to get there. An additional piece of weight for me was the fact that the panel was full of eminent scientists. I don’t recall who they all were clearly, except one. The chair, I think, was Roger Penrose who at the time was someone who I knew only by reputation, and naturally I was in some awe of him.

I remember those moments pretty well. I was asked a number of general questions, as well as some specific physics ones. Roger Penrose wanted me to explain what I was doing in my PhD on string theory issues, and why. He asked followup questions and I answered back.

Evidently, the overall impression I made was positive. I got the fellowship. I was going to go to America for the first time, and to the IAS, following in the footsteps of my advisor, Tim Morris, who had gone there on a Harkness fellowship some years before. I was excited about the place because of its history, both old and new (I’d read “Who Got Einstein’s Office?” by Ed Regis, in which my advisor had, incidentally, been mentioned. It discussed Freeman Dyson, a hero of mine, other greats, such as Gross, and Wilczek, and of course, the arrival of the legendary Ed Witten) and this was my big chance to enter that world after being on the relative sidelines.

And it all began with a few crucial moments at the top of this staircase.

Well, actually, it is a bit more complicated than that. That year I had an embarrassment of riches. Not long (days or weeks?) after I found out that I got another fellowship. A two year NATO fellowship from the Science and Engineering Research Council (as it was called then before it fragmented into several agencies). this presented me with a dilemma, but I worked out a way of staggering the fellowships for a bit to give me two and a half years in Princeton. I made it up to three later on by getting the physics department at Princeton to give me a salary (I would do some teaching for them), and moved my office there for that last six months.

So because of also getting the NATO fellowship, I can’t say for sure that the whole American era of my career would not have happened without the Lindemann, but it was definitely a huge contributor since I think that being there for more than two years was quite crucial. I needed to grow up rapidly as a physicist. I was in the heart of it all, where all sorts of wonderful things were happening in my field (if you’ve read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, you will know of those times, since I was in the offices nearby, and at those seminars, group meetings, lunches and dinners where so much of that work on mirror symmetry was being shaped) and to keep up I needed to transform myself, and I required time for that. The NATO fellowship alone might not have been enough, and I’d maybe have gone back to the UK after two years, only half cooked (I definitely had a mission carved out in my mind, and immediately going back was not in the plan: I actually turned down an offer to go to the new group forming at Swansea to take the chance I’d get a USA job offer. I later did the same with the group at Trieste, Italy, a place I loved from a Spring School visit there in 1991.)

I was reflecting on all this, and taking that picture, on Tuesday night, because the ESU had their first alumni open house that night, and I happened to be in town, so I went along for memory’s sake, and because it might be interesting to meet some others with interesting stories about how the ESU might have been involved in their careers. I did meet some interesting people and also a number of the administrative staff, and it was all thoroughly pleasant indeed. I got a personal tour (thanks Natasha!) of the upstairs rooms where the interviews and other events are held, and of course got to see that staircase again.

It was an enjoyable trip into my past that, like all such good trips, helps me reflect on the present and take charge the future.

-cvj

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