Physics and other things that make life worth living…

Yesterday we hosted a seminar by João Magueijo from Imperial College. It was a really interesting talk but the visit also a number of staff and students, including myself, the chance to chat to João about various things. In my case that primarily meant catching up on one another’s news, since we haven’t talked since early summer and a lot has happened since then. Then we had drinks, more drinks, dinner, drinks and then cocktails, finishing about 2am. A fairly standard night out with João, actually.

Among the topics discussed in the course of an increasingly drunken conversation was the fact that physicist Stephon Alexander had recently moved to Dartmouth College, a prestigious Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. I don’t know Stephon very well at all as I don’t really work in the same area as him. In fact, we’ve only ever met once – at a Cosmology School in Morocco (in 1996 or thereabouts); he was a graduate student and I was giving some lectures. On the left you can see a snap of him I took at that time. Can that really have been so long ago?

Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to bemoan the passage of time and all that and get back to the point which is the connection that formed in my head between Stephon, yesterday’s post about the trials and tribulations facing prospective PhD students, and an older post of mine about  the importance of not forgetting to live a life while you do a PhD.

The point is that although there are many things that may deter or prevent an undergraduate from taking the plunge into graduate studies, one thing shouldn’t put you off and that is the belief that doing a PhD is like joining a monastery in that it requires you to give up a lot of other things and retreat from the outside world. Frankly, that’s bollocks. If I’m permitted to quote myself:

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In other words, doing a PhD does not require you to give up the things that make life worth living. Actually, if you’re doing a physics PhD then physics itself should be one of the things that make life worth living for you, so I should rephrase that as “giving up any of the other things that make life worth living”.

Having a wide range of experiences and interests to draw on can even help with your research:

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

I’d say that to be a good research student by no means requires you to be a monomaniac. And this is where Stephon comes in. As well as being a Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephon is an extremely talented Jazz musician. He’s even had saxophone lessons from the great Ornette Coleman. I have to admit he has a few technical problems with his instrument in this clip, but I’m using him as an example here because I also love Jazz and, although I have a negligible amount of talent as a musician, have rudimentary knowledge of how to play the saxophone. In fact, I remember chatting to him in a bar in Casablanca way back in ’96 and music was the sole topic of conversation.

Anyway, in the following clip Stephon talks about how music actually helped him solve a research problem. It’s basically an extended riff on the opening notes of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps which, incidentally, I posted about here.

3 Responses to “Physics and other things that make life worth living…”

  1. Blob film charge mono string theory in polar coordinates beyond present relativistic or quantum model is nothing but cosmos symphony.

    • telescoper Says:


      • New physics from CERN will dislodge all wisdom of yesterday. Wait for the new revolution . Three dimensional membrane blob of vibrating waves as we will see in elementary particle with only negative and positive charges as balloon inside balloon with neutrons at common center is new model of atom without the requirements of weak or strong forces and by modifying Maxwell we can even have on force of gravity and electromagnetism which is mono magnetic coupling of dark energy or gravitoethertons soup. Do not dwell upon relativity and Bohr model to mis understand the universe. Read the theories I published long back in year 2002 . My calculations in polar co ordinates with a bit of string may solve all doubts.

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