A follow-up from my last post on passion. Again, based on text from an email with some modifications. The title was inspired by a book from the outdoor humorist Patrick F. McManus.
Middle School - The Journey Begins
I came to realize I enjoyed the idea of physics sometime in middle school, when I watched a documentary entitled “The Elegant Universe”. Based on a book of the same name, it chronicled the development of theoretical physics from about 1910 to present day. As with most popular physics works, the subject came across as exciting, innovative, and engaging. I thought to myself “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do this kind of work? Further, isn’t it neat that we humans, on this small planet in a big galaxy and universe, can come up with ways of explaining how it works, from the tiniest of scales to the largest?”. From about that age until recently, I thought my life’s career would be that of doing physics.
You will recognize that, for me, physics is something I find very novel. Even today, knowing what I know know about the subject, I am still pleasantly surprised at what physics can do and explain. In fact, as time goes by, I have tended to gain a better appreciation for all fields within the subject. I still enjoy reading science papers and whatnot, because by doing so, I encounter a new idea or way of thinking about the world, and I like that.
So, as time went by and I went from middle school into high school, I focused as much as I could on science-y types of work. I read Wikipedia a lot, took as many science and math courses as I could, and, in general, did what I thought would be necessary to become a physicist. It should be noted at the time I did not exactly understand what “doing physics” would really look like, a point which will come to be relevant later.
In college, I transitioned from a “Wow, isn’t this neat!” and “Isn’t it great that this comes naturally to me.” kind of mindset to one of “This is really hard, and I have no idea what I am doing, what is the point of my life, etc.” This would be the first of many such transitions. I suspect every student at Caltech struggles with this, since they are often used to thinking themselves the smartest and most able of all the people around them. It took me about a year to recognize that a) I was not the smartest person I knew, and b) that a) was a good thing. I didn’t have to know everything about physics….instead, I had to know who knew what I needed to know, and how to go ask them for help. Once I accepted b) was true, life became a lot easier. It was still hard, because, well, it was Caltech, but it was definitely more manageable.
I got started down the path of doing quantum information while at Caltech. One of my physics courses was taught by John Preskill, who was one of the founders and popularizers of the subject. After listening to him and reading more about what he did, I said “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do this kind of work?”. So I took some classes in quantum information and, in the summer of 2011, did a research project with a postdoctoral scholar in Preskill’s research group.
That summer was an eye-opening one. Primarily because I thought “This is really hard, and I have no idea what I am doing, what is the point of my life, etc.”. Up until that point, I had taken classes and done reasonably well. What I had not appreciated is research is an entirely different animal from coursework. In the latter, you study the text, go to lectures, do the homework. Everything is (relatively) straightforward - it might be daunting the to learn the material, but doing so is possible.
Research, like most careers and unlike coursework, is a very non-linear process. Everyone likes to tell the story “My project started at A, we went through B, and got to C”. It’s a neat and tidy narrative. The truth is substantially more complicated - A leads to Z leads to D, where you sit for six months not knowing what the hell is going on, and then you get to something like B, which, incidentally, might possibly be related to C, but you’re not sure, and, only after being stuck for yet another six months, do you finally realize you shouldn’t go from B to C directly, but rather, through some other such path. (A great TED talk on that subject from a physicist.)
After the project in 2011, I knew quantum information was something I found interesting, but I had not yet really committed myself to it. By which I mean I kind of thought this was something I could do well, and I didn’t really want to do other kinds of physics, so I decided going to graduate school and studying quantum information was the best decision I could make at the time.
Post-Ph.D. enrollment and the Future
Now I am going on my fourth year of Ph.D. studies. (Keep in mind, though, I spent the first two years taking classes.) Within the past year and a half, quite possibly within the past six months, my research has really gotten to a state where I think I have a grasp of what is going on. There are still days where I say “What am I suppose to do now?”, and “This is really hard”. Because when you live on the edge of human knowledge, by definition there is no one there who can tell you what that path ahead looks like. You just have to keep moving forward. (Incidentally, that is the motto of the Robinson family in the film “Meet the Robinsons”. I really love the message it sends to kids and adults alike.)
Am I “passionate” about my work? I don’t know. Like love, I think of passion as an action, not a feeling. Are there times when I want to throw in the towel, move to Montana, and raise cattle? Sure. It certainly would be easier, at least for me. What keeps me here doing physics? Two things, I think. One is sheer stubbornness - “Dammit, I started this thing, I’m going to see it through”. The other is the joy I get when I solve some problem or learn a new idea. And not even necessarily problems related to physics - in the past couple of years, some of the biggest problems I have tackled related to building my own website and learning to program in Python.
When I look back on my “career”, such as it is, I am find myself very grateful and proud. Grateful to have had the chance to meet some of the brightest people I know, to go visit new places, and to learn new things. Proud that I seem to have the capacity to keep pushing ahead. Both make me optimistic about my future, whatever it is. Will it be hard? Absolutely. Will it be rewarding? Most likely.